That question from my 13-year-old son hung in the air like – well, like smoke in a dimly-lit room, many many years ago.  I paused for what seemed like an eternity to collect my thoughts, before answering in the affirmative.

Just how honest should parents be about their past?  A 2009 study by the Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota suggests that parents who are honest about their past indiscretions, can decrease their children's risk of drug and alcohol abuse.  They also found that a major shift has occurred from one generation to the next, as parents of today's teens are more likely to talk to their kids about what they've done in the past:

Sixty-three percent of parents said that when they were teens, their parents told them "nothing" about their use of alcohol or drugs when they were teenagers. In contrast, among the 47 percent of parents surveyed who said they'd used alcohol or other drugs to get drunk or high as a teenager, 77 percent said they had spoken with their teenage children about it.

Other key findings in the survey:

  • Half of teens say it would make them less likely to use drugs if their parents told them about their own drug use when they were younger.
  • Two-thirds of teens (67 percent) say their parents have already told them about their experiences with alcohol and other drugs when they were young – and these teens almost unanimously (95 percent) said that kind of honesty about drug use is a good thing.

In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Sharon Levy, director of the adolescent substance abuse program at Boston's Children's Hospital says,

“That comes up all the time when I’m counseling parents.  They say, ‘Well, what should I tell her — or not?’ ”The research on this point is limited. But there is evidence to suggest that when parents provide more information and better modeling early on, their children’s risk of substance abuse goes down.”  Dr. Levy went on to say, “Tell them without glorifying it, and if you think you made a mistake, tell them that too.”

Advice for parents looking to start the conversation with their kids is available here and  here.