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:
- Avoid lecturing: Teens can shut down when they feel like they are being talked at and not talked to.
- Find a comfortable setting: Avoid saying something like, “We are going to have a conversation after dinner” or sitting in a confined space. Instead, wait until you are in an open space and the situation feels somewhat spontaneous. Going to a park, having a picnic, or going on a hike or walk are great opportunities to open up and connect with your child about drugs and alcohol.
- Thank your child for talking to you: After the conversation you can say, “Thank you for having this talk with me,” or, “I know it’s hard, but thank you for talking to me.”
- Be curious: One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is your attention and curiosity about who they are and how they view the world. Showing interest about the little things can open up a whole world of open, honest, and easy communication. Once your child opens up, continue asking questions that don’t require a yes or no answer. If you are genuinely curious about what’s going on in their life, they will be more likely to share with you.
- Avoid cutting off your child or responding quickly: You can take 2 to 3 beats before offering a response, allowing them time to add anything.
- Be aware of your body language: Take a look at how you are holding your body during the conversation. If you notice your arms and legs are crossed, you may be sending an unintended message that you are not open or closed off to what your child is saying. Also, if your child is sitting, you should be sitting too. Mirroring your child shows respect.
- Stay calm: If your teen tells you that they are doing drugs or using alcohol, remain calm. You want to know as much information as possible about why they are doing drugs, and you can’t do that if you are getting upset because this will cause your teen to shut down.
- Practice active listening: Maintaining eye contact, repeating phrases back to your child, and remaining non-judgmental are all aspects of active listening.
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
- Connecting with them when they come home: Make eye contact, give them a hug, smell their hair, and ask them how their night went to check their sobriety.
- Talking to parents in the community: Stay connected with parents of your children’s friends to help keep an eye on their behaviors.
- Asking questions: Find out about where they are going or who they are meeting up with before they leave the house.
- Checking in while they are out of the house: You can call to say hello and remind them about rules that you both have agreed on.
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
When sharing information, make sure you are not making your child feel ashamed or like they have disappointed you in any way. Then you can reflect back what they said to make them feel heard or respected.
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:
- Establish the consequences ahead of time: You need to be confident in what you will and won’t allow in your home. Teens are not receptive to gray areas and do better when they know exactly what is expected of them. As a parent, you cannot assume that your child just “knows” that you don’t condone their drug or alcohol use.
- Be clear: When you tell your child what your boundaries are, be as clear as possible. Make sure your teen knows what your rules and expectations are before they have the chance to do something wrong. The messages you send to your child are impactful. For example, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign found that teens who learn anti-drug messages at home are 42% less likely to use drugs.4
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:
- TED Talks: These online talks are very informative and fun to watch. After watching a video, you can open up a conversation and ask your child about what they heard.
- Books: Reading about the way the brain changes in different stages of adolescent development can help you learn how to approach your child.
- Mindfulness: There are so many opportunities in the world of mindfulness for you and your child. You could even consider going to classes together or, if finances permit, ask if your child would like to go on a retreat.
- Research: Websites like the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens maintain information about the most current research in the field of adolescents and addiction.
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
- Problems with friends at school.
- Parents’ divorce or separation.
- Death of a family member or loved one.
- Changing schools.
- High demands to perform well in school and get good grades.
- High expectations in sports or other after-school activities.
- Low self-esteem.
- Low self-confidence.
- Financial problems.
- High levels of violence in their neighborhood.
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
- Exercise regularly.
- Eat healthy foods and drink a lot of water.
- Avoid caffeine.
- Practice yoga.
- Practice meditation.
- Start a gratitude journal or practice.
- Practice breathing exercises.
- See a counselor.
- Find a creative outlet such as painting, drawing, dancing, singing, or playing an instrument.
- Build up a network of positive friends.
- 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.