At schools across the country this is Red Ribbon Week. It’s a week where schools dedicate time to teaching kids about saying no to drugs. I know some parents don’t love the school system talking to their kids about drugs or sex. I get that. I remember my mom opting us out of sex education and saying, “They aren’t going to teach you anything I haven’t already taught you, but it’s not their job.” While I’m not opting my kids out of those things, I do fully agree with my mom’s sentiment. It’s ultimately my job to teach my kids about these sensitive topics and I want to do it BEFORE the school system gets around to it or they hear about these things on the news or from a friend.
It’s pretty easy in a “good” family to have very black and white conversations about drugs, alcohol and smoking. I hope you’re having those conversations with your kids and opening the door for them to ask questions. But for some of our families there is a more nuanced element to this conversation. For those of us raising the children of addicts or who have addicts in our own family, it’s a little harder to just say, “Good people don’t do that sort of thing.” People we love and who matter tremendously to our family have made unwise choices in this area, so how do we supplement the black and white education our kids may be getting at school to reflect our reality?
(*I am not a therapist or a DARE educator or anything else that gives me official credentials to talk about this stuff. I’m just a mom/foster mom/group home mom who has had a lot of these conversations with kids over the years and has seen what works and what doesn’t. Obviously, you’re free to disagree with these tips and substitute what works for your family.*)
Be age appropriate. Brian and I believe it’s important to start this conversation young. I received some good advice from an agency we worked with about how to talk to preschoolers and it has become my standard speech as we’ve run across this issue with each of our kids. When they ask why a person might not be able to parent and we know the answer is related to substance abuse we say, “He/She choose to put things in their body that made it unsafe for them to be a parent.” For preschoolers, that might be the end of the conversation. We don’t use the word “drugs” until they are older, but we’ve set the foundation that this was a choice made by an adult and that the choice made them unsafe. I have had one of my kids ask “why” as a follow-up and we talked about how that person had had a difficult life and what they put in their body made them feel better. Even though it was an unwise choice, it made sense to them because they really wanted to feel better. Just like with conversations about sex, we work to open the door to their questions and then answer the questions they’re asking. If you introduce it early, you can add details and more explanations as they’re ready.
Be honest. We do not say that people who have addiction issues are “sick”. While there is an element of truth to the word “sick” in this context, it can be confusing for kids. When will they get better? When someone else is sick, does that mean they can’t parent either? Can I catch this sickness? These are actual questions we’ve been asked by kids who were told their addicted parent was sick. Kids need to understand the element of choice that exists in substance abuse, but also the reasons why someone might make that choice. This is especially important for kids who weren’t able to be raised by their biological parents. They need to know that this wasn’t about them, but about choices made by adults.
Extend grace. When we talk about the choice to use drugs, we talk about the other unwise choices we all make. We talk about how God still loves us when we sin, even if that sin makes his heart sad. We talk about how we love these people and pray for them and want them to make better choices. We do not paint a picture of addicts as irredeemable or hopeless or scary or bad.
Talk about consequences. While we don’t want to paint everyone who struggles with substance abuse as “bad”, we DO want to make sure our kids understand that these choices have real world consequences. The inability to get or keep a job, problems paying your bills, the possibility of jail time, or losing custody of your kids— these are realities we have watched play out in the lives of people we love. Expressing love doesn’t mean we gloss over these things. Especially since these children may have more of a genetic predisposition towards substance abuse, we want to be sure they understand this is not just a personal choice, but it is one that impacts many aspects of your life, your relationships, and your future.
Talk about healing and redemption. Addiction is not (always) a terminal condition. We want kids to know that change, healing and redemption are possible, especially with God’s help. We pray towards that end.
Discuss the gray areas. While illegal drugs are obviously illegal, there are some areas that aren’t as black and white. I don’t want my kids to smoke, but I also don’t want them to assume anyone who smokes is on his way to hell. It’s bad for your body, but so are the four boxes of Nerds I ate today. I want to explain to my kids that there are issues of conscience people who love God may have differences of opinion about. BUT, for those who have a family history of addiction, there may be reasons to abstain entirely even if it isn’t about a moral compulsion. When we did group home work we would say to the kids, “It may not be wrong for other people, but it may be wrong for you.” We don’t judge those who partake responsibly, but we also don’t shame those as “weak” who choose not to partake at all.
These are ongoing conversations we’ll be having with our kids as they become responsible for their own choices. Ultimately we can’t make these decisions for them, but we can do our part to be sure they have access to the information they need, their questions answered, and a full understanding that our love is a constant no matter what choices they make.