app.com: Do you tell your kids about your past drug use?
Ken Serrano , @KenSerranoAPP
- The opioid epidemic has made a parent or guardian's answer to the inevitable question from a child "Have you ever done drugs?" more consequential given the deadliness of heroin.
- Studies differ on how open and honest to be, but it's clear that lying can harm relationships.
- The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids advises parents to know what works best for their child.
“Mom, have you ever done drugs?”
When Justine Frank’s son Jon posed that question, she responded the way many parents do when their kids put them on the spot.
"I looked him right in the eye and I lied to him," Justine said. "I had the best of intentions, but it was the wrong decision."
Since shortly after he asked the question in sophomore year of high school in 1999 , Jon, now 33, has struggled with heroin addiction.
“I shut my son down, so he couldn’t come to me with his vulnerabilities,” Justine, 55, of Hamilton said. She was 38 when he asked.
“Had I been able to express that I went through these same troubles I feel like he could have opened up and we could have gone through this together” Justine said.
She added: "At the time, I felt like I would have given him license to experiment because I had," if she were honest.
Justine Frank of Hamilton discusses her regrets about not disclosing her drug use to her son Jon, who is struggling with addiction Ken Serrano
With the threat of the opioid epidemic reaching more families, parents and guardians face increasing pressure to talk to their kids about drugs, public health officials say. How they respond matters, according to a body of research from academic journals and nonprofit organizations.
But that research differs on how to respond. And not everyone agrees that honesty is the only policy.
Some psychologists stress caution.
Angelo Valente, executive director of Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, a drug prevention organization, said the question should be viewed as an opportunity.
"The fact that your child is coming to you is extremely important," he said, siding strongly with parents being honest.
If dishonesty comes to light, it can harm trust and that can keep a child from coming forward later, he said.
"You want them to continue to be able to build trust," he said. "You want the parent to be a resource during difficult times in adolescence."
Along with any disclosure of past drug use, parents should make sure their children know that drugs - from opioids to synthetic drugs like bath salts - are far more dangerous than most drugs were 20 or 30 years ago, Valente said.
"Kids want to have that open dialogue," said Kristi Rowe, a spokeswoman for the group. "That doesn't mean you have to give them all the detail in technicolor."
One of the group's broader points: the right approach depends on your child.
Telling the truth, for instance, carries its own pitfalls, according to one prominent 2013 study by researchers from the University of Illinois that says that honesty leads to more positive feelings among children about illicit drug use.
But few practitioners, if any, advocate lying.
“It’s best to react with honesty,” said Tara Lally, a licensed psychologist with a practice in West Long Branch and an adjunct professor at Monmouth University. “If you lie, you damage your relationship.”
Jon Frank agrees lying hurts.
At 6-feet-7-inches tall and 355 pounds, Jon won glory on the football field playing for Hunterdon Central High School in the early 2000s, drawing attention from major college football programs.
But a cancer diagnosis ended his football dreams, and he was initially given only a few years to live. His trials in life didn’t stop there.
Jon’s story became a tragically familiar one in the opioid epidemic. He was put on a heavy dose of opioids for cancer pain and when he ran out, he turned to the streets to buy painkillers. When the pills became too expensive, he turned to heroin.
Jon Frank discusses the impact of his mom Justine's decision to hide ger drug abuse from him Ken Serrano
Jon said honesty from his mother, who raised Jon as a single parent, may have shortened his path to recovery.
“Had my mom come out and really gotten to the nitty-gritty of everything she had done, I think I would have been able to come out with all the details of what I had done,” Jon said. “And I wouldn’t have had so much guilt and shame that I had to suppress and keep inside had I known that she had been down the same road that I had been down.”
On Feb. 20, Jon marked his second year of sobriety, he said.
Justine, who lives in Hamilton and is the volunteer chairwoman for the Prevention Coalition of Mercer County, is outspoken on what she now regards as the wrong decision — not disclosing her past drug use to her son.
The issue has produced some conflicting research.
According to a 2009 survey by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, 63 percent of respondents said that hearing their parents' stories about past alcohol or drug use would make them more responsible about their own use of drugs.
The foundation, based in Minnesota, was formed when Hazelden Treatment Center, a 12-step recovery program center that started in 1949, merged with Betty Ford Center in 2014. It is now one of the largest nonprofit treatment providers in the country with 17 programs in nine states. Their research is frequently cited by academic journals.
The survey, "Four Generations Overcoming Addiction," also reported that 90 percent of teens whose parents told them of past drug or alcohol use as teenagers were likely to consider them to be role models, as opposed to 93 percent of teens who knew nothing about their parents’ past. The point is that disclosure of drug use did little to harm the stature of parents in the view of their children and that honesty about past parental drug use is a positive thing in terms of a child's attitudes about illicit drug use, according to the survey.
“We’re certain that young people want, need and expect their parents to be their No. 1 source for accurate information,” William Moyers, a spokesman for the foundation said. “If not us, who? The internet? Much of that information is dangerous, inaccurate or enticing to young people.”
But research published in the social science journal Human Communication Research in 2013 warned that disclosure could have a bad unintended effect. The study focused on 561 sixth-through-eighth-grade students in Illinois.
“Knowing that their parents tried substances may actually normalize this behavior for youth,” wrote the study's lead author, Jennifer A. Kam, then of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Parents’ discussion of their prior use may in some ways downplay the parents’ emphasis on the negative consequences of using substances.”
Parents’ references to their own drug use “actually may be perceived as permissive,” she wrote.
Even more disconcerting for truth advocates, the study found that if parents did not disclose their own drug use to their children but presented a strong anti-drug message the children were more likely to have anti-drug attitudes. In other words, nondisclosure with warnings about drugs worked. (The survey did not deal with what happens if children find out if those parents had drugs in their past.)
What you say
If a parent discloses past drug use to a child , regret, bad judgment and the dangers of drugs are the correct things to focus on, Lally said.
That discussion changes depending on the age of the child. If a 7-year-old asks, it's more important to find out why they are asking, although lying would still be unwise, Lally said.
A 17-year-old needs a more open discussion, she said.
Lally said the drug talk with children should not be just one-and-done.
“You want to make it more of a fluent, casual conversation over time,” she said. “Parents are so fearful of glorifying. We don’t discuss family addiction.”
And parents should realize “it’s awkward,” she said.
But those parents boasting of their exploits with drugs or merely focused on the fun of doing drugs can urge their kids to follow their lead without meaning to. Children view disclosures like that as a legacy they must uphold, Lally said.
“They not only emulate it but surpass it,” she said.