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You did drugs. What do you tell your kids when they ask?

simon hayter The Globe and Mail

The question came up out of the blue over dinner one evening, posed by her then 14-year-old daughter: So mom, did you do drugs?

"You're caught off guard," the Toronto-area mom in question recalls. "It's uncomfortable. You want to brush it off and see if that passes muster."

So she lied. And immediately felt guilty about it. A few days later, she sat her daughter down, and confessed that she had smoked weed in her late teens. "I certainly did not give the whole history," says the mom, who asked, like all the parents interviewed for this story, not to be identified. But her daughter was satisfied with her short answer, and although they had many conversations about drugs afterward, her mother's adventurous past never came up again. "It's not about you," says the mom, whose daughter is now an adult. "It's about them."

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It's still a nerve-wracking moment, parents say, waiting for the personal question during the drug talk with your teen. Do you conceal your wild past, or spill the sordid details? Will knowing Dad was a pothead make it impossible to urge your kids to "just say no" with any remnant of moral authority? Lying seems hypocritical. The truth feels like a licence to experiment. After all, the shrewd 16-year-old might say to his gainfully-employed, contributing-to-society mother: If it was okay for you, why isn't it okay for me?

But parents who dabbled in their youth also have an insider's advantage. A 2008 survey of more than 6,000 American teenagers found that they were 50 per cent less likely to use drugs if they had "learned a lot" about them from their parents. Groups like Partnership for a Drug-Free Canada and Parent Action on Drugs, recommend honesty – though they add that if the kids don't ask, there's no need to tell.

Research is limited but there's no evidence that disclosing a past drug experience, on its own prompts a repeat for the second generation: In a 2009 survey in the United States of both teenagers and parents, two-thirds of the teenagers questioned said their parents had told them about their drug history – and 63 per cent said hearing their stories would make them more responsible. (Roughly one-third said it wouldn't make a difference either way.) But teens with disclosing parents were also nearly twice as likely to say they'd be more responsible, than those with parents who had not spoken about their past experiences.

Even so, Ann, a Toronto mother with two teenagers, isn't spilling any secrets – until she gets asked so bluntly she can't dodge the question. Lying outright makes her uneasy, but she also wonders how much the "post-Woodstock era" of her generation actually connects with her children's party scene, where marijuana isn't coming from a plant on a friend's balcony (and is much stronger), and feminism and social change aren't framing the drug culture. "My daughter thinks I'm a dinosaur," she points out. Besides, she reasoned, you don't want your young rebels to feel they have to one-up their parents, who smoked weed as kids, by trying cocaine. For now, her drug experiences are "something I'll keep in my parenting toolbox."

That toolbox is also better filled with facts, says Marc Paris, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug Free Canada. What sinks a parent's credibility, says Mr. Paris, is not prepping with research on the current drug scene. "Otherwise you are going to get trampled. Kids know more about drugs than their parents do." And he says parents shouldn't feel hypocritical urging their kids not to experiment – a number of recent studies show that teens who feel their parents would "strongly disapprove" of them doing drugs were least likely to try them. No matter what you did in your youth, Mr. Paris suggests, it's still fair to say, "I love you, and I know how risky it can be, and I would rather you not do it."

More important than spilling details about your own experience, says Diane Buhler executive director of the Toronto-based organization Parent Action on Drugs, is laying out the risks and stressing harm reduction – if your teen is going to experiment, you don't want them getting into cars with stoned drivers, or smoking up at a party among strangers. And you want them to understand that getting caught doing illegal drugs can have a long-term consequence beyond the health risks.

And if drugs do become a problem for your child, at least you have started from a position of trust, says one Calgary mom, who came clean on her own youthful experiences with marijuana – and a one-time LSD trip – when her son asked her outright when he was about 15. When her son began struggling with a drug addiction, it was hard on the family, she says, but at least he knew he could confide in his mom and dad. "That's the benefit of being honest," she says, whose son, now in his mid-20s, has returned to university. "All you really have to hang on to is staying connected to your kids. The bottom line is you don't want your kids hiding this from you."

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One Vancouver lawyer, who still smokes weed recreationally, has decided to be open with his kids about his current – and youthful – drug use, so they have as much information as possible. "If it's out there, I have probably consumed it," he says. "More important than pretending we have lived perfect childhoods – which our children don't believe anyway – is teaching them to make good decisions." His other children are too young, but he has spoken frankly with his 11-year-old, stressing the health risks, making a case for the balance between risk and responsible use, and cautioning her that alcohol can be even more dangerous. "If she makes the choice, she has a safe and honest relationship with me so we can talk about it. And it's not shoved in a dark place."

Besides, a parent's secret might not be so secret.

"I didn't think I needed to put it out there," says Andrew, a Toronto advertising professional who speaks frankly with his 16-year-old daughter about the risks of drugs. But he always recounts his own experiences – which were extensive – in the third person. "I would own up," if she asked, he says, but she never has. When he wondered about this apparent lack of curiosity to his wife, she rolled her eyes. Andrew played in a band in his 20s. There is photographic evidence of that wild time in the family albums. "You were a musician," his wife told him. "Of course, she knows you were a stoner."

Did you do drugs, Mom?

Advice for getting the answer right.

1) Do your research: If there's any chat for which you want to know your stuff, this is it. Find out the current lingo, research and drug trends. Prep in advance for questions your teen might toss at you.

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2) Don't lie. For one thing, many experts point out, your teenager probably won't believe you anyway.

3) But don't say too much either. You don't need to detail those stoner Grateful Dead concerts. (And if they don't ask, you don't have to tell.)

4) Share what you learned, and how you feel about it looking back. Make it clear that your experience may not be theirs. Talk about friends you saw who had problems with drugs.

5) Shift the conversation back to them and their choices. Ask them what's happening at school and among their friends.

6) Stay calm. This is an ongoing dialogue not a one-off cautionary tale. If it goes badly the first time – or you lie and regret it – try again.

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