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The Truth Is, It's Hard to Talk to Kids About Drugs

His parents wouldn't believe their son had a drinking problem.

Even when addiction counselor Joan Green confronted them with evidence that, for months, the young man had been drinking daily, they preferred to think he was suffering from depression and was taking prescription anti-depressants. Only when the high school hockey star crashed his car, suffering injuries that ended his hopes for a career in the pros, did his parents face the truth.

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"It turns out that he wasn't taking the prescribed medicine at all," says Dr. Green, who along with her son, Matt Green, runs the largest adolescent-parent groups for drug and alcohol addiction in New England. "He was flushing the medicine down the toilet and drinking alcohol."

Parents and teenagers, it seems, have radically different views about how well they communicate about alcohol and drugs. A majority of parents say they thoroughly discuss the dangers of drug use with their children. But often, their children do not agree.

The result of inadequate or inconsistent communication can be shocking, as parents in Woburn, Mass., recently learned after 14 junior-high-school students overdosed on prescription muscle relaxants they took at a Friday night dance. Most of the kids were hospitalized, some for as long as a week.

A week later, two 12-year-old girls in Walpole, Mass., were hospitalized after overdosing on an unknown drug at school.

Evidence is mounting that parents should redouble efforts to talk to their children about drugs - illegal and legal. Surveys show that parents can be a forceful counter to other influences - including advertising and peer pressure - that would tempt young people to use mind-altering substances.

A 1996 survey backs this up. It shows that when parents warn children about drugs, use is lower. Some 35.5 percent of students who said they never hear from their parents about drugs reported using, compared with 26.6 percent for those whose parents spoke to them "a lot."

But the survey, by the Washington-based PRIDE (National Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education), also notes that fewer students than ever say their parents warn them about the dangers of drug and alcohol use. Only 29.5 percent of youths say their parents talked to them often about drug use, down from 40.3 percent five years earlier.

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"What I find is that parents are confused about what to say and how to say it," says Alison Malkin, drug and alcohol counselor for the public schools in Newton, Mass.

Psychologists Joan and Matt Green agree. Plenty of help is available for children, but most professionals don't address parents' needs, they say. Many parents aren't consistent with their children in terms of actions and consequences, says Matt Green, and most operate out of fear of the unknown.

"The first thing we tell parents is to be consistent," he says. "It doesn't matter what the message is as long as parents are consistent."

Next, he says, is addressing parents' fears. Often, the real reason parents are afraid to talk with their kids about drug use is because "they are afraid that if their children are using, they won't know how to handle it."

He cites the case of a father who brought his son to Green's office and asked Green to administer a $40 drug test. Green learned that he had found what he thought was drug paraphernalia in the house - but that the dad had not spoken to the son about his suspicions. So Green turned to the young man and asked him if he used drugs. The youth said that he smoked marijuana regularly.

"The $40 drug test was useless," Green says. "The kid was willing to say he used marijuana. The parent was afraid to ask the kid because he didn't know what to do if he got an answer."

WHILE parents must talk with their children about drugs, they also need to examine their own behavior, says Ms. Malkin.

"Kids model what we do," she says. If parents pop a pill for every ill and offer guests alcohol at every visit, that sends a strong message to kids.

Joan Green says the problem is a cultural one. "By the time kids are 12, they have seen 350,000 TV commercials, three-fourths of them pharmaceutical," she says. "Everything is cured by a pill. And in the situation comedies, problems are solved within a half-hour."

As the Woburn and Walpole incidents show, children are exposed to drugs at earlier ages, so parents need to talk with their children sooner than they might expect.

"Kids are confronted with decisions about drugs at 11 or 12 now, as compared with 16 or 17 a few years ago," says David Elkind, a professor at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and an expert on adolescent development. Children that age are just making the transition into adolescence, he says, and often are acutely aware of fitting in with their peers.

Art Louvar, a high-school counselor in Wichita, Kan., says he and his wife have always talked with their three children about the harmful effects of drugs. His son, Jeff, now a college freshman, says that the dinner conversations and a stable home life definitely helped him.

Although Jeff says the family didn't talk about drug use often, he remembers that his parents did point out the consequences of using. They also kept close tabs on him, he says.

Jeff says he has never tried drugs, but he came home drunk one time in high school. His parents didn't punish him severely, but told him they relied on him to make good decisions. Their talk, he says, made him feel "pretty guilty and that drinking like that wasn't something I could do."

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