One day, on the way to my daughter’s school, I pulled up behind a beer delivery truck. My daughter, an exceptionally insightful ten-year old, read a bumper sticker, on the back of the truck, out loud: “When you drink, think!”
It was one of those golden moments talked about in parenting groups and late night discussions between mother and father, where you want to educate your child about the dangers of substance abuse
in such a profound way that they will never tempt the fates of addiction. Regrettably, my mind went blank.
It was just a momentary blip on the screen of consciousness, a nanosecond of neuron short circuitry where my mental wet ware went whirring away in search of sage advice. During this search and retrieval process, my daughter looked at me innocently, and said: “If you drink, you can’t think!”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Of course I took credit for her wisdom. True, I was less than profound at that moment in the car. But hadn’t I talked to her before about the dangers of drinking and driving many times before? Hadn’t I shared materials on substance abuse and modeled how to say no to the illegal and improper use of drugs and alcohol? Didn’t that count for something? The answer is obvious, right? Unfortunately, it is not that simple.
Many parents warn their children against substance abuse. Many parents model appropriate behavior around drugs and alcohol. And still many children abuse them. Why? Is it peers? Society loves to blame it on peer pressure. Most of the teenagers I talk to, privately and in groups, tell me that peer pressure is not as big a deal as we adults make it out to be.
So what does work? Why do some children say no and others say yes to substance abuse? The answer (as you knew it would be) is complex. It involves a combination between parental influence, developmental windows, personal choices, and yes, peer influence.
Parental influence starts off strong in a child’s life and then weakens over time. What parents do and say are important during the first 12 years of a child’s life. Parent’s who say one thing and do another, have little influence over their children. In fact, what parents do is more powerful than what they say. Children are watching and learning from their parents.
The first step is for parents to know what they believe about drugs and alcohol. What you value is what you do. Start by discussing, with your parenting partner, your thoughts and feelings about substance use
and abuse. Is it allowed in the home? Will you drink a glass of wine or beer at dinner? Do you drink and drive? Hopefully partners will agree. But not all do. If you do not, you will have to reconcile for your child why that is. My suggestion is to be honest without being graphic. If dad drinks, you might have to state that fact simply and honestly but not curse him or degrade him in front of the child. If dad is an alcoholic or addict, then you will have to state that in the same manner. If dad is abusive, dangerous, or inappropriate, you will have to take matters into your own hands and remove your child from that situation. It doesn’t make much sense to tell your child to “say no” to a dangerous situation if you are not willing to do the same for yourself and the child.
Sometimes it is your relatives who have a problem with drugs and alcohol. The same rules apply here. Don’t put your child in any dangerous (and I define this in a physical as well as mental/emotional way) situation. Family members will put all kinds of ultimatums and threats on you for your actions. People who are not working on their addictions always blame others. They might even follow up some of those threats “Don’t come to me when your car breaks down next time.” It doesn’t matter what they hold over your head or what childhood strings they try and pluck. Your job is to protect your child and yourself. Get help if you cannot do it by yourself. Your actions will be the influence that will finally break the chain of generational substance abuse.
Developmental Windows of Influence
As we stated earlier, parental influence starts out strong in the life of the child and gradually weakens over time. This is because peer pressure becomes more influential as the child gets older. Picture a graph with influence on the left side and age along the bottom. The graphical line for parental influence starts high on the left and gradually eases downward till about the age of 16 to 20 years where the child becomes a young adult and parental influence begins, ever so slightly, to increase once more. At the same time, imagine another line moving quickly up from the bottom left of the influential side, overtaking parental influence, between the years of 8 to 12, and reaching a peak at around 16. From that point, the peer pressure line will slightly weaken but remain strong in the life of the individual
This developmental window of influence occurs between the ages of 8 to 12 years. During this time, children enter what Jean Piaget, a cognitive developmental psychologist, described as Concrete Operations. During this period, children think in concrete terms, fully understanding concepts such as time, days of the week, and logical ideas. In other words, they are able to mentally perform operations concretely, hence the name. Socially and emotionally, it is also a period of time where children still hold the values of their parents in high esteem. After this time, they are more likely to question those values, comparing them to other values they see in the world and their peers.
Little versus Big Talks
Most parents feel they must go through the anxiety of having the big talk when it comes to subjects like sex and drugs. Does anyone really enjoy the big talk or learn any life values from it? It may be more effective to have lots of little talks instead. Those golden moments behind beer delivery trucks are one example. During the television commercials might be another.
Talking is not a one-way conversation either. That’s for the big talks. In the big talks, you get it out and over with as soon as possible. Slap the dust off your hands and pat your own back for a parenting job well done. No, for the little talks, you have to listen. Make it a dialogue, not just a monologue. Have family talks over dinner about why you are having a glass of wine with your meal. On the way to the mall, ask them their thoughts about why a sexy woman was displayed next to a bottle of alcohol, on that billboard on the side of the road. Start a conversation, on the way home from the doctor’s visit, on the differences between legal and illegal drugs. Do you know the difference?
Those little talks vaccinate your child. They are little shots of conversation on the dangers of substance abuse that inoculate your child against chemical disease.
Personal Choices and Peer Influences
So, when all those teens tell me that peer influence is no big deal, should I believe them? Yes, and no. Yes, I should believe them because they have the ability to make their own choices. That is what they are really trying to tell me. Isn’t that the whole developmental point of teenage madness? Trying to be their own person, fashion their own identity, achieve mastery of themselves and their world? Would you be surprised if they didn’t think peer pressure was no big deal?
To some degree they are correct. They do have the power of choice. Many teens do say no when pressured by peers. And many escape the trials of substance abuse. But, as we know, many don’t. Much of that is due to peer pressure. The truth is you and I can do nothing about it. Oh, you can limit the friends your son hangs with or you can refuse to let your daughter attend unsupervised parties, but if they really wanted to, they could hang out with that friend behind your back and lie about the supervision. They know that. That’s why they say peer pressure is no big deal. And I agree with them.
Parents must empower their child’s personal choice over peer influence if their voice is to be heard. There are a lot of other voices out there, clamoring for your child’s attention. If your child is young, speak softly and clearly. Now is your golden opportunity. If your child is older, keep speaking (a little louder without yelling) so that your child is reminded (not badgered) by the little talks you had when he or she was younger. Empower them and praise them for every movement in the right direction.
And when you drive up behind that beer delivery truck, or whatever moment presents itself in your daily life, don’t try to be profound. Just turn to your child and ask, “What do you think?”