Think about what kind of communication will get your message about drugs and alcohol across effectively and always leave the door open for further conversations.

Remember, I said that talking with your kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol should be an ongoing conversation with them. My last guideline for you, then, is this: Plan for an effective conversation. That is, think about what kind of communication will get your message across effectively and always leave the door open for further conversations.

Below are some tips to help you maximise opportunities to engage your child in conversation.

Keep it private

We all remember at least one time from our childhood when our parents enraged us by sharing something embarrassing about us in front of our siblings or friends. It wasn’t the right time or place for that kind of communication. One principle I have tried to put into practice with my colleagues at work is also one I try to apply at home: Affirm in public, rebuke in private.

Likewise, as our own children get older, they become extremely self-conscious and sensitive to what we say when their friends are around. If we fail to recognise this, we can be armed with the best information and it still won’t hit the target or get the result we are looking for. That’s why we need to wait for those moments when we have our children to ourselves to bring up the sensitive subject of substance abuse.

Seize teachable moments

Sometimes you may have to create an opportunity to talk with your kids about this subject. But if you’re paying attention, you will also find that occasionally events occur that naturally lend themselves to conversations about alcohol and drugs. Your daughter informs you that someone offered her a shot to drink at a party. Your son’s sports hero is fined for doping.

If an opportunity arises for you to constructively address the issue of drugs and alcohol with your child, don’t put it off, thinking that you will raise the issue later. Seize the moment! Another opportunity like the one you have now may be a long time in coming. Better to say something now than to regret not having said it and see your child suffer the consequences.

Don’t underestimate the power of context and timing in getting your message through to your child.

Be sensitive to your child’s needs

You want the conversation to be constructive. So make sure you conduct it in a way that is as comfortable as possible for a child. For example, you don’t want to pick an awkward time for the conversation. Ask yourself whether this will be the time when your child will be most responsive to what you want to discuss. Is he in a hurry? Is he distracted by something else? Is he under stress or pressured by homework or exams? Is he tired?

Make sure it’s a two-way conversation

Let’s be honest. There are few things so deadening as being cornered in a one-way conversation where all you can do is listen and hope that you don’t have to endure it too long. Similarly, imagine how your child feels when you’re the one doing the cornering!

It is important to give your child an opportunity to ask questions without having to fear judgment or have you constantly interrupt and tell him he shouldn’t think that way. Encourage him to open up and share his thoughts and how he is feeling about what you are saying. It helps to reinforce the message you want him to hear. What may appear to be straightforward to you may not be so clear to him.

Ask open-ended questions

Ever tried to have a discussion with someone and all you got were one-word responses to your questions — "Yes," "No," "Maybe"? (If you have a teenager, you could probably add that these responses are interspersed with the occasional grunt!)

To make the conversation more meaningful for you and your child, think of how you can ask questions that require your child to think and engage with you. Open-ended questions often start with words like who, what, when, how, or why.

Try questions like these with your children:

  • "How did that make you feel?"

  • "Why do you think they did that?"

  • "What other options might there have been?"

  • "What do you think would have been the result?"

  • "What do you think you would do differently next time?"

Admit it when you’re stumped

It is easy to be caught off guard by a question from your child that you are unsure how to answer. Rather than stumble through an awkward and incorrect response, it is better for you to acknowledge that you don’t know the answer and promise that you will look for information and talk about it again later.

This, and the other guidelines for an effective conversation, can help you make the most of the conversations you have with your kids about drugs and alcohol. After all, your goal is not to check off another parenting task completed. It is to really influence your child’s perspective on drugs and alcohol over time.

Over time — that is indeed how our conversations with our kids about this subject must take place. As I said earlier, we need to start early with our kids and then stick with it.

Using Words Wisely

  • When was the last time I sat down and had a meaningful and unhurried conversation with my child?

  • Do I have a tendency to criticise my child in front of others?

  • What words have the greatest positive impact on my child? When was the last time I used those words?

  • Have I been sharing my time with each of my children or been too focused on one?

  • Do I really listen to my child, or have I tended to dominate conversations?

Glenn Williams

Glenn Williams is the former COO for Focus on the Family USA and has extensive background in counselling youth and families. As a psychologist and former pastor, Glenn co-authored the program How to Drug Proof Your Kids and was an expert/contributing author to the parenting curriculum produced by Focus on the Family, Starting Points.

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