Through a combination of good luck and good management, coupled with the influence of innate fear and trembling, I avoided any contact with illicit drugs during my youth. Despite my limited street smarts, however, I have realised that as a parent today, I need to have some pretty frank conversations with my kids about drugs. And sooner rather than later. Aware of my limited experience, I sat down with a good friend whose back story couldn’t be more different from my own. Trent Membrey was once deeply entrenched in meth addiction, drug deals and gang culture, his life spiralling out of control to the point of being held hostage at gunpoint – a pivotal moment that set wheels in motion for a complete life turnaround. He now pastors a church with his wife Jade, while raising two teenage daughters and two preschool-aged sons. If anyone knows how to talk to kids about drugs, it’s Trent.

Where do we start?

Drug use is obviously a big conversation, but long lectures with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation probably won’t have the desired effect. Like any significant and potentially life-changing topic, keeping the lines of communication open and relaxed is key. Chatting about ideas with your kids can feel more natural than sitting them down for an ‘education’ and will help cultivate a culture in which your kids feel comfortable sharing questions, ideas and concerns. This is where the car comes in handy – it’s a great vehicle, excuse the pun, for discussion with our kids, and not just because they’re trapped until you reach your destination! Awkward ‘where do I look while we talk about this tricky topic’ can be avoided because ideally you just look at the road. Generally speaking, car journeys with our kids are great places to share short and sweet observations, to check in with your kids and hear things from their perspective. They might not be overly chatty, but it’s worth a shot.

Here are a few ideas for ways you could broach the topic of drugs with your kids. They’re constructive conversation starters that get to where we need to go, says Trent – the heart of the issue.

Consider the why

“Get kids thinking about the why,” advises Trent. Whether it is you or your young person who picks up the topic of drug use, push back with a question – why do you think people take drugs?

“Sometimes kids will link drug use to poverty or ‘bad kids’… that’s not the case. It was the rich kids who had the access to drugs when I was at school. Reality is, most people who use drugs and alcohol do so to address pain and emptiness – these are heart issues.”

We need to get our kids thinking about what else could address that need in people’s hearts.

“The world is damaged and people feel very real needs. People look for things to help them cope with the trauma of life. We need to get our kids thinking about what else could address that need in people’s hearts,” says Trent.

“I took drugs because I was in pain. My dad left when I was 8. We were in an affluent area but we were the poorest family,” says Trent, recalling the pressure he experienced as a young person and the path he chose in an attempt to find an escape.

See the big picture

As adults, we’ve had more practise weighing up long-term consequences against short-term gains… supposedly. It’s really helpful, in any conversation about drug use, to lead our kids towards considering the long-term effects. The short-term effects are problematic, for sure, but Trent encourages parents to introduce the concept of the snowball effect. Addiction is a harsh, but honest, reality.

“I started taking drugs when I was 13. It’s never too early to start talking about it. And long-term consequence discussion is so important,” says Trent, who recalls a well-known adage among addicts: ‘One is too many and a thousand is never enough’.

“I was an addict by the time I was 15 or 16, but I didn’t think I was an addict because I didn’t have a needle in my arm. Likewise, someone might not think themselves an alcoholic because they don’t drink from a bottle in a paper bag.”

But all my friends are doing it?

Peer pressure is real. Our kids, especially our teenagers, are influenced by what they see their friends doing. Again, Trent stresses the importance of helping our kids look beyond what’s immediately in front of them. “This all comes back to identity,” says Trent. “Again, the reason why. There are young people trying to get their friends hooked on drugs because they are trying to justify their own using. People are always trying to take people with them. What the kid being invited to try drugs might not know is that the person offering the drugs has pain inside of them.”

“The problem is not the problem – we can teach our kids to think more about the deeper issues,” encourages Trent.

Lots of honest and frank conversation about what illicit drugs are also helps.

“Like prescription drugs, they’re there to numb something, to give relief. Illicit drugs are the same – they’re trying to fill a hole, meet a need, heal a wound or sickness,” says Trent, readdressing the point that as parents, we can support our kids with a) positive messaging about their identity that then reinforces their sense of self-worth and b) the skills to question what else might be going on in any peer-pressure situation.

Ask questions

Try bringing up something that is already happening in New Zealand or in the world, asking ‘Have you heard about XYY’. As with any topic, it’s a great starting place is to ask your child what they already know. Ask what experiences they’ve heard their friends or others at school talking about. They may not be that forthcoming, especially on that last question, but it will help them know you’re willing and available to talk, whenever they want/need to.

“The more we talk the better,” says Trent. “I can obviously speak from experience. If it hasn’t been your experience, find someone or someway to help your kids see the reality of drug use.”

“Drugs lead to three things: jail, institutions or death.” And if that sounds exaggerated, it’s a mantra Trent recalls from Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and they should know.

Don’t just say ‘don’t’

As parents, it’s confronting to think about the dangerous situations and crucial decisions our kids face. It’s tempting to just tell our kids ‘Don’t do it’. Truth is, they need more from us. They need to be aware of long-term effects and problems. They need to be equipped to look at issues from all angles. They need to know the ‘why’ before they can confidently answer the ‘why not?’

Trent is convinced of the need to boldly face reality.

“Drugs lead to three things: jail, institutions or death.” And if that sounds exaggerated, it’s a mantra Trent recalls from Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and they should know.

And if that’s not sobering enough, Trent has some final words of ‘encouragement’: “If you know your kids are in an environment or situation where they are at risk – be prepared to take them to the scene where they can see the effects. Take your kids to an NA meeting!”

Trent Membrey shares these insights from personal experience, but more importantly – from a perspective of hope. There is always hope! Which is another really important conversation to have with our kids.

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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