Substance abuse—including alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drug use—usually begins during adolescence and young adulthood.1 According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), among high school seniors, 70% of students have tried alcohol, 50% have tried an illegal drug, approximately 40% smoked a cigarette, and more than 20% used a prescription drug for something other than its intended purpose.1 Adolescents are frequently drawn to new experiences and aren’t afraid of taking risks. Unfortunately, they may see drugs and alcohol as a way to achieve these ends and, by engaging in substance abuse behavior, expose themselves to potential health issues and other serious long-term consequences.1
The family environment is a major factor that can either contribute to or help prevent teen drug use. Research shows that violence, physical or emotional abuse, mental health disorders, or drug abuse by adults in the home may each increase the chances that a child will experiment with drugs.1 For this reason, prevention begins with parents pointing their kids in the right direction and starts with open communication about the dangers of drug use.2
Keep Communication Open
A healthy dialogue between parents and teens about drugs is a more effective prevention tool than you may realize. When parents talk to their children—and listen to them—it allows both sides to share their perspective about difficult topics, and it establishes a foundation of trust.2
Some ways parents can establish and maintain healthy and open communication with their children include:2
- Being accepting and understanding.
- Avoiding criticism or judgment.
- Listening more than talking.
- Affirming their child for speaking openly.
- Asking questions.
- Correcting wrong beliefs.
- Praising your child.
These methods allow children to build self-esteem, preparing them to make smart decisions on their own, which can lead to avoiding unhealthy people, places, and things (like other drug users or risky situations).2 If you believe your child already has a greater risk of using drugs or alcohol, establishing healthy communication increases the odds they will feel comfortable talking to you about it and allowing you to help them. Remember, parents leave the strongest impression on their children’s minds.2
Establish Clear Boundaries
A vital parental task is helping your child mature, learn responsibility, self-control, and autonomy. Boundaries are crucial to instilling these values in teens. Children are not inherently born with boundaries, so it is the parent’s job to model healthy ones and to provide discipline.3 Setting and verbalizing clear boundaries about your expectations around your teen’s drug or alcohol use actually helps reduce the chances they will use.3
Boundaries help protect children from:3
- Hurting themselves.
- Hurting others or being vulnerable to others hurting them.
- Clinging to immaturity or resisting grow up.
- Trying to handle freedoms they are not ready for.
Collaborating with your teen increases the chance that they will understand and accept the boundaries you create—and it is easier to enforce boundaries if your child has already agreed to them. Boundaries build character, instill a strong mindset, and set up your teen for success later in life.3 When a child develops a strong sense of self early on, it decreases the likelihood of them acting out through destructive behaviors, such as abusing drugs.
Research shows that people with healthy boundaries have reciprocal relationships (a healthy give-and-take approach) and are generally more productive in life.4 Working as a team with your child also establishes respect and trust, values that promote healthy decision-making.
Be an Active Part of Their Lives
Family involvement in teens’ lives is an important component in preventing them from engaging in risky behaviors, such as drug and alcohol abuse.5 It is possible for parents to show concern without being overbearing, too. Finding a balance of adequate supervision with age-appropriate independence allows your child to learn, grow, and create a sense of autonomy in the world. During the early teen years, a parent’s role may be even more significant as they begin to navigate more situations on their own.2
Specific actions that help promote healthy relationships between teens and parents include:2,5
- Providing consistent rules and appropriate discipline.
- Monitoring your child’s activities.
- Focusing on family bonding.
- Knowing who their friends are.
- Attending their extracurricular activities.
- Getting them outside help (therapist or counselor), if needed.
- Checking in regularly without snooping.
- Attending family therapy, as needed.
- Helping them with their homework.
- Educating them on the dangers of drugs.
- Keeping yourself healthy and living by example.
Addiction is now surfacing in younger and younger children, so being proactive about building their emotional and mental strength is a strong protective measure.6 One way to do this is to provide positive reinforcement, which bolsters their cooperation and increases their self-confidence.7
Parents can contribute to their child’s self-confidence by:7
- Reminding them of their inherent and learned strengths and skills.
- Asking them to share their thoughts and opinions on general and family matters.
- Including them in family planning.
- Showing them that they are important to you by attending school functions.
- Reminding them of their accomplishments.
- Displaying awards they receive from school or the community.
Challenges often arise during adolescence as the brain develops and your child goes through other physiological changes. Giving your teens practical tools to navigate these changes well sets them up for success.
Teach Healthy Coping Skills
Stress increases the odds that a teen may seek temporary relief in drugs or alcohol, and poorly managed stress may also lead to anxiety, depression, aggression, or physical illness.8
Common adolescent stressors include:8
- Academic pressures.
- Negative perceptions and emotions about themselves.
- Physical changes as they mature.
- Conflicts with friends or other kids at school.
- Living in an unsafe environment or neighborhood.
- Parents’ separation or divorce.
- Chronic illness or significant health problems in the family.
- Death of a loved one.
- Changing schools or moving.
- Being overscheduled or having excessively high expectations.
- Financial stress at home.
Teaching and modeling healthy coping skills, then, is essential to them learning to deal with whatever comes their way in as healthy as manner as possible. Talking with them about how to turn down offers to do drugs and helping them improve their problem-solving skills is one way to do this. Discussing how to have healthy interpersonal relationships is another.1 It is also important to help them develop assertiveness skills, such as feeling comfortable being direct with others, saying no when they need to, and not falling into the people-pleasing trap.4 Other healthy coping skills might include:8
- Exercising and eating healthy food regularly.
- Avoiding excess caffeine and sugar.
- Learning relaxation exercises (e.g., deep breathing, yoga, meditation).
- Decreasing negative self-talk and focusing on positive thoughts.
- Finding joy in small things.
- Listening to music, talking to a friend, drawing, writing, or spending time with a pet.
- Building a network of friends who help them cope positively.
- Volunteering in the community.
Community support plays an important role in helping teens avoid drug and alcohol use too. People like school counselors, teachers, peers, and mentors can provide vital support in other settings, which further strengthens your efforts at home.1
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of adolescent substance use disorder treatment: A research –based guide.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. (2015). Drug abuse prevention starts with parents.
- Cloud, H. & Townsend, J. (2001). Boundaries with Kids: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Children. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- PsychCentral. (2016). 10 ways to build and preserve better boundaries.
- National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism (2002). Strategies to prevent underage drinking.
- NPR.org. (2015). To prevent addiction in adults, help teens learn how to cope.
- Ghahremani, D. (2016). Behavioral and neural markers of craving regulation in marijuana-dependent adolescents. [Abstract].
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2014). Facts for families: Helping teenagers deal with stress.