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How to Talk to Your Teen About Substance Use

Adolescence is a tricky time
Teenagers are just beginning to establish their identities, which often means testing the limits of parental controls. Regarding drugs and alcohol, pushing the boundaries can lead to dangerous territory.
Setting clear rules about substance use helps give teens the structure they need to stay safe. Let’s be realistic: You can’t guarantee that your rules won’t be broken. But research shows that kids with clear directions are less likely to get into serious trouble than kids without. Even when the rules are broken, teens whose parents have clearly outlined what is and isn’t acceptable are less likely to run to extremes and more likely to make safer choices.

So it would help if you talked, but initiating a potentially tricky conversation is daunting for many parents. A few guidelines can help get the ball rolling and make for a smoother, more productive experience.

Plan to have the talk
Springing a serious conversation with your teenager can make her feel ambushed and defensive. Please give her a heads-up beforehand and be clear about the conversation so everyone can be on the same page. “Tomorrow night, let’s talk about drinking and drugs. You’re not in trouble, and I want to talk about where we stand and hear any concerns you might have.”

Spell out the rules
Spell out your rules and the specific consequences of breaking them. Avoiding ambiguity lets your teenager know where you stand, and research shows that kids tend to be safer when parents set limits. And for kids being pressured to do something they aren’t comfortable with, it can make it easier for them if they know they can use their parents as an excuse for saying no.

Explain your reasons
Be very clear about your reasons for prohibiting substance use. Teenagers are often ordered to do things without being given a clear reason why and by explaining yourself, you’re inviting them to have a more open, adult conversation.

The potential consequences of drinking and using drugs are real. Any kind of experimentation is illegal when you’re a teenager, and it’s dangerous.

Be honest and rational. Some illegal substances are more dangerous than others. Heroin is more dangerous than pot. But any substance can be harmful: one beer is intoxicating, but ten beers could be deadly.

And any substance use impairs judgment, and kids are more likely to find themselves in problematic and potentially dangerous situations like driving drunk or having unwanted or risky sexual encounters. It can affect them in school, too. If they get caught, it could go on their record—something they won’t want when applying to colleges—and if they play sports, they could be cut from the team.

Obey the golden rule
Speak to your kids the way you’d like to be spoken to. Teenagers are acutely sensitive to condescension, and it’s important to remember that they are the ones who will make the final decisions. Treat them like the adults you want them to become. By showing respect, you’re modeling good behavior and letting them know you expect them to act responsibly, not just for your sake but for their own.

Let them speak
Give kids a chance to express their concerns and feelings. They may have been hoping to ask questions or check in about something troubling. Opening an equal, active dialogue will increase the chances that your teen will feel comfortable being honest with you.

The ‘I learned it from you, Dad,’ dilemma
Parents sometimes feel hypocritical, hiding their own experiences. If your daughter asks if you’ve ever tried drugs, you can keep your experiences private (not everything in your history needs to be available to your kids) or share them but don’t reminisce or otherwise glamorize your experiences. You can also explain that as a parent, it’s your job to help them avoid things they will regret, and substance use increases the chances of doing something you regret.

Conditional amnesty
What we want, first and foremost, is for kids to be safe. Being open and honest with your kids about drugs encourages them to reciprocate. One way to create safeguards for your teen is to have an “amnesty policy.”

In an amnesty situation, your child can call and ask for help without incurring the regular repercussions she might have if she tried to hide her behavior. Amnesty policies keep kids safe and encourage them to make appropriate choices without letting them off the hook.

For example: If your daughter (or her designated driver) is drunk at a party and wants to leave, she can call you and ask for a ride or cab fare instead of putting herself at risk. She could then come home and go to bed without yelling or grounding, and you and she could talk about her drinking and safety in the morning.

An ongoing conversation
Talking to your teen about substance abuse should be a process, not a single event. Risk factors for substance use can change and multiply as teenagers weather the trials and pressures of adolescence. Watch for changes in your child’s mood and demeanor, shifting peer groups, and other signs that it might be time to check in about their safety and your expectations.

Ensure they know your conversation is open-ended and that it’s a two-way street — “I’m going to be checking in with you about this sometimes, and if you have any questions or concerns, you can always ask me, too.” Keeping the lines of communication open will help you and your teenager feel engaged and safe during a potentially turbulent time.

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Courtesy of Rae Jacobson

Rae Jacobson is a writer, ADHD expert, and former senior editor at the Child Mind Institute.

This article was last reviewed or updated on July 28, 2022

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