What to Tell Teens with a Family History of Substance Abuse

If your family has a history of addiction, your child will have an increased risk of developing one too. For example, research shows that children of alcoholics are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than other children. Addiction can be hereditary, meaning that the presence of certain genes in a person’s DNA can make them more likely to abuse drugs if they use them.

If alcohol or drug addiction runs in your family, experts suggests talking to your children about it no later than the pre-teen or early teen years. The fact that your child has a greater risk for developing a substance abuse problem is serious and should be discussed before they discover these substances on their own. It is worth telling your children about addiction running in your family to help them make informed decisions about drug use and avoid becoming addicted themselves.

Despite the perception that kids don’t listen to their parents, studies show that teens cite parents as one of the largest influences in their decision not to use alcohol and drugs. Here are some tips for having a good conversation:

Be Honest. The best thing you can do is to be honest and straight forward with your children about drugsand your family. If you or someone in your family struggles with addiction, tell your children the truth about those experiences. When a teen asks a question, answer it truthfully.When we don’t hide that we, or someone close to us, is struggling, we actually empower youth to learn from others’ experiences and to develop empathy.

Explain Disease. Far too often, society has a knee-jerk reaction to those struggling with addiction, opting to label addicts as people with moral failings. This is completely untrue. Addiction is a disease. It is generally not a choice, and it cannot be controlled by sheer willpower. When you explain to your teen that addiction is a disease, it may help them understand that people can become addicted to drugs or alcohol, even when they don’t intend to.

Discuss Dangers. Explain to your teen that the effects of drugs on them may be different from other youth. By carrying an addiction gene, they are more likely to develop addictive behaviors following drug use compared to someone without a family history of addiction.

Give Perspective. Some teens might feel “different” or alone when they discover addiction runs in the family. It’s a good idea to let teens know that lots of other children have family members who are addicted to drugs or alcohol—even in their own school. You might mention famous celebrities who have struggled with addiction and have teenage children. Sometimes knowing that there are others who are feeling the same pain and confusion can be comforting to teens.

Offer Support. Having a support system is incredibly important for someone who is at risk of developing a substance abuse problem. Whether it’s you or a family member or a therapist, let your teen know that there is always someone to talk to.

Set Clear Expectations. The most important thing you can do to ensure your teen is safe is to talk about your expectations beforehand. You need to provide leadership, guidance and boundaries to your teens. Do not be vague – reiterate that you do not want your teen trying drugs or alcohol. Ask them how they plan to keep safe and avoid actions they will regret. Reinforce your belief in their character and in their ability to act responsibly.

Final Thoughts…

Many parents don’t want to discuss painful family histories, whether it’s substance abuse or physical ailments or previous mistakes, but there’s no shame in learning from the past. Arming our children with information that guides them to make better choices for their wellbeing is a valuable gift.

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