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Sharing drug-use stories with kids to empathize may backfire

Parents might be tempted when having the drug talk with their kids to share some personal experiences about their past pot smoking to show a little empathy.

A new study suggests that's a bad idea.

Researchers surveyed middle schoolers about their attitudes towards drug use, and found those whose parents were more likely to share their past tales and regrets of drug use were less likely to say they were anti-drugs.

"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, study author Dr. Jennifer A. Kam, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Illinois in Urbana, said in a written statement.

Researchers surveyed 253 sixth through eighth graders of Latino descent and 308 students of "European-American" descent. They were looking to confirm earlier studies that found teens reported they'd be less likely to use drugs if their parents told them about their past drug use.

However, that's not what the study found. When researchers surveyed the kids about their attitudes and whether their parents talked about the negative consequences and regret over their own use of alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes, they found kids whose parents had these conversations were less likely to report anti-substance abuse attitudes.

The researchers said that suggests even if there's a learning lesson from your experience, sharing these stories may have unintended consequences.

"Kids might be interpreting it as 'Mom and Dad used, and they're still here,'" Kim told NPR.

Then how should they talk to kids in these situations? According to the researchers, parents can talk to their kids about the negative consequences of using substances and how to avoid them. They can relay that they disapprove of substance use or there are family rules against substance use, or they can tell stories about others who have gotten in trouble from using substances -- just leave out the personal experiences. That could encourage anti-substance use perceptions and discourage substance use, the study said.

The study was published in a Feb. issue of Human Communication Research.

Michael Fendrich, a substance abuse epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who was not involved in the research, told LiveScience that talking to kids about drugs can be very tricky.

"Kids are pretty savvy, they see the picture of their mom and dad giving the peace sign on the VW bus," he said. "How do you communicate with your kids about that?"

He also said pretending to never have done drugs may seem deceitful to kids.

Tom Hedrick, senior program officer and founding member of the Partnership at, told NPR that conversations with kids about substance abuse should start as early as fifth grade, before kids get offered drugs, alcohol or cigarettes.

"Early intervention can head off serious addiction down the road," he said.

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