Keeping our Teens Drug and Alcohol Free

Sex, Drugs & Chess: Talking to Kids about The Queen’s Gambit

By Dr. Aaron Weiner
Warning: Plot Spoilers

The Queen’s Gambit is an enthralling miniseries about the world of competitive chess. The show centers around Beth Harmon, a high-functioning, likely autistic chess savant who breaks through gender walls to take the international chess world by storm.

Beth uses an addictive, sedative drug to escape from emotional pain and to better visualize chess moves. While Beth’s use of drugs and alcohol are ultimately self-destructive, kids watching the show may identify with Beth’s desire to use drugs to escape from stress and to excel at school. They may also fall victim to the “I would do it better” trap, feeling convinced that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes Beth made if they use drugs in the same way.

How can parents help teens interpret shows with drug themes like The Queen’s Gambit? Here are four strategies:

Don’t shy away from the positives: show your child you respect them enough to tell the whole story. It’s OK to tell your child that drugs often have potentially pleasant short-term effects, which is the trap that gets people into addiction and other types of trouble. If you include all sides of the issue, your child will take you more seriously when you talk about the negatives.

“Play the tape forward.” Think about the whole arc of future consequences and risk, rather than just the immediate impact. This is critical in explaining drug use to teens. Even if use is possibly helpful in the short-term for anxiety or their social life, that help is an illusion and ultimately self-defeating.

Separate fact from fiction. Like many shows depicting alcohol and drug abuse, The Queen’s Gambit falls short portraying addiction in two areas. First, no matter how much Beth drinks or takes pills, we never see her go into withdrawal. This isn’t how addiction works in real life. Second, Beth never seeks out help for her addiction and still recovers. While recovery without any assistance may be possible, advanced addiction takes time and treatment to address psychological, biological and social components.

Recognize that the social ecosystem around drugs and alcohol is tricky for teenagers. A primary reason adolescents use drugs is social. If a teen’s friendship group starts vaping or drinking, they’ll quickly find themselves on the outside looking in. Empathize with your child and validate their feelings as they navigate through these challenging, stressful social situations.

As a final note, pay close attention to parental guide ratings on television shows. When choosing to allow your child to watch a TV-MA show, preview it first and be ready to have an honest, open conversation about the show’s mature themes.

Aaron Weiner, PhD, is a practicing clinical psychologist, specializing in treatment of those suffering from the consequences of drug or alcohol use or behavioral addictions.

This condensed version of Dr. Weiner’s article was published with permission.
For the full, informative article visit Dr. Weiner’s blog.