The 10-minute “what if” dinner table conversation you need to have with your kids about drugs

Sisters
Talking to your kids about drugs also means listening to what they have to say.
Sisters
Talking to your kids about drugs also means listening to what they have to say, whether at the dinner table, out for a walk or in the car.

If your house is anything like ours, all the members of the family blow in from their own hectic lives for a brief 30-45 minute daily window of togetherness. Between work, school, basketball, volleyball, debating, gymnastics and more, dinner is often the only time all five of us are sat down together during the workweek.

We catch up on each other’s days, manage some occasional bickering, have some spirited debates about whatever’s happening in the world or issues that came up in class, and plan out the coming day.

Given the short span of time we have together with our kids on busy school days, my husband and I sometimes like to throw some curveballs into the conversation, and bring up topics that need to be addressed, like drugs, drinking or bullying.

Just to be clear – this is not “The Talk.” You know what I mean? As in, The Talk about sex. Or The Talk about Drugs. The one where parents talk and kids pretend to listen?

I’m not a believer in The Talk.

For one thing, kids almost universally tune those lectures out (didn’t you, way back when?). For another, there is no way to share the kinds of information, values and beliefs that are necessary in any one single talk.  Not going to happen.

But I also know parents feel intimidated and even embarrassed by these subjects, sometimes even more than their kids. In my risk prevention workshops, I explain ways to start talking to your kids (in age-appropriate ways) about these things from the time they are little until they are safely into adulthood (and sometimes still then, but that’s another story).

Point things out at the grocery store. Explain why you like a glass of wine with dinner. Ask them what that no smoking sign is all about.

One of my favourite approaches is the “What if” dinner table conversation. You can also do this in the car on the way to hockey practice, while you are walking the dog, or packing lunches.

This is an example of a scenario I used last year with groups of 5th and 6th graders in a risk prevention evening at the Lester B. Pearson School Board’s annual “Partners in Prevention” evening:

Zachary and a couple of friends go to Alex’s house after school. They hang out in the basement for a while, playing Xbox. Alex tells them that he found a stash of his older brother’s marijuana (a kind of illegal drug) in a drawer and suggests they try smoking it. He’d heard his brother say the high you get makes you feel amazing. Zachary isn’t sure about this, but he doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t want his friends to think he’s lame, but he also doesn’t want to do drugs. His dad isn’t picking him up for another hour so he feels kind of trapped.

Then I asked the kids to spend a couple of minutes brainstorming ideas for Zachary: what can could Zachary do? You can ask your kids to come up with some solutions.

There are some important guidelines to making this work:

  1. You don’t need to use this exact story, but pick an age-appropriate scenario with a kid who isn’t them. It’s a lot easier to discuss these things when it’s a hypothetical “other” kid and not someone they know personally.
  2. Explain the situation and ask them what they think this older kid could do.
  3. Listen carefully. Don’t interrupt. This is about them, not you. You don’t want to criticize their response, no matter how far-fetched.
  4. With each suggestion, gently push them to explain what might happen if they did take your child’s advice. Would it get them out of trouble? Would their parents be mad? Would their friends think they were weird?

Here are some of the suggestions we would suggest for Zachary:

  • Distract his friends – suggest something else, playing Xbox, playing basketball, watching a music video online.
  • Blame it on parents or older sibling. I always tell my daughters to use us as an excuse, as in “they will kill me!” or “my dad knows everything!” or even “my older brother made me swear I’d never do this.”
  • Learn how to say no effectively and convincingly. This isn’t always easy in the face of peer pressure, so kids should demonstrate what it might look or sound like.
  • Tell them a terrible story about someone who got sick or overdosed from doing drugs. It’s not hard to find stories about someone’s friend or cousin who got into terrible trouble or even died from experimentation.
  • Call a parent to get him out of there. My daughters know that if they ever feel uncomfortable, anxious, scared or worried, they can call us no questions asked (at that moment) to get them out of there. Even if it’s 2 a.m. or we are in the middle of an important meeting. We might talk about it the next day, but at that moment, they need to know they have an immediate, non-judgmental, safe option out of a potentially scary situation.

What other suggestions can your kids come up with? What might work in different scenarios? Get them to be creative, but help them be realistic. Coming up with their own answers makes them feel proud; it also makes it much more likely they will remember them if they ever need to think of something fast.

This kind of scenario works well because it’s typical of the way kids are introduced to drugs for the first time. It’s more likely to be a friend than a stranger in a dark alley. And that makes it a lot harder to say no.

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