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Five Ways to Talk to Your Teen or Tween with Sensory Issues About Drugs

Parents of teens and preteens are understandably concerned with the rolling back of laws on marijuana, and the easy availability of e-cigarettes in multiple “kid friendly” flavors. Sensory kids who seek out new sensations and who may have poor self-esteem due to knowing they are “different,” or due to having been bullied or teased for being “different,” may look to drugs (including alcohol) to self-medicate their emotional pain, fit in with peers, or experience a new sensation of “getting high.” As a parent of a tween or teen with sensory processing issues, you may well wonder what to teach your son or daughter about drugs.

And of course, it’s even harder to talk to your tweens and teens when there’s drug use or abuse in your own family. Then too, pharmaceutical drugs can be lifesavers for kids, teens, and adults, but they can also have serious side effects or prevent people from addressing underlying issues such as anxious behavior patterns or poor eating habits that cause or exacerbate conditions. We now know that prescription painkillers are the new gateway drug to highly dangerous street drugs. Goodness, where do we even BEGIN these crucial conversations with our sensory tweens and teens? Here are five ways I recommend for getting that conversation going.

1. Remember, your sensory tween or teen may resist your bringing up the subject and that’s okay. Remember that your teenager may look different and sound different than he or she did just a couple of years ago, but don’t be fooled. At a heart and soul level, your son or daughter is the same person who laughed with you at that favorite family movie, or splashed in the pool with you when you were having a family day in the sun, or told you, “I love you” as you kissed him or her good-night. The loving bond you created with your child is still there underneath the protests and grumbling and distancing (“Mom, I can walk from here–you don’t have to drive me to the door.”) Don’t doubt that for a minute. When you talk to your child about drugs and alcohol, trust in that loving bond you created and nurtured over the years. Take a cue from Dr. John Gray (Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus) who urges women to express their needs to their husbands and boyfriends clearly and without apology and simply treat any grumbling as the knocks and pings and rattles of an old car engine as it starts up and shifts into gear–ignore it! You have to be willing to tolerate a little teen grumbling when you bring up the issue of drugs.

2. Use teachable moments, as always. It just feels more natural to bring up drugs and alcohol when you hear a news story or see drugs or alcohol portrayed in a movie or TV show, or you and your tween or teen see someone using drugs or alcohol. Talk about your own drinking or drug use. If you’re modeling healthy use of drugs or alcohol, put words to your behaviors. You might say, “I don’t really want a glass of wine with dinner tonight. I’m going to take a bike ride to relax after we eat.” You might say, “Ugh, I’m uncomfortable, but I want to wait a little longer before I take that painkiller the doctor prescribed, because they’re really addictive.”

3. Rather than launch into a lecture, simply make an observation, state an opinion and ask a question. When you see an e-cigarette display in a store, or see an ad for e-cigarettes, say to your teen or tween, “Wow, those e-cigarettes are everywhere. I’m not convinced they’re perfectly safe. What do you think? What have you heard?” When you see a news story on marijuana legalization, say, “I wonder if marijuana will be legalized in this state. And if it is, what will happen? I worry. Will people be more likely to use it? What do you think?” Teens want to express their opinions and explore ideas. Give them a chance to work through their thoughts with you and they’ll have an easier time hearing your opinion and respecting it.

4. Recognize that people use drugs and alcohol, including prescription drugs, to meet needs, so you have to talk to your child about alternatives to drugs and alcohol. Please listen to me carefully here as I’m not equating antidepressants used by a person who suffers from serious depression, or an adult drinking wine with dinner, with using narcotics for recreational purposes or teens using alcohol or marijuana! The fact is we all use mood enhancing substances OR pain-reducing substances at times. Human cultures have always used substances to alter mood and mindset. However, there must be rules about what substances get used, by whom, under what circumstances. There is a road to addiction and abuse and your tween or teen is less likely to go down it if you talk with your son or daughter honestly about why people start to abuse substances. What need are they trying to meet? What void are they trying to fill? Could it be an emotional or spiritual void? Clinical psychologist Dr. Shefali Tsabary wrote an excellent article on children, marijuana, and “filling a void” that can’t be filled by drugs, which you may want to check out. Is there a spiritual or emotional void your tween or teen is looking to fulfill? Can you guide him or her toward a healthier way of filling that void? Share with your teen what makes you feel happy, fulfilled, and connected to a sense of purpose. Share what makes you feel good about yourself.

5. Create downtime in your family life so conversations can naturally arise. We are so overstimulated and overscheduled that the most important conversations often remain on a To Do list, and are only addressed anxiously in moments when everyone’s feeling a pull to do something other than sit for a spell and talk. Then, our teens tend to shut down because the conversation feels forced. We all need more downtime. Sit on the porch, take a long car ride, or walk by a lake or river or in a natural area with your tween or teen. Boredom can lead to talking about the big stuff. You might find yourself talking about drugs or alcohol, or what makes you feel good, or valued in the family or community as you are driving, or you’re walking the dog. Your tween or teen is more likely to mention concerns about what peers are doing, or what decisions he or she is facing, at these quiet times, so be sure you fit them into your family life.

Think back on the last time you had a good, rich, deep conversation with your teen or tween. What sparked the conversation? What kept it going, so that it was a conversation that made you feel closer instead of further apart? What can you learn from the good conversations the two of you have had together?

You can learn more about helping your teenager who has sensory processing disorder to become “sensory smart” and meet his or her sensory needs in a safe, healthy, socially appropriate way by reading the award-winning Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues by Lindsey Biel OTR/L and Nancy Peske.

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