Preparation, preparation, preparation. That is really what all talks are for, to prepare us for tough situations that we might or might not encounter and have to handle by ourselves in the future. And as far as tough situations go, drug use -- where our decisions could potentially threaten our lives -- is pretty high on the list.

The drug talks, like the ones on sex, are what I call the "don't-do-it" talks -- because they're the ones where many parents' basic message is just that: "Don't do it." But even here, there may be a difference in some families. With sex, some parents might say, "Don't do it until college, or until a certain age, or until you're married, and then do it in a responsible way," but with drugs the word is more likely to be, "Don't do them ever."

The "don't do it" talks can be the most challenging for you and your teenager, and everyone would probably rather just avoid them, but the consequences of not talking about the tough topics are much worse than the short-lived discomfort and awkwardness of talking about them. And the hardest things to talk about are also the ones we need your help with the most.

You Can Make a Difference

Okay, I'm sure you're thinking, "I know I have to talk to my kids about drugs, but will it really make a difference?" I had the same question for teenagers: Can what your parents say -- and how they say it -- really change the way you think about drugs? The overwhelming answer I heard was "Yes! Well, maybe." Yes, teenagers generally do want to hear what their parents have to say, and maybe because it depends on how their parents talk to them.

Teens were very open about sharing their thoughts with me about things you could do that would make your drug conversations more comfortable and, therefore, more productive. Most important of all, they say that by doing these things, you'll have a better chance of affecting our decision making regarding sex and drugs. (I'll give you their thoughts on alcohol and cigarettes in the next chapter and on sex in chapter 3.)

So, here's the scoop.

"We listen better when you start early."

Drug talks can have different effects at different ages. I'm sure it doesn't come as a surprise that if you can talk to your child before she's experimented with drugs, you will have a better chance to get through to her and influence her decision making. Once she's already begun experimenting with drugs, you have a different challenge: trying to get her to stop, and that's assuming that you even know that she is using drugs in the first place.

For the best chance of having your drug message be effective, start when your kids are young. One thing I've found out from pretty much every discussion I've had with teenagers about this subject: The most successful drug conversations are with younger teens, say 11 to 13 years, and the least successful are with older teens from 16 to 18 (the intermediate ages of 14 and 15 have a great range of success rates). Older teens have already pretty much made up their minds about drugs; either they have tried them or they've decided they're not going to try them. Younger teens are less likely to have experimented with drugs and aren't under the impression that they know everything they will ever need to know about them. Therefore, you have more of a chance of reaching them. But as we all know, age and wisdom do not always go hand in hand. Some teens reach a higher emotional maturity faster than others, so you have to gauge the timing of your conversations. My mom was talking to me about drugs practically when I came out of the womb. I wouldn't recommend delivery room drug conversations as a rule of thumb, but the thing to remember is that younger is better.

I can't remember a time when my parents didn't talk to me about drugs and how bad they are. Some of my friends' parents did the same thing, but it didn't keep them from anything. But not with me -- I guess you could say that all that stuff just stuck.

Sarah, age 16, Fort Collins, Colorado

I used to rag on Sarah for being a chicken about drugs, but not anymore. I started smoking weed when I was about 14 because I'd heard about it at school, and I thought it sounded fun. I was smoking pretty much a lot for about 6 months, when my mom came in one day, told me to sit down, and said, "I want to talk to you about . . . pot." She said it like she wasn't sure how to pronounce it -- it's a three-letter word, how hard can it be! She asked me if I'd ever heard of it, and I said, "Yeah, I think so, what is it?" It's a good thing I hadn't toked up just before this conversation or I would have laughed myself to death. But lately, I've been thinking Sarah might be right. I see some of my friends who have turned into total burnouts from smoking all the time. I'm thinking I maybe want to ease up a little.

Michelle (Sarah's friend), age 16, Fort Collins, Colorado

Is it useless to start talking about drugs if you haven't brought up the topic before your teen is 16? The teens I interviewed said no. While starting the conversations early is best, teenagers of all ages and experience levels told me there are ways to get through, to make a difference, and to better prepare your teen for decisions she will face when you're not around.

"We want to hear it from YOU, not just them."

Like a lot of kids, I took DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in school. This is a program that deals with drug awareness and education; 60 percent of all elementary schools in the United States have instituted DARE in their curriculum to increase drug awareness. This program and others like it are created to inform your kids about drugs and prevent them from experimentation and abuse. This, in theory, is a great thing, but in actuality DARE's effectiveness is extremely limited. Studies have shown that there is no statistically significant difference in drug usage between kids who have gone through the DARE program and those who haven't. Going through the DARE program myself, I was not surprised by this study, but a lot of parents who I told this to were shocked. Now, there are a lot of parents who assume that drug programs like DARE are getting the right message through to their kids about drugs. And some of them think because someone else is giving them this message that they, in turn, don't have to.

Well, it seems as if you do. Teens had a lot of questions and misperceptions about drugs that DARE didn't clear up. And because of poor communication habits between parents and teens, these questions and misinterpretations were not getting correctly cleared up.

What do I think about drugs? Well, heroin and crack and stuff is pretty bad, but pot and LSD and stuff isn't horrible. Look at the 60s -- if that stuff was so bad, our parents wouldn't be here right now.

Bart, age 17, Palco, Kansas

I am not saying that DARE told Bart that LSD is a vitamin, but it seems that sometimes teens hear what they want to hear from their school drug education sessions, and selective hearing concerning such a dangerous topic could have serious repercussions.

What do I think about drugs? Well, I mean everyone knows that Ecstasy is fine -- some scientists said it was not bad for you. But I would never touch heroin or any of that other crazy stuff.

Dan, age 16, Little Rock, Arkansas

Not everyone gave responses like Dan and Bart, but the truth is that misconceptions are a very real and dangerous thing, and they're something that you have the power to put a stop to.

It's not that kids think that programs like DARE aren't a good thing. We just seem to get more drug "knowledge" from friends and from TV and movies. As much as we rely on those sources of info, they are probably not the ones that your parents would trust the most to get across the right message about drug use.

And just as there are parents who feel that the responsibility of a drug conversation is lifted off their shoulders because drug awareness programs have done the job for them, there are also parents who feel that their job is finished because kids get all those drug awareness messages on TV. As we all know, the media can sometimes blur issues, and where drugs are concerned, it is extremely important to see things as clearly as possible.

I know a lot about drugs. I see a lot of stuff on TV, and I've seen a lot of movies that have drugs in them, so I would say that I know more than someone who has not seen the kind of things that I have.

Greg, age 14, Lyons, Illinois

The truth is that Greg probably does know a lot about drugs from the media, maybe even more than his parents do, but the only way you can really be sure about what messages your teens are getting is to give them those messages yourself.

Reprinted from: The Teen Code: How to Talk to Us About Sex, Drugs, and Everything Else -- Teenagers Reveal What Works Best by Rhett Godfrey with Neale Godfrey © 2004 by Rhett Z. Godfrey. (April 2004; $17.95US/$24.95CAN; 1-57954-852-0) Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at

Author's Bio: 

Rhett Godfrey is a high school senior from Chester, New Jersey. More than 1,000 teenagers from across the country have confided in him secret ways that parents use to open up meaningful dialogue in their homes. This is his first book.

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