Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
I have just confirmed that my daughter is using drugs and I am beside myself with worry. I have always been very frank when I talked to her about drug use and I fear that because I made her feel safe to talk to me about it, I may have also made her feel like I condone the use of drugs. She confides in me because she feels like she can tell me anything and I don’t want to lose this relationship.
How can I express concern for my daughter’s behavior and drug use without damaging our relationship and losing her trust?
Good for you!
Good for you for thinking about both sides of the parenting problem you have to solve. You’re not just worried about expressing disapproval of a self-destructive choice. You’re also worried about ensuring your daughter feels safe maintaining dialogue with you. And in my estimation, doing these two things is the heart of parenting.
Now to answer your question, let me make a huge assumption. The fact that you’re worried you sent a message of tacit approval of drug abuse makes me suspect you probably have. I assume this worry is fed as you review past interactions with her and find it hard to recall a consistent pattern of clear expressions of disapproval. With that said, don’t give yourself an “F” on being a positive influence, as your own personal decision to not abuse drugs is an important force for good. However, clear influence has to go beyond silent disapproval.
I know you asked how to “talk,” but I’m going to broaden the issue to the larger topic of influence. Here’s the picture we, as parents and guardians of our children, need to have: there are six powerful sources of influence that shape our children’s (and our own) choices. And most of them line up in support of experimentation with harmful substances. For example:
Personal Motivation: Kids are told it feels good. Experimentation is pitched in morally appealing packaging—as a way to experience life, demonstrate independence, be your own person, learn about new options, etc.
Personal Ability: Information about options, dosages, delivery methods, etc. is widely available.
Social Motivation and Ability: Powerful peer influences can encourage participation and shame those who don’t engage. Kids mentor each other in new ways to get high, ways to get money to get high, and ways to avoid detection. The messages kids get from peers through Facebook, YouTube, movies, television, and other media tend to be pro- not anti-drug abuse.
Structural Motivation: Costs for drugs have declined over the years in a perverse version of Moore’s law, the drug high gets stronger as the prices get lower.
Structural Ability: At school, kids are probably never more than five minutes away from access to illicit drugs or alcohol.
I’ve only scratched the surface in describing how the various methods of influence shape the world your daughter inhabits far more than they did when you and I were walking school halls. I share all of this as a backdrop to a resounding answer to your question. Kids today need much more than a passively disapproving parent in order to avoid succumbing to an overwhelmingly potent influence strategy to engage in harmful behavior—they need parents who are aware of how all six sources of influence are affecting their children, and who take action to offer their children an environment that supports positive choices.
With that said, a conversation is a good place to begin. It could very well begin with, “Sweetheart, I worry that I’ve been derelict in a very important responsibility. I want to begin remedying that now. . .”
You then need to confront her with the information you have about her drug use. Do so factually. Do not use judgmental language, lay out the case that convinces you there’s a problem. For example, a horrified parent might be tempted to say, “Don’t you dare lie to me, I know you’ve been using. You’ve already been sneaking out with friends and lying to me about what you’re doing.”
The “facts first” version would sound more like, “When you asked me to bring your cell phone to you at school, a text came through. It was from Denise. She said, ‘Does your Mom have any more oxy? I need some.'” Resist the temptation to embellish or exaggerate the information you have. Simply lay out the facts then share your conclusion: “Sweetheart, it’s clear to me you have used drugs.”
At this point, you need to reassure her she is safe discussing this with you. After you lay out such embarrassing and sensitive facts, most teens will worry that your motive is to judge or punish them. Let her know that’s not the case. For example, you could tell her, “I am not bringing this up because I am angry at you or to try to embarrass you. I love you, and I want to help you make choices that will make you happy. Can you tell me what’s going on?”
Your goal is dialogue. Only through a healthy dialogue can you influence her heart and mind rather than just her behavior. But similarly, you won’t influence her heart and mind if at some point in the dialogue you don’t make a strong and clear statement of disapproval—not of her personally, but of this choice.
A few years ago, we worked with the White House on the campaign, Parents. The Anti Drug. We conducted research and created a list of Crucial Conversations tips for speaking up to your kids about drug abuse. These tips can help you in this very crucial conversation with your daughter. I encourage you to check them out.
I am thrilled to know that you have carefully established trust with your daughter that enables her to talk to you. Just make sure you haven’t done so in a way that diminishes your ability to have her listen to you. That would not be dialogue, but monologue. Find a way to get your voice into the dialogue while still preserving the wonderful safety you’ve so effectively created.