Talking with Teens About Drugs and Alcohol

For many parents, talking with their teens about almost anything can be difficult. Sometimes even the simplest conversation can trigger a negative emotional response. So a discussion about a really challenging topic like drugs and alcohol can feel daunting. Yet, few conversations with our children are more important.

Research confirms the common sense idea that when parents talk to their children about drugs and alcohol, those children are much less likely to become users. If you’re thinking about starting those conversations with your kids, consider taking these steps:

1. Start talking with children when they’re young

It’s better to start talking with your child before he or she reaches the teenage years. As a parent, it’s important to make sure your child is aware of your values and your concerns. Also, children can begin experimenting with alcohol, marijuana or tobacco as early as 10 years old. Start early and then continue the discussion throughout the pre-teen and teenage years.

2. Have a clear message

It’s important to explain the following points:

  • Not all kids try drugs and alcohol
  • Some kids never try them
  • Using these substances is not some kind of rite of passage
  • It’s been proven that even using alcohol or drugs once or twice can cause health problems
  • Experimenting can lead to problems with school or the law
  • Substance use can create problems with friends and family members

Even if you used drugs or alcohol as a teenager, it’s okay to talk to your kids about not using. In fact, if you had any negative experiences or consequences because of your use, you may want to tell your kids about it.

3. Explain the consequences of drug and alcohol use

It’s essential that parents be parents to their children, and not try to be their friends. Teens will hear many messages about drugs and alcohol that are unclear and mixed. A parent who wants to be the “cool” parent, may be communicating that drugs aren’t dangerous and that drug use isn’t very risky. Let your children know that there are consequences for using drugs and alcohol, and that their healthy development can be affected.

On the other hand, if a parent acts too rigid and judgmental, a teenager may shut down and stop communicating.

4. Use teachable moments

Talk regularly to your child about drugs — in fact, use every opportunity you can. For example, if there’s a story in the news about drugs, drug abuse, alcohol abuse or a related topic like depression, use that as a reason to have a discussion. Also, it’s vital to understand that frequent, regular conversations are needed to get the message across — once is not enough.

Listening is critical! Listening is the difference between a real conversation and a lecture — and kids hate lectures. Show your children that you value their thoughts and feelings. Get involved and stay involved as they develop and grow. Listen to their struggles and stresses. Also, make the conversation age appropriate — a conversation about drugs is very different with a 10-year-old than with a 16-year-old.

5. Set a good example

Your kids watch what you do, even more than you may think. Set a good example with your own behavior and be conscious of your own substance use, even if it’s just having a glass of wine or a beer.

6. Look for signs of drug use

Be aware of any indication that drug use is happening. These signs can include:

  • Any changes in personal appearance or behavior such as red or watery eyes, or changes to eating or sleeping habits
  • Changes in mood, such as lack of motivation, depression or extreme hyperactivity, or other unexplained mood swings
  • Missing possessions, lack of money
  • Poor school attendance, increased need for discipline or changes in grades
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia
  • Secretiveness about possessions and personal space, increased isolation

7. Get help at the first sign of trouble

Parents don’t always take substance use seriously at first, especially with alcohol and marijuana. They may think it’s just a phase, but then can be overwhelmed when casual use becomes a real problem. Don’t underestimate the risks of drug use. Seek out a professional and ask for help. Your child’s future — and your quality of life — may depend on it! When a teen’s substance use is treated early, it frequently leads to abstinence and can result in no further problems. This is even true when the use is mild or moderate.

For more information, visit our Resources for Parents page. If you believe your child is using a substance, call us at (866) 330-8729. If your child has a drug or alcohol addiction, call us at (866) 330-8729 to learn about our adolescent inpatient facility for substance use disorders.