By Dr. Noriko Martinez
There are many difficult topics that we, as parents, have to teach our children. And we can get ourselves pretty stressed out over how to do it: The Sex Talk. The Drugs Talk. The “What happens when we die?” Talk. Conventional wisdom these days is something like “Have the talk early and often.” And this is true: these subjects should not be mysterious or forbidden, only to be spoken about at carefully chosen times. These subjects should be part of everyday life.
But what does that actually look like?
To answer that question, here’s a comparison: Does your child know what a car is for? Does your child know to buckle up for every car ride? Does your child know that cars drive in the street and that drivers can’t always see pedestrians? I would guess your child knows all of these things. Did you have the Cars Talk in order to teach your children those things? Probably not.
Your child probably learned some of these things by watching you interact with a car; you probably reminded your child of some of these things, over and over: Don’t chase your ball into the street! Check for cars first! Your child has learned about cars by seeing them in videos and hearing about them in stories. Your child knows a lot, and none of it came from a Talk. Likewise, when you interact with any of the Difficult Things, you can show your children what they need to know.
If you think about it, all of the difficult topics come up every day already. You don’t have to give deep, involved wisdom about them every time they arise. You simply need to interact with them in front of your children, and your children will learn what they are. And then you leave time and space for questions.
Here’s what that might look like: You are standing outside with your child. Someone steps out from a nearby store and starts smoking next to you. You make eye contact with your child, wrinkle your nose a little, and scoot a little farther away. You look to see if your child is curious, in case there are any questions you can answer. You are modeling with your behavior that you are not a fan of smoking.
You pour yourself a glass of wine at the end of the day as you’re cooking dinner. At the dinner table, your spouse asks if you’d like another, and you say, “I’d like to, but one’s enough for me tonight. If I drink too much I’ll have a headache tomorrow.” You are speaking your choices out loud and modeling that you can think critically about how to engage with drinking
The radio mentions the opioid epidemic in the car. You turn it off, and say, “Geez, it’s hard to hear about people suffering. It’s sad when people have holes they are trying to fill with drugs.” You are silent for a few minutes, in case your child is thinking and will have a question. You are showing an orientation toward drugs that is compassionate and not overly alarmist, while still recognizing that there can be unhealthy drug use.
The Trouble With Avoidance
The thing many parents do is to avoid speaking of difficult topics. This will not go well, for these reasons.
1) Children will fill in what they think based on the information they get; they tend to go on very little information and come up with all kinds of strange ideas.
2) The information out there is usually not great. For example, the popular story about drugs from media is basically that they’re awesome (Heroin is like the best feeling ever, people will choose it over food and starve! Alcohol makes you funny and brave!) and dangerous (Drugs will kill you! Drug users are killers!), and once you use you will lose control (Drugs are addictive and addictions are lifelong diseases!). This makes drugs intriguing but also makes kids think there is no point in trying to control themselves if they ever do use.
This is the story out there, and if you do not give your kids a different story, then that story will be the only one they know.
3) By not talking about something they see, you are turning it into a Thing That Shall Not Be Named. You have taught them that it is not something to be talked about, which makes it difficult for your child to ever come to you with questions or stories. You are making it scarier, or more mysterious, or at the very least not giving them the words they need to talk about it. It’s definitely easier to do when you have the words you need to talk about it.
For drugs and addiction, I highly recommend Zach Rhoads and Stanton’s book, Outgrowing Addiction.
Noriko Martinez is a licensed clinician with offices in Chicago and Northbrook Illinois. She teaches human development, cognitive theory, research, and diversity at the University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago. She was the Chair of the Board of Directors and the Head of Clinical Services at the Gifted Learning Center North Shore and a social worker at Evanston Township High School.
Learn more at her website