When Madonna spoke at a taping of the Jonathan Ross Show last week, the topic was supposed to be her unfortunate fall at the BRIT Awards, but the conversation turned to talking to kids about drugs. “I just ask my [18-year-old] daughter to make wise decisions and to do things in moderation and to try not to mix her alcohol,’” the pop icon said. ”I am not going to say ‘no, don’t do it’ because that is just absurd. And it is not fair. Yeah, I did it.”
As someone who works with teens every day, I commend Madonna for talking to her kids about drugs in the first place. When my colleagues and I ask parents how they approach the subject of drugs with their children, the answer is most often that they aren’t doing it at all. That’s a shame, because research has consistently shown that talking to kids about drugs in middle school or earlier helps prevent misuse later, and adolescents who use drugs or alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to develop a substance use problem later on. Since kids aren’t going to bring it up themselves, the onus is on the parents. So hats off to Madonna for that.
But as someone who knows well the devastating effects of addiction on adolescents, I also have to note that what’s missing in Madonna’s comments is any emphasis on ensuring that kids understand the dangers of drugs. I say this not to encourage parents to use scare tactics, but to stress the importance of having an honest conversation that looks at all facets of substance use. Tell children not just that you don’t want them to use drugs, but also why. Explain how addictive they can be, and what addiction looks like: that it can rob people of their families, their hobbies, and their health and lead them down a path of legal troubles and lost dreams.
A lot of parents are hesitant to bring up drugs because they fear their kids will ask, “Did you ever do drugs?” Answering that question is a personal choice, but if a parent did suffer from addiction in the past, there’s nothing wrong with being honest about the fact that it happened, what the consequences were—and why you want better for them. It’s particularly important to do this in families where addiction is prevalent. (The Material Girl herself has declared that she’s “not a big fan” of drugs, but she does have a family history of addiction.)
It’s also okay to address what’s alluring about drugs; again, the key is honesty, not scare tactics. The New York Times recently asked teens with substance use disorders what might have helped, and it’s clear that honesty is a recurring theme.
Equally important is addressing the factors that often lead to drug abuse. For example, if your teen seems concerned with fitting in with her peers, show her other ways to do that. Watch for warning signs of mental health issues like depression or anxiety. If you notice any of them, let your child know what you’re seeing and ask, “How can I help?” (If you’re concerned she might be a danger to herself, take her to see a mental health professional.) She may not want to talk about it right then, which is fine. Just make sure to let her know that you’re there to support her, and she’ll get the message that she can come to you with these types of concerns. It’s vital that your teen knows that, because if a substance use problem does develop, you want her to feel she can come to you right away.
Madonna’s comments echo a common sentiment I’ve been hearing a lot lately, one that assumes kids will eventually experiment with drugs, so the best we can do is help them do it “wisely.” While it’s true that most teens do eventually experiment, it’s not inevitable. There are things you can do to lessen the chances that they’ll try drugs, and steps you can take once they’ve started experimenting, too. But take one cue from Madonna and remember that one of the worst things you can do is nothing.
Phoenix House Academy in Dublin