Parents: Don’t Tell Your Children of Past Drug Use, Study Reveals

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Parents: Don’t Tell Your Children of Past Drug Use, Study Reveals

Dr. Alan Weiner MD

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Alan Weiner, MD

April 8, 2019

Many parents have participated in their share of drinking during college, maybe smoked marijuana while growing up, possibly even sampled something harder. So, when it comes time to have that sit down heart-to-heart conversation with your kids about the dangers of drinking, smoking, or illegal drugs, should you share some or all of your past not-so-model behaviors?

Well, according to a study from a team of researchers out of the University of Urbana-Champaign, the answer is no.

“Parents may want to reconsider whether they should talk to their kids about times when they used substances in the past and not volunteer such information”

-said Jennifer Kam, study co-author and assistant professor of communication at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a news journal release.

While it’s logical to think that parents sharing stories of their past mistakes with drug and alcohol use might save their children from making the same type of mistake, that’s not what the study found.

Rather surprisingly, the researchers learned that children were less likely to perceive drugs as being bad for them if their parents had opened up and shared stories of previous drug and alcohol usage with them.

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On the other hand

On the other hand, students whose parents only communicated an “anti-drug” message without sharing their own experiences with drugs and alcohol with them, were less likely to dabble in drugs.

To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers questioned 561 students in middle school concerning the discussions they had with their parents associated with their drinking, smoking, and marijuana use. Questions about their feelings toward drugs, if they used drugs, and what parental messages they received about drugs were all included in the survey to the youth sample.

Of the 561 school students, 253 were Hispanic and 308 were Caucasian — all from the sixth to eighth grades. The researchers chose this student composition because of the high levels of pot and liquor use in the eighth grade.

The study also revealed that children who indicated that their parents shared negative outcomes associated with their past substance use were not as inclined to have perceptions of anti-substance use.

The important takeaway here is that even parents sharing “lessons learned” when it comes to drug and alcohol use may cause consequences for youth, albeit unintended. In essence, parents who admit and point out their own drug use may actually be sabotaging the dangers they are trying to portray of substance use.

However, study author Kam caveats the study with:

“We are not recommending that parents lie to their early adolescent children about their own past drug use. Instead, we are suggesting that parents should focus on talking to their kids about the negative consequences of drug use, how to avoid offers, family rules against use, that they disapprove of use, and others who have gotten in trouble from using.”

Kam adds that this is the first study of its kind to examine the relationship between youth subsequent drug perceptions and behavior and parent’s own telling of past substance abuse use.

Tom Hedrick, founding member and senior program officer of the Partnership at says conversations about cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol should occur as early as the fifth grade, which is before a child may be approached with these substances. He also points out that if your child asks you about your past experience about smoking or using drugs and alcohol, parents need to “remember that it’s not about them.”

More information about the Univeristy of Urbana-Champaign study findings can be found in the Human Communication Research journal.

If you’re a concerned parent of an adolescent child and want more information, contact

One Response to “Parents: Don’t Tell Your Children of Past Drug Use, Study Reveals”

Thank you so much for this information! I just had a conversation with a friend about this subject and we didn’t agree on the answer. I don’t think this will change my friends decision (it’s a bit late) but it may help other parents who feel they’re doing their kids a service by spilling the beans. My stance with my now 17 year-old son was to tell him that drugs and alcohol were off limits; both are illegal. I told him that he has alcoholism on both sides of the family which sets him up for failure more than some. I told him that addiction is a fine line and you never know when you cross it until you do. His dad (ex-husband) had a completely different take and my son see the hypocrisy in his stance. My son has brought up issues of my past (his dad tells him stories) and I’ve told him that what I did has no bearing on what I expect of him. Thanks for the information that supports me in my stance.

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