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'Dad, did you smoke pot when you were in high school?"

"Yes, but actually I was in eighth grade when I started."

"No." (Actually, I did but I don't want to tell him because I don't want him to get any ideas.)

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"No." (It's true that I didn't. I was kind of a goody-two-shoes. But frankly, I've always wondered if I would have had more fun as a teenager if I had been willing to take more chances. I think maybe I missed out.)

"It's none of your business."

What should you tell your kids - and how honest should you be - about your teenage adventures with sex, drugs and drinking?

The issue is more complicated than it used to be. Many of today's parents drank and had sex when they were teenagers. Many also experimented with drugs, especially marijuana. On top of that, many parents have mixed feelings about how bad much of the behaviour is.

"I mean, I know that some of that stuff is part of many kids' normal adolescence. And I know they're probably going to do it whether I approve of it or not. And with most kids, nothing terrible results."

"Still, I worry about them. I don't want anything bad to happen that will screw up their lives. They feel they have a right to take some risks. But I don't want them to take any."

So what should you say?

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First, you don't have to answer if you don't want to.

There may be parts of your life you are just not comfortable discussing. This is often true of your sexual history. Simple answers are fine - if you are comfortable with it - as a potential opening for broader discussions of sexuality.

"When did you first have sex?"

"When I was 15."

But most of your sexual experience is none of their business. Nor do kids want to know the details.

"I had five orgasms the first time I had sex with your father."

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"Ew. You are telling me this because?"

The tougher issue comes when you may have been a regular drinker or drug user.

Parents worry that if they talk about their past substance abuse, their example will make it more likely that their children will do what they did.

Parents also worry that they'll start hearing this refrain from their kids: "Nothing happened to you. You're not a druggie now. It didn't screw up your life."

Or: "If you did it how come it's not okay for me to do it? You're a big hypocrite."

That you may have done drugs and drunk alcohol as a teenager and are now okay is not the first news to your kids that teens can be naughty and survive. They already know this.

But there is an answer to this dilemma: In my experience, talking is better than not talking. Talking with your teenagers about drugs, sex and drinking reduces their participation. And if they do participate, it reduces their degree of risk. What you can hope for is that their involvement with risky behaviour becomes more thoughtful. And if you talk, be honest - about the real risks, but also the nice feelings that make people willing to take those risks.

The advantage of honesty is that you are now talking to them as if they are young adults. Your words will carry more weight. You are having an adult discussion about risky behaviour that is part of their world and quite possibly part of their lives.

"Yes, I smoked pot in high school. There was a period that I smoked a lot. I smoked because I liked how it made me feel. But a lot of times I smoked just because I was bored. I thought I could stop at the time, but I don't really know if I could have. Yes, in the long run it didn't mess up my life. But maybe I was lucky. Marijuana can have a lot more control over you than most smokers realize."

What may well follow is a genuine discussion about marijuana smoking.

"Gee, Dad, thanks for sharing that with me. Now I will think twice the next time the guys want to light up over at KJ's house."

Okay, not quite.

But your words will be in his head and they will make a difference.

awolf@globeandmail.com

Anthony E. Wolf is a clinical psychologist and the author of six parenting books, including Get out of my life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall?: A Parent's Guide to the New Teenager.

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