Be a Positive Role Model For Your Teens / Youth
Children like to imitate adults. How many times have children imitated the way we speak, tried on our clothes or makeup, had a make-believe tea party or cocktail party, or pretended to "go to work"?
Every child wants to be a grownup. Being "grown up" means freedom. Being grown up means making your own decisions. Being grown up means being able to eat and drink anything you want, wherever you want.
Young people like to "try on" our behaviors along with our adult clothes. Lots of things fit into the grownup category: driving a car, working, drinking alcohol, getting married, smoking cigarettes, having babies, and so forth.
If we ask young people about the messages we send them about drinking alcohol, smoking, or using drugs, what might they say? We might be surprised to find out that we influence their attitudes toward alcohol, tobacco, or any substance when we involve them in our own substance use by asking them to get us a beer from the refrigerator or an ashtray from the cupboard.
A child can understand and accept the differences between what adults may do legally and what is appropriate and legal for children. We should continue to reinforce this understanding by not abusing legal substances like alcohol, or by using illegal drugs. Children are exposed to media messages and images that glamorize the use of substances. We must help them understand these messages are neither glamorous nor healthy.
A parent or caregiver using alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs may increase a child's chances of using and becoming dependent on a substance.
Action Steps To Being a Positive Role Model
- Do not engage in illegal, unhealthy, or dangerous drug use. Avoid actions that say, "Do as I say, not as I do." Children, even at very early ages, imitate and are influenced by adult behaviors.
Don't involve your child in your use of alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs. Such involvement may include asking her to get a beer, light a cigarette, or "taste" your wine.
When possible, point out examples of bad behavior linked to substance use or abuse and the consequences. Examples can be found in television shows, movies, music, lyrics, even video games. An important part of your job is to engage your child about these images and behaviors and what they mean.
His name is Dennis, but most of the people in his neighborhood just call him "Coach." He and his family (he has a teenage son and a younger daughter) have been involved with the Boys & Girls Club for more than 9 years. Dennis has been an active community volunteer and mentor to youth for even longer. He is a role model not only for neighborhood youth, but also for parents as well.
"I can say a lot of things to the kids that most adults can't get away with. I can tell them to pick up their pop bottles off of the basketball court, and they'll do it, because they know I'll confront them if they don't. They know I really care about them, and I've taken the time to build a rapport and relationship with them. I try to instill in them that there's a lot in life that you can look forward to. There's a whole collage of things to do besides hanging out in the streets. I take the kids out, expose them to different things, like hiking and camping. Doing these things with them puts you on a level where kids look up to you as a role model. They see me. I don't do drugs, I don't drink, but "Hey," they think, "He's still having fun. I can have fun without that stuff, too." The best part is that other kids will start looking up to them."
If You Use Alcohol, Tobacco, or Other Substances
The fact is, if you use alcohol, tobacco products, or other substances, your children are more likely to use them, too. However, even if you use substances, you can still do a lot to help your children choose not to use them.
If you use alcohol, drink moderately. That means no more than a single drink a day for adult women and two a day for adult men. On special occasions and holidays, find alternative ways to celebrate. Talk about your family rules on the use of alcohol. Deal with stress by exercising, talking with a friend, or deep breathing. The children you care for will learn a lot by imitating these strategies. If you use tobacco products and have had difficulty stopping, talk with your children about how addictive nicotine is. Let them know that when you were young, you thought you could stop easily, but you now have grown dependent on nicotine and want very much to quit. If your children are very young, be careful about sharing information about the health problems you may be suffering as a result of your tobacco dependence. A young child may quickly jump to the conclusion that you are dying and may become very frightened.
By the way, it's never too late to quit. See the resources listed on our Resource Page for referrals and information.
By setting a good example, you can help your child define being "grownup," emphasizing responsibilities such as taking care of ourselves, doing well at school or work, and being productive members of our community.
If you use illegal drugs, frequently or even occasionally, or if you are abusing prescription drugs, you are sending strong negative messages to your children. These messages may include:
- Take a pill if you need help coping.
- It's okay to break the law when it stands in the way of personal needs.
- The best way to cope with stress, strain, or other problems is to use drugs.
- Happiness comes from the temporary high of drug use, not from good relationships with others.
- It's easier to take drugs than to develop good problem-solving and stress management skills.
- Time spent using drugs is better than time spent with you.
- It's easier to take drugs to try and forget problems instead of dealing with them.
If You Used Drugs in the Past
You may not know whether you should tell your child if you used to use illegal drugs. Past drug use also may make you feel uncomfortable to start a conversation on the topic with your child. But remember, your child needs your guidance. Whether you have used drugs in the past does not change this fact. After all, the conversation is about your child, not you.
Every child is different and each parent-child relationship is unique. Whether you tell your child you have used drugs in the past depends on a variety of factors, such as the child's age, the child's developmental stage, and your relationship with the child. Some children may not want to know or need to know about your past experiences. Other children may benefit from your candor and the lessons you learned firsthand.
If you decide to tell your child about past drug use, be sure to make a distinction between past adolescent or young adult use/experimentation and current adult use. You should say nothing about your current drug use unless directly confronted by your child. You should seek help for the entire family to help manage this situation. (See the resources available in the back of this guide.)
Don't let past drug use stop you from conversing with your child about alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. The value of face-to-face discussions with your child cannot be overestimated. Remember to:
Have a clear message.
Here are some suggested messages to help you keep the topic of conversation on your child rather than you:
- When I was younger, people didn't know as much about the harmful effects of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and other drugs. You're lucky to have all of this information. I wish I knew then as much as you do now.
- Marijuana is stronger than it was even 10 years ago. Sometimes it is mixed with other, even more dangerous drugs. There are also a lot of new drugs to worry about today.
- I stopped doing drugs (or smoking cigarettes, or drinking alcohol) because drugs are illegal, not just because they're "not good to do." I'm telling you this now because I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did. (You may want to share a personal story of a negative consequence you experienced because of illegal drug use.)
- The main issue here is you. I definitely do not want you to use alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or any drugs.
- Drugs don't solve problems. They won't make you popular. They won't help you grow up. And they surely won't help you build a strong body and mind. In fact, just the opposite can happen.
- Tell me some things that you do that make you feel good about yourself. Those things make me proud of you.
- If you used alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs, I would be very upset and hurt. (You may want to discuss with your child the consequences he faces if he decides to use alcohol, tobacco, or illegal drugs.)
You've read through this section and are ready to talk with your child, but you aren't sure where to start. Here are some ways to turn everyday situations into "teachable moments":
Substance use often is shown in television shows and even cartoons. Use these instances to start a conversation. And listen to the answers.
Passing a billboard:
Start a conversation the next time you pass a billboard advertising cigarettes or alcohol. What is the ad selling? Does your child believe it? Discuss what the ad may not be telling her. And listen to the answers.
Pictures of marijuana leaves often adorn T-shirts, hats, and other accessories. Products made from hemp also use marijuana logos.
Use these images to start a conversation. What does your child know about marijuana? And listen to the answers.
Knowing about relatives or family friends who use substances:
If a relative or family friend has a substance abuse problem, it affects all of you. Use the situation as an opportunity to talk with your child about your expectations and hopes for him. It is the ideal time to talk about family values, family history, and the benefits of staying drug free. And listen to the answers.
Making a change:
Transition periods are good times to talk with your child about substance use issues. Whether your child is entering a new school, starting a new school year, joining a new club, signing up for a new activity or program, moving to a new neighborhood, or experiencing another kind of change, talk about the challenges, hopes, and fears these changes may bring. Will the likelihood of her being exposed to drugs increase with these changes? Could drug use interfere with a new activity? And, again, listen to the answers.
"My parents drank and used drugs in front of us. They told us not to do it, but at the same time, they didn't really care. Like if they found a joint in my room, they'd smoke it and not even talk to me about it. I'd come home drunk (this is when I was still in high school) and nobody said anything. That's how they grew up. That's how we grew up. I love my mom and dad, but I don't want my kids to have the same childhood memories that I have. If my kids ever ask me if I did drugs, I think I'd have to be honest with them and say yes. But I'd also tell them that I don't do it anymore and that I regret ever doing it. I'm sober and drug free today. That drugs cause a lot of pain. I would tell them that their using drugs would hurt them and our family. Because I know what can happen, and the thought of them in those situations would really hurt."
Being a Positive Role Model Is Important Because... Some Kids Use Drugs To Feel Grown Up
We must keep in mind that our children grow up. Some of the ways children behave are part of a natural and healthy separation, which generally starts in the early teen years between ages 11 and 14. While we need to set limits, we also must allow room for growth. But that doesn't mean you should "check out." Know your children, their friends, where they hang out, and what they are doing.
If adults have set the example of responsible behavior, children are much more likely to make positive decisions and choices. Parents are a child's first and best teachers.