Family, Kids & Relationships

How to tell kids about your experiences without implying it’s okay

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When you talk to kids about tricky topics like sex and relationships, drugs and alcohol, money, bullying, etc.—it’s hard to know whether it’s appropriate (or useful!) to share your own past experiences. Especially if you’ve had a less-than-savory track record.

You might worry that if your kids know you’ve done something in the past—such as binge drinking or gambling—then they’ll take you less seriously or see it as permission to do the same thing.

But really, being honest and vulnerable with your kids about past mistakes can be a good way to connect and open the door to communication around these tough subjects. So instead of hiding their own secrets or worries, they may be more likely to come to you to talk.

Don’t just start telling them all the scandalous details of your past though—here are some important guidelines to consider.

Rules of thumb

  • First, ask more questions to find out why they’re really asking and what they’re concerned about. Did they hear something they didn’t understand in some song lyrics? Did they learn about signs of intoxication in health class and wondered if they’d seen a relative intoxicated at the last reunion? Has someone at school offered them drugs? There are lots of different reasons a kid might ask about your experiences, and not all will necessarily benefit from a detailed story about your adolescent exploits. Don’t launch into a story about your past if they’re not ready for it.
  • Consider your child’s age and temperament. How will they be able to use the information that you give them?
  • If and when you decide to disclose, it’s definitely OK to withhold details that seem like too much. In fact, it may be a smart idea to edit your story (like leaving out more extreme behaviors), but avoid saying things that are actually untrue. Remember, a child can always catch you in a lie later, which could end up breaking trust and damaging your relationship. However, omitting details or putting off a conversation for a while so you can prepare yourself a bit is perfectly fine.
  • Make sure you’ve moved to a place of growth and learning, rather than just shame and guilt, about past mistakes—before trying to turn them into a lesson for your kids.
  • Don’t glorify or laugh off the gory details of what you did. Instead, focus on the effects of your behavior, and how you improved.

Conversation starters

Some ways to approach talking about your past mistakes:

  • “That’s a really important question and I definitely want to discuss it with you. Can I have a little time to think about it first?”
  • “When I was your age, I did make some unsafe choices that I regret. I wish I had felt more comfortable talking to my parents about it at the time.”
  • “I clearly remember the feeling of wanting to be accepted by certain kids, so I would say or do things that I thought would make me cool in their eyes. But doing that didn’t help me in the long run, and had some effects that I was NOT expecting…”
  • “Why do you ask? Have you heard people at school talking about this?”

Alternative approaches to try

If you don’t have an appropriate or useful story that you want to tell from your own life, or just don’t feel comfortable sharing past experiences that perhaps you’re still processing or might be too intimate or graphic, here are some other approaches to consider:

  • Delve into an example of a celebrity or an acquaintance who struggled with similar issues.
  • Have a trusted relative/friend who’s overcome a similar problem or has expertise in a certain area talk with your teen.
  • Discuss your feelings and thought processes from when you were their age—for example, remembering the temptations of drinking/drugs, or the feeling of wanting to fit in.
  • Talk about things you DIDN’T do at a young age, and how choosing something else instead (or waiting until you were older) ended up being more fulfilling.
  • Come at it from a genetics angle if there is a predisposition for addiction, harm from certain substances/behaviors, or mental health issues in your family.

What you should and shouldn’t expect from sharing your past

While being open about your past can help give kids necessary perspective, it doesn’t mean they still won’t try the same thing or repeat your mistakes. After all, part of teaching kids all about consent from an early age is recognizing that their body is their own—so ultimately, they’re going to be the only ones with the power to decide whether or not they do things like have sex, experiment with substances, spend all their savings, etc. And as uncomfortable as that might be to think about it, remember that one of the last things you want to do as a parent is set the precedent that someone else gets to tell them what to do with their bodies. 

What these conversations help with the most is opening up the conversation between you and your child, so they might be more likely to come to you in the future if they do have a problem. And they empower kids with a realistic picture of the situation and potential consequences so that they’re able to make an informed decision when the time comes.

When you speak from the heart and show that you’re not perfect, kids will remember that vulnerability and connect with it. (But if your story turns into too much of a lecture, they might tune out.)

Responses to things your kid might say

Of course one of the biggest fears around sharing some of the shadier stories from your past is that kids will misinterpret it as permission to do the same, or they still won’t take your cautionary tale to heart. Here are some responses you can try:

“But you turned out fine.”

→ “It wasn’t fine, though. I suffered, I hurt others, and I have some lasting issues from the unsafe choices I made back then. If I had all the information I had now, I wouldn’t do it again. I don’t want you to have to go through all that.”

“But you don’t understand, things are different now.”

→ “I agree that I can’t understand exactly what you’re going through, but I do know the feeling of being your age and how hard it can be. I always wished I had someone to talk to because that would have helped more than anything.”

“But that’s not going to happen to me.”

→ “I know that you make smart decisions most of the time. But we all make mistakes at some point, and I want you to be prepared and know that you can come to me. I’m here to support you no matter what.”

It can be difficult to know exactly where to draw the line between which details from your past can be helpful for your kids to know, and which could end up just being too much information.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.