How to teach your children about alcohol, and drugs

I’m not a parent yet, but I’m still young enough to be one in the future. Life is good for me right now. I’m doing well professionally and have a happy personal life. So I sometimes find myself thinking about how my life experience could help the kids I may have one day.

I’m an addict, you see. A recovering addict. I’ve been clean and sober for nine years.

I have lived a lot in the first half of my three-score-years-and-ten. I’ve seen lots of good things, I’ve enjoyed many great times but unfortunately, I have also been at the bottom of the abyss of alcoholism and drug addiction.

So at this stage probably the best thing I can do is pass on some advice to parents, hopefully, to help them avoid having a troubled child like me.

The thing is, I had a very happy childhood. Not exactly “normal”, perhaps, but then what is normal?

What I mean has I had a loving, supportive family? What made my early life unusual was that we are Colombian and when I was a child our country was in turmoil. The drug trade made it a dangerous place. People were murdered and kidnapped all the time, and the sound of gunfire in the streets was sadly not uncommon.

My parents got us – me and my brother and the two of them – the hell out of there and to the suburban safety of California, where they rebuilt their lives from scratch and provided a safe environment for us.

Colombians generally are sociable people and they like a party. The national drink is aguardiente, an aniseed-flavoured spirit that may be only the same strength as most whiskey, rum, gin, and vodka but is deceptively easy to drink. That sweet, aniseed flavor makes it less daunting to the young palate.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that all Colombian children find aguardiente irresistible, but I did. I sneaked some at a party once, got a bit drunk and liked it. It just made me feel better – I was a kind of awkward kid and I didn’t feel cool, but this stuff made me feel better about myself.

It was the start of the slippery slope because anyone can see now that I have a susceptibility. I was nine when I had that first glass of aguardiente. At 14 I smoked marijuana, and from then on it was no holds barred. Cocaine, ketamine (aka special K), nitrous oxide (laughing gas), mushrooms, ecstasy, MDMA, heroin. The world was my oyster, but a deadly, poisonous oyster.

My drug of choice was methamphetamine (meth) and there was always alcohol. In my early 20s, I did two years in prison and the story of my recovery is a long and complex one which I won’t go into here.

I want to try to help other people avoid the disastrous life I led for many years.

So, three things a parent should do to try to protect their child from alcohol and drugs.

1. Find Out All You Can About The Subject

The more you know about the risks and the potential dangers, the better prepared you will be. With my history, I can now spot danger a mile off, but if you haven’t been in that abyss, you’ll have to peer into it enough to understand a few things. Take cocaine, for instance. As drugs go, it’s quite glamorous. It’s what rock stars take.

But have you noticed how they are all desperate to get off it after a while? That’s because they know through bitter experience what you can find out through research. Cocaine is highly dangerous.

And that’s just one of the many drugs that lurk out there in the hands of unscrupulous dealers who wouldn’t think twice about selling it to your child.

If you don’t know about the drugs and their particular characteristics, you’re just a parent who always says no. And although the zero-tolerance approach does work in certain conditions, when a smirking teenager mentions some fashionable high and you can explain you have not only heard of it but know about its pitfalls, at least you’re not just a reactionary killjoy.

It helps to know more general information about the whole subject. Again, you will be able to have a conversation about things and be taken more seriously. You might even benefit from that peculiar teenage tendency to not like anything their parents are associated with, so if you know plenty about this thing they’re talking about and think you don’t know anything about, it can lose its appeal.

However, you decide to play it, get as much information as you can. Forewarned is forearmed. And that also means keeping abreast of trends, because new drugs appear all the time, legislation changes and your town might suddenly become awash with a new substance, so keep your eyes open and follow the local news.

As for alcohol, you probably know a bit about it and parent/child relationships are are very individual, so you must decide for yourself whether your child will react well or badly to a certain approach No child likes to be preached at, but don’t just avoid the subject.

2. Make It Age-Appropriate

Again, it is wrong to generalize, because all youngsters are different and you know yours better than anybody, but there are stages which all children go through, so as a rule of thumb let’s break them down as follows:

Up to age 7
They are still very much under your spell. You’re Mom or Dad, the fount of all wisdom, and this is the perfect time to instill good values in a child. They see things on TV and the internet, even if they’re not consciously searching for it, so you can field their questions about what people are doing, drinking, smoking, snorting and injecting, and tell them what is okay and what is not.

Age 8 – 12
Children are doing many things at a younger age than previous generations, so what you were up to and your milestones may be coming around sooner for your kids. The internet is particularly responsible for this, and it is nearly impossible to police their activities in this respect, but here we’re thinking about drink and drugs, which are probably not high on their list of searches – although they will come across them.

Youngsters of this age are also subject to new influences. You are no longer the only source of knowledge – they have friends who know things. It’s called “peer pressure” and it follows us all our lives. The trouble with young peers (i.e. people of roughly the same age and with whom they mix) is that they may be extolling the virtues of things they know little about but which seem “cool”, so they are passing on their ignorance.

If you can still arrange for them to be in the same room as you, maybe watching TV together, things will crop up which you can discuss and get your point across. Other than that, you’ll have to bring up subjects and ask their opinions, or how those things are affecting their friends and schoolmates. “Have you ever seen anyone drunk in real life? Do any of the kids at school get high?”

You might be pleasantly surprised at the response. You might be shocked. But at least you’ll have a better idea of what’s going on in their lives.

13 and over
Your little angel has grown considerably and is on the verge of becoming an adult. They might even think they’re there already. Parenting a teenager can be extremely difficult, and we can all remember how we felt at that stage. Misunderstood, underrated, untrusted, perhaps unappreciated.

Now that it is somebody else’s turn, we can only do our best. Would it have saved me if my parents had brought up drink and drugs at an earlier stage, rather than trying to shut the door after the horse had bolted? Possibly. We will never know.

It’s a bit like talking about sex, but probably less embarrassing. You can either grit your teeth and do it or you can avoid it and just hope and pray.

For what it’s worth, I’d say you should bring up the difficult subjects, so at least you can say you tried. Be respectful. Listen to what your teenager has to say on the subject. Offer advice. Don’t be judgemental.

Easier said than done, I know, but we have to try.

3. Set A Good Example

Young people notice everything. In the early years, they unconsciously imitate what their parents do.

As they get older they start to assess it. And teenagers can be extremely judgemental. If they see you knocking back the bourbon or opening a bottle of wine at five o’clock every day, the younger ones will see it as normal and the older ones will store it up as ammunition. “You can’t criticize me for this when you do that. It’s so unfair!” This may bring a bit of self-discipline into a parent’s own life, but is that such a bad thing?

My parents had a terrible time when I went off the rails. They felt they had failed me, and although I certainly don’t think that, it’s a hard feeling to shake off.

So in a nutshell, my advice is: take the responsibility and be proactive. Awkward conversations just might avoid disaster.

Do you have a success story about a parent’s intervention saving a youngster from the nightmare of addiction? We’d love to hear it.

Oh, and you’re not the first generation of parents to have this task. At the height of the anything-goes hippie era, around the time of Woodstock, hip young people were becoming parents and facing the same problems their own parents had faced, and as you do now. Marijuana-smoking singer-songwriter John B. Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful wrote a song about it.