Most people start using drugs when they are teenagers, and more than half of current drug users are younger than 18.1 Given these facts, many parents want to know how to have a productive conversation with their kids about drugs or alcohol.
It is impossible to be a perfect parent, but if you really listen to what your child has to say, you have a much better chance at establishing honest communication with them. Approach your teen with compassion, warmth, and understanding—the last thing you want your child to feel is shame or that you are disappointed in them. In many cases, this can accelerate their drug use.
Having the Conversation
Before you go into the conversation, be clear about what your goals are. Some examples might include:
- Establish communication with your teen.
- Learn about whether or not they are using drugs or alcohol.
- Learn about your child’s motivation for using drugs.
- Learn how they are feeling and what stressors are in their life.
It is important that you feel confident in what you are going to say and how you are going to deliver your message. You can take time to reflect on a few things, such as:
- How do I communicate with my children?
- Do I know who their friends are or how they spend time after school and on weekends?
- Am I a role model for my children?
- How do I help my child cope with the pressures or stress that they face at school?
Below are some basic guidelines in how to approach speaking with your child:
Once you start listening to your child, you will have a better understanding of what they are experiencing, which can give you an opportunity to help. You want to reinforce positive, healthy change. It takes courage and hard work to get better: when you acknowledge the good things your child is doing, it can motivate them to keep engaging in those behaviors.
Be Calm and Listen
Teenagers need time and space to experiment with their own rules and values and create their identity apart from their parents. If you want your child to talk to you about what’s going on in their life—including substance use—you have to remember that communication is a two-way street. Teens who are raised in an environment where they feel supported, loved, and trusted are more likely to respect their parents’ boundaries. For example, studies find that teens who said that their families were warm and caring reported less marijuana use and less emotional distress.2
It is important to stay involved in your child’s life by monitoring their friends, activities, and whereabouts. You can practice this by:3
Studies show that most kids get into trouble with drugs between 3 and 6 p.m. If you work or you have other obligations that keep you from being home during these times, encourage your kids to get involved in healthy afterschool activities such as sports, volunteering, clubs, work, and community or religious youth groups.4
If your child shares that they are using drugs and alcohol, try to focus on the positive. This can be difficult, but it is very important. An example of what this might sound like could be: “Thank you for sharing with me. I’m happy to hear this isn’t a regular occurrence, but I want you to know that using any drug at your age is harmful because your brain is still developing.” You can use information that you have researched online about addiction among young people. Some examples include:
- Drugs are chemicals that interfere with how your brain cells send, receive, and process information.5
- The risk of taking a drug that is laced or adulterated with something harmful is very high. Today, deadly drugs like fentanyl or carfentanil are more common than ever before and you need to be very careful about what you are putting into your body.6
Here is another example. Your teen tells you that they smoke weed but assures you that, “it’s not a big deal.” This is an excellent parenting opportunity. After they share this, you can ask them, “What would make it a big deal for you? What are some of the things that keep you from smoking more weed than you normally do?”
Asking these questions allows your teen to think for themselves and reflect on the things that they like to do and how drugs could impact or get in the way of those things. You can also refer back to this conversation and bring these activities up if their drug or alcohol use begins to interfere with them.
Be Clear With Your Expectations
Setting healthy boundaries is one of the hardest things to do as a parent. But deep down your child actually wants them. Setting rules and boundaries means that you care about your child and their safety, as well as your own mental and physical health. Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to parenting. What may have worked well for one family might not work well for yours, and it’s important to rely on your own intuition as a parent.4
To help you prepare for a boundary-setting exercise with your child, work through the following on your own:
You can co-create rules with your teen, write down your limits and expectations, and have your child sign it as a kind of contract. Teens are much more likely to obey rules that they have helped create. When you sit down to brainstorm the contract with your teen, be very clear about where you stand. Keep in mind that every rule should work for both of you.7 Take into consideration your child’s schedule and do not place unrealistic expectations on them. For example, if they have soccer practice after school, an expectation of having their homework done before dinnertime may be impractical. So is finishing it on the way to school the next morning. Try to find a middle ground.
Educate Yourselves Together
We are lucky to live in a world full of easy-to-access information and resources about alcohol, drugs, and addiction. You and your child can sit down together and look up teen drug use and read about risks, dangers, and personal testimonials from teens and parents.
While it is important to look at the harm that drug use can have on a teen’s life, it is also important to expose your child to the positives of leading a healthy, positive life. This can help motivate them to stay sober. Here are some resources to get started:
For quick reference, these are some recent stats about teen substance abuse:8
- In 2016, past-year use of illicit drugs was the lowest in history among teens.
- For 8th and 10th graders, the rates of daily marijuana use decreased over the past 5 years, dropping from 1.3% to 0.7% and from 3.6% to 2.5%, respectively.
- Among high school seniors, 6% continue to report daily use, which translates to roughly 1 in 16 high school seniors.
- Alcohol in 2016 was much lower than what was reported in 2011: 17.6%, 38.3%, and 55.6 % of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders, respectively, said they’d used alcohol in the last year, compared to 26.9%, 49.8%, and 63.5% in 2011.
- In 2016, 22.8% of 8th graders reported ever trying alcohol, a 33% drop from a peak of 55.8% in 1994.
- Among 10th graders, lifetime use decreased by 40% since 1997.
- Among 12th graders, there was a 25% decrease in lifetime alcohol use from 81.7% in 1997 to 61.2% in 2016.
Achieving Healthy Coping Skills
Sometimes people forget that teenagers experience stress every day, just like adults. However, most teens do not have the resources to cope with their intense feelings of stress, anxiety, loneliness, or depression. Sources of stress for young people can include:9
When teens become overwhelmed with stress, it can lead to physical illness and poor coping skills. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to numb or escape their feelings and because they like the effect the substance produces, like euphoria, sedation, or stimulation. Using drugs and alcohol to cope is a maladaptive behavior, though—there are much healthier ways to handle stress. By intervening early and teaching your child healthy coping skills to deal with the various pressures they face, you can help prevent future drug abuse.
These are some suggestions about how to encourage and support your child in engaging in healthy stress-relieving coping skills:9
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Nationwide Trends.
- Advocates for Youth. (n.d.). Parent-Child Communication: Promoting Sexually Healthy Youth.
- Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (2017). Set Limits & Monitor.
- Williams, D. (2002). How to Talk to Your Kids About Alcohol & Drugs. Deaf Rochester News, 6(2), 10.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2014). Brain and Addiction.
- National Public Radio. (2016). An Even Deadlier Opioid, Carfentanil, Is Hitting the Streets.
- Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. (2017). Preventing Teen Drug Use: Set Limits & Monitor Behavior.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends.
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. (2005). Facts for Families: Helping Teenagers Deal with Stress.