When two of our children, Samuel and Rebecca, were young teenagers, I treated them to probably the most memorable evening we’ve ever spent together. We attended an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting.
I had been invited by a friend to go with him to an AA meeting in Little Rock. I decided to take two of our teens along to give them a glimpse of real people who have admitted their addiction to alcohol and other drugs.
We drove to a rugged section of Little Rock on that Tuesday evening and sat down in a pew. Men and women of all ages, several races, and from every economic stratum poured into that meeting hall—people from the street, from downtown businesses, from the suburbs. Some wore tattered clothes; some wore expensive three-piece suits.
That evening made a big impact on Rebecca and Samuel. They watched people stand to give testimonies, often in tears, of how alcohol had destroyed their lives and how much they needed God to release them from the bondage of their addiction.
As we drove home I told my children that many of the men at the meeting were fathers who had seen their marriages and families ripped apart by alcohol. I knew an indelible image had been etched in the minds of my daughter and son.
What other specific actions should you consider to help your child withstand the temptations of substance abuse in junior high, high school, and beyond?
A starting point would be your model, your stand, your character—all your strongest weapons in helping your child stand strong.
A second point is to build a relationship with your child so that he can know beyond a shadow of a doubt, “I am loved, I am accepted, I am okay, I do not have to depend on my peers for identity and security.” Basically, you want to encourage fluid communication and guard against any kind of isolation.
A third point is to be on the offensive. Share your convictions on these topics. Research with teens has shown that it is very helpful for parents to make their values explicit.1 Your child listens to you more than you may think.
One caution: Some parents allow a child to do some limited drinking at home. The rationale is that if the child is going to drink, they want to see how he handles the beverage in a manageable, safe environment. We need to ask if this really is the best approach when 71.4 million people are directly affected by alcohol abuse or addiction.2 Knowing that one in 10 people has a predisposition toward alcoholism, why would you want to put a drug in his hands and encourage him in a direction that could destroy his life?
You may want to offer an incentive to help motivate your child to stay away from these harmful substances. We have made a promise to all of our children when they turn 13: if they complete their high school years without drinking, doing drugs, smoking, or having sex, we will buy them a car. We’ve not promised them what kind of a car it might be, making clear that it might, in the words of our friend Bob Horner, be a Rolls Canardly: rolls down the hill, but can hardly make it back up! This reward has given our children added desire to avoid these traps.
Here are two convictions we would recommend be shaped in every child concerning substance use and abuse issues:
Child’s Conviction 1: I will honor and protect my own body because it is the temple of the Holy Spirit.
These familiar words from the apostle Paul apply: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
That is what we are training our youth to do: walk in the power of the Holy Spirit and not be controlled by peer pressure, by alcohol, or by choices that will take them in the wrong direction.
Child’s Conviction 2: I will decide in advance what I will do when presented with the opportunity to smoke, drink alcohol, or use other drugs.
In preparing your child for the substance abuse trap, brief him on what he will undoubtedly face. Your child will have an opportunity to smoke, drink, and do drugs in junior high or sooner. Some children are coming to school drunk; others are bringing a bottle with them and drinking during the day. They may be your child’s classmates. Sometimes a bottle is passed around, and our children must deal with the temptation.
One thing we have done is role-play with our children what they would do if an alcoholic beverage is put in front of them or someone offers them drugs. Or what would they do if asked to get in a car when everyone else—including the driver—had been drinking?
The tests on these issues come in waves for years.
Some time back I took our son Benjamin to college, and as I was helping him unload his clothing and move his gear into his room, we took a rest on the tailgate of a pickup truck and watched other students coming in. Their arms were loaded with cases of beer and sacks of liquor. It was just 3:00 p.m. and some of them were already completed wasted.
Granted, it was a weekend and classes had not started. But suddenly I was overtaken by fear. I wondered if all of our efforts as parents, all of the hours of discipline, building character, and helping Benjamin face issues in his life had adequately prepared my son. Would he pass the test?
That’s the challenge we all face. We have to project ourselves into the future and see ourselves sitting on the back of that pickup with a son or daughter. How will they handle that situation when the time comes? Will they be able to stand firm?
As I sat with Benjamin on that tailgate, I turned to him and looked him in the eye. “Son,” I said, “I’ve got to tell you that watching all these young men get wasted on booze really causes me to question the wisdom of sending you into the midst of all this.”
There was only a brief silence and he returned my gaze. “Dad, this is my mission field,” he replied. “It’s going to be tough, but if it was easy these guys wouldn’t need Jesus Christ. This is what you and Mom have trained me for. God has led me and He will protect me.”
There I sat, rebuked by my 18-year-old son. He was a young man of faith. Later, when he was initiated into his fraternity, he said to me, “Dad, I see your fear, and I know you have a concern. I want you to know that God has sent me to this fraternity. I feel like He has led me to reach this fraternity for Jesus Christ. And I am going to be okay. You pray for me, but I am going to be okay.”
Later he told me that during his fraternity initiation, surrounded by the entire fraternity of nearly 100 guys, they put a bottle of champagne in his hand. The idea was that each pledge was to chug the whole bottle.
At that point there was no dad or mom standing beside him.
Benjamin shook up the bottle and sprayed the whole fraternity, totally emptying it on the group! Five other guys, out of a group of about 40 pledges, did the same thing.
That took courage. But that internal gumption was not developed during that moment when our son was surrounded. It was built in a series of small steps over a period of many years.
Two years later our second son, Samuel, demonstrated similar courage by replicating his brother’s champagne shower!
On their own, our children must be prepared to make the choice to be different—not to be pious or religious, but to be a young person who operates on firmly held personal convictions.
1 “Teenagers close to parents not as likely to drink, smoke,” Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph, 10 Sept. 1997, p. 1.
2 APA Online, “Substance Abuse,” p.2, retrieved electronically at www.psych.org/public.
Adapted from Parenting Today’s Adolescent: Helping Your Child Avoid the Traps of the Preteen and Teen Years. Copyright 1998 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.