Beyond “Just Say No”

Answering Children's Most Difficult Questions

By Emily Gallup, MFT

How old were you when you lost your virginity?

Did you ever drink alcohol when you were a teenager?

Have you ever done drugs?

Many parents face a dilemma about how honest they should be when their children ask the most difficult personal questions.  On one hand, most parents want their children to refrain from drug and alcohol use, and to wait until marriage or another steady relationship to have sex.  A dilemma arises when we, as parents, did not attain these ideals ourselves in our youth.  We become torn between a desire to afford our children with truthfulness, and a fear that our honesty may undermine our credibility and authority.  How can we ask our kids not to do things we ourselves have done?

Throughout elementary school, my peers and I were taught to Just Say No.  Our teachers and parents gave this simple dictate, and, for a while, we all believed that drugs and the people who did drugs were bad.  As we entered junior high school, though, I sensed a growing gap between the information the adults gave us, and the whispered information we shared with each other.  The “Just Say No” message lacked the ability to explain complexities, like the fact that my parents, who told me that I should never use alcohol or drugs, occasionally had drinks with their friends.  Our parents and teachers were afraid of inadvertently condoning drug use, so they told us to “Just Say No.”  Fear led adults to dispense inaccurate, overly simplistic information.  As children, we were masterful at detecting inconsistencies.  We sensed hypocrisy.  We began to doubt the advice from the adults in our lives.

When I started smoking casually in college, I was surprised to learn that I didn’t become addicted.  I was taught throughout elementary school that tobacco was highly addictive, and that if I started smoking, I wouldn’t be able to stop.  For the first year I smoked, I never experienced a craving for a cigarette.  I mostly just liked to smoke an occasional cigarette outside my dorm room to shake off my wholesome image.  Because I didn’t immediately turn into the two-pack a day addict I had been warned about, I became mistrustful of all the anti-drug information I’d been taught at school.  I thought the risk of addiction had been exaggerated, and that I wouldn’t get hooked.  I was surprised one night after dinner when I found myself wanting an indefinable something.  I rattled off a mental list…hungry? . . . tired? . . . thirsty? . . . before I realized my body was craving a cigarette. I wish that I had had more accurate information about how addiction can sneak up on you slowly.  I’d like to think that I might have made better choices with regards to cigarettes, and that I wouldn’t have spent thousands of dollars on cigarettes and nicotine patches before I was finally able to quit.

As a parent, your acknowledgement of the complexities of a given topic can make you a more credible source.  It can also make you seem less judgmental.  If your child sees you as credible and nonjudgmental, s/he is more likely to continue turning to you for advice.  An example of how to acknowledge the complexity of drug and alcohol use would be to explain that some drugs are legal, and some are not.  Some drugs are simply much more physically addictive than others.  While all drugs have addictive potential, methamphetamines, cocaine, and tobacco are much more addictive than alcohol.  Additionally, certain drugs are more harmful for certain people than they are for others.  If there is a history of alcoholism in your family, your child has a higher risk of developing his or her own problems with alcohol.  To use a different example, it may be helpful to acknowledge to your child that not everyone makes the choice to wait until marriage to have sex.  Based on a study of over 15,000 teenagers conducted by the CDC, over 60% of high school seniors had engaged in sexual intercourse (for more information, see www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss5302.pdf).  While it is appropriate to share your personal beliefs about delaying sexual activity, you may want to consider talking to your child about how to have safe sex if s/he chooses to become sexually active.

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Talking openly to your children about controversial subjects makes it more likely that they will continue to turn to you in the future.  Some of the most difficult topics, like sex and drugs, are some of the most important, life-altering topics of all.  When children and adolescents feel they can’t talk to you, they will turn to each other.  As veterans of the junior high school arena, we know how misguided much of that advice will be.  As awkward as the conversation may feel, most parents would still rather have their children turn to them.  If you feel uncomfortable answering a question, it is always okay to say, “I’m glad you felt like you could talk to me about this.  It’s a hard question, though, and I need a little time to think about my answer.”  There is no harm in taking a few hours or a few days to reflect, to talk to other parents, and to decide what you want to say before you say it.

When faced with a difficult question, ask yourself if self-disclosure will be helpful.  It often is.  If your child asks a tough question, like the age of your first sexual encounter, ask yourself if knowing the answer, and the pros and cons of your decision, might be helpful in their own decision-making process.  If you lost your virginity at age 15, for example, and your boyfriend dumped you the next week, it may be helpful for your daughter to know this piece of information.  Children have the ability to learn vicariously: in other words, they can learn from other people’s mistakes.  Talking to your child about the pros and cons of decisions you’ve made can help them make good decisions for themselves.  For example, using drugs has positive and negative effects for most people.  An example might be drinking alcohol before the age of 21.  An honest explanation of the positives could be that alcohol made you feel more relaxed or more silly.  Most of the time, though, the positives are followed by negatives, such as getting caught by your parents and getting grounded, getting hung-over, or getting in uncomfortable social or sexual situations.

While I am advocating honesty, I am not recommending unrestricted self-disclosure.  Before answering a difficult question, it is important to consider the age of your child.  A good rule of thumb with younger children is to provide only as much information as is solicited.  For example, the night our five-year old asked where babies come from, my husband and I braced ourselves for an uncomfortable and lengthy discussion.  Instead, simply telling her, “Babies grow inside mommies,” ended the topic.  Her next question was about whether or not we believed in polka-dotted dinosaurs.  As she gets older, I know that the information she’ll need will be more complex.  By the time she is a pre-teen, I plan to follow up her questions to me by asking if she has anything else she wants to ask.  I hope that she will trust me enough to make me squirm.

Parents don’t need to have had perfect pasts to be credible sources. There is no need to lie about our own history or to give overly simplistic answers to our children.  Talking about our own struggles and life lessons can make the road ahead easier for our children to navigate.  “Just Saying No” is less important than Just Being Real.

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