‘Just Say No’ Doesn’t Work

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Jessica Lahey, writer, teacher, and public speaker, opens up about her lifelong relationship with alcohol: growing up with an alcoholic parent, becoming an alcohol peer counselor in college, and realizing that she, too, had become an alcoholic in her 40s. “It’s really hard to admit that something you tried to stay away from your whole entire life has snuck up on you through some deep, dark back door that you didn’t even know was there.” Jessica gives practical advice for parents and teachers talking to kids about substance abuse, and reveals why she’s decided to change her messaging around alcohol with her second child.


You can follow Jessica Lahey on Twitter @jesslahey and on Instagram @teacherlahey.


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Jessica Lahey

Jessica Lahey  00:04

Hi, I’m Jess Lahey and you’re listening to GOOD KIDS. I am a writer. I am a teacher and I am a speaker. And I’m going to talk about preventing substance abuse in kids.

Jessica Lahey 

You know, if someone was to come up to me and say what kind of childhood did you have, I would say it was idyllic. I lived in a beautiful little town with town forest behind our house, and I had a horse, and I could run around and half the time my parents had no idea where I was. And it was just it was, really, really lovely. So within this rather idyllic life that I had growing up, there was always an understanding that grandpa wasn’t just sleeping, he was actually drunk or passed out. And, you know, I don’t think when kids are growing up with substance abuse in their home, there’s not like this one big moment where all of a sudden, the thunderclap happens, and you’re like, oh, my parent is drunk, not napping, or having a headache or whatever.

Jessica Lahey

And, you know, I don’t talk very specifically about my parents journey with substance abuse, mainly because that’s their story to tell and not mine. But suffice it to say, I grew up with a parent who was an alcoholic and I’m so grateful is in recovery now. But that was very much a part of what defined my childhood. And my response to that was to try to be the perfect kid. I mean, you know, straight A’s always could do everything right the first time. And even if I couldn’t, I hit it, because I wanted to be perfect so that everyone would just be happy. So I very much stayed away from substances, alcohol in particular, I was scared to death of it. I stayed away from it. I was the designated driver.

Jessica Lahey  02:11

I pretended to be drunk a couple times at parties, but I was, you know, I held all the hair back as friends barfed, and drove them home. And then when I went into college, I became a drug and alcohol peer counselor, I like I, I knew the biochemistry of it, and I would have to go and, you know, sit in a frat room, common room on a Sunday morning and talk to the frat kids who had gotten in trouble for having a kegger the night before, and I was Uber dork in college. And then I didn’t start to have a problem until with alcohol until I was in my 40s, actually, and it really snuck up on me. And it’s also really hard to admit that something you tried to stay away from your whole entire life has snuck up on you through some deep, dark back door that you didn’t even know was there.

Jessica Lahey 

I think the first time I realized I might have a problem, I was living in this tiny, tiny little apartment right near a Trader Joe’s. And it was just so easy to go get some two buck chuck and, you know, have a bottle of wine. And then suddenly, you know, the bottle of wine with dinner became the well, I’ll have one to have while I’m making dinner. And then suddenly, that made me feel a little bit more comfortable. And I’d like to drink at the same time. That didn’t work for me. You know, drinking was slipping away from me, my control of the drinking was slipping away from me. Do you think it’s bad if I’m having a drink at the end of every day, but I really, really look forward to it.

Jessica Lahey 

Sometimes there are questions that are posed, they don’t really want an answer. They just need to be put out there. And that’s when I started to realize I was having a problem. But that was 10 years before I really got to the point where I realized I had to stop. The night of my very last drink was my mom’s birthday. And we went to go visit my parents and a friend of mine who had been my best friend since I was three flew in and I hadn’t seen her in a long time. And that night at dinner, she refused a glass of champagne. She said all of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my life were related to alcohol and I’ve just decided it’s not worth it.

Jessica Lahey  04:38

And then we had a really lovely evening and then somewhere later that night I disappeared. Mentally I blacked out and apparently it was pretty bad and my husband took me up to bed and my father came up first thing in the morning my father who had had an alcoholic father who knew what that looked like he said I know what an alcoholic looks like, and you are an alcoholic. And I said, I know. And I started to cry. And I said, I’m going to go to a meeting tonight. And of course, I’d already scoped out all the meetings, because that’s what you do when you’re pretty sure you have a problem. And I’ve been lying and saying that I’ve been going to them anyway. And my dad left the room, I ran into the bathroom, and I threw up. And that night I went to my first meeting.

Jessica Lahey 

Genetics are not destiny, they are about 50% to 60% of the picture, a lot of people are simplified all the way down to genetics, or 50% to 60% of the picture. And then trauma is the other part of that, that really can make everything click into motion. And I don’t think it’s quite that simple. But those are two really big parts of it. But the good thing is that if you know that you have a genetic predisposition to substance abuse, and it’s not like we have one gene, that we could, you know, just go, oh, let’s get rid of that one gene. And it’ll all be perfect. But it’s good that I know that my kids have a 50% to 60% chance, you know, they’re 50% to 60% of the way there. Because our conversations are about that they’re about the fact that look, it looks different for you than it does for everyone else.

Jessica Lahey  06:33

And here’s why I’m telling you that you need to delay. So having this information, while it’s scary, is so useful. If I know that summers, for example, are the period of time when kids are most likely to start using substances, then I’m going to make sure we talk more during the summer, we could see this stuff as scary or we could reframe it as giving us some control back to tailor our conversations with our kids based on what kids actual risks are. I used to have a column in the New York Times called the Parent Teacher Conference, and one of the columns I wrote was about what in the most receptive moment they could think of what my students would have needed to hear from an adult that might have made them pause before they use.

Jessica Lahey 

And all of it really interestingly, comes down to giving kids real evidence-based information, and giving them a little bit of faith that they can make some good decisions around that. And I know that sounds like a huge leap of faith, but it really is, you know, scare tactics don’t work. You know, they just say no stuff doesn’t work. There are some things that work. And one of them is providing the information so that they can see oh, wow, when I say when someone when that girl told me that everyone’s doing it. That’s not actually true. It’s actually only 59% of kids who are drinking by the time they leave high school and 24% who drink by the end of eighth grade. It’s not everybody. And giving them refusal skills. And giving them what’s called inoculation theories, gives them ways to, to rebut some of those arguments.

Jessica Lahey  08:19

So my kids are now 22 and 17. My 17-year-old was in a biology class two semesters ago, and his teacher said, do your parents ever talk to you about substance abuse? And my son was like, does my parent ever not talk to me about substance abuse. But the problem that what we’ve found that’s been really challenging is there were a lot of things that I did wrong with my older kid, I believed in that myth of moderation that like somehow I could teach my kid, like the Europeans, I could teach my child to be a moderate drinker, if we let him have a little bit of wine from the time he’s young, it doesn’t work. In fact, it has the exact opposite effect. It raises a kid’s chance of having substance use disorder during their lifetime. And by the way, Europe has the highest rate of alcoholism in the world. And so it’s not really a myth that we should be perpetuating.

Jessica Lahey 

The problem is, now I know that and I also know that a total prohibition on drugs and alcohol until the kid is 21 is actually the best messaging to send to a kid. So my older son had a little more permissive sort of like, okay, well, you know, here’s how you have a sip of this, have a sip of that. We know you’re probably going to try pot and so bah, bah, blah. But now my poor 17-year-old has to have, you know, in our house, no, there’s no drinking and there’s no alcohol before 21 because here’s what’s happening in your brain, not because I said so. But because here are the very real reasons that these things are going on in your head. Here’s what’s happening in your brain. Here’s how pot affects the hippocampus.

Jessica Lahey 

Here’s how alcohol affects the connections going on in your brain and the wiring that’s trying to happen right now in your brain and your brain is uniquely vulnerable to the environment right now. So I would be a bad parent If I gave you any other message than justice they say that there is no safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy and I totally abstain during both pregnancies. Just as we assume there’s no safe amount of alcohol for us to give infants in the first two years of life. I am of the opinion after doing all this research. There is no safe amount of alcohol in an adult or drugs in an adolescent brain. It has an effect on the brain that’s much more dire in the short and long term. And if you just wait until your brain is finished developing somewhere between your mid early 20s and your mid-20s. The risks go so low. I mean for so many drugs, there is so little risk to them but as an adolescent that’s just not the case.

Jessica Lahey  11:15

If you want to know more about me, you can always go to JessicaLahey.com and you can follow me on twitter at @JessLahey or on Instagram at @TeacherLahey. Thank you so much for listening to GOOD KIDS.


GOOD KIDS is a Lemonada Media Original. Supervising producer is Kryssy Pease. Associate producer is Alex McOwen and Kegan Zema is our engineer. The show is executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. The music is by Dan Molad with additional music courtesy of APM music. Check us out on social at @LemonadaMedia, recommend us to a friend and rate and review us wherever you listen to podcast. If you want to submit a show idea, email us at hey@lemonadamedia.com. Until next week, stay good.

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