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How to Talk to Your Teen About Substance Use

Bringing up topics like sex, drugs, and money with teenagers can be challenging. But why do most parents avoid discussing sex and drugs with their teenagers? In general, discussions about these topics rarely result in positive outcomes because they are awkward (at best) and prone to generating arguments (at worst).

There are two problems with avoiding these discussions. The first problem is that most parents overvalue the immediate risks and undervalue the long-term benefits of these discussions. Secondly, there’s a good probability that your teen has at least experimented with drugs or alcohol. A staggering 62% of teenagers in 12th grade have abused alcohol and 50% have misused drugs at least once in their lives. Moreover, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines aren't the fastest-growing drugs in the country. Teenagers are deeply affected by prescription drugs, such as opioids, stimulants, and depressants.

The good news is that you can minimize the negative reactions your teen may have when you discuss substance use. As a result, such discussions have a much greater impact than you may realize.

In other words, having hard discussions with your teen in the short term can be productive, while in the long term, it makes the teen more likely to make wise and safer decisions.

The question is, how do you effectively talk to your teen about substance abuse? Well, let’s take a closer look.

1. Get started as soon as possible.

Ideally, you should have these discussions with your teen before you're actually concerned that they might be using drugs. You can prevent your child from spreading common misinformation about how enjoyable and safe using substances can be if you speak to them before they enter their teenage years.

In addition, discussing substance abuse early gives you and your teen a chance to build a habit of calmly discussing the topic. Furthermore, it can help you adjust to hearing about some things you don't necessarily want to hear.

2. Plan to have the talk.

You may make your teenager feel intimidated and defensive if you surprise them with a serious conversation. Be sure to let her know what the conversation entails beforehand so that everyone can understand what is expected.

For example, you could say, “Let's talk about drugs and alcohol tomorrow evening.” Nothing to worry about. I just want to hear what your concerns are."

3. Establish clear rules and values.

It is not uncommon for parents to use phrases like "be smart" or "make good decisions." However, every person interprets these terms differently. Parents who instruct their children to “be smart ” may think they are asking them not to drink. But their children may take these instructions as, “Don’t drink too much and blackout.”

With that in mind, don't be vague. In other words, if you want to say, "You can go out with your friends as long as you promise not to use marijuana," then say that exactly.

4. Ask them what they already know.

Your child may surprise you with the details he or she already knows about drugs or alcohol. The images kids see on TV, the conversations they hear between adults, and the things they overhear among their friends have a lasting impact on them. Before you proceed, ask them if they are familiar with either drugs or alcohol. Start by asking them if they have ever seen or been offered substances being used, and work your way up from there.

Also, when you talk about drugs, make it a two-way conversation so it doesn't feel like a lecture. Another tip? The focus of this conversation should be on their health, happiness, and success.

5. Explain addiction to them.

In order to discuss substance use in general with teens, it is important to talk about substance use disorder. In order for children to make healthy decisions as they grow up, they need to understand the risks and dangers associated with repeated alcohol and drug use.

When discussing substance abuse disorders with teens, honesty and accuracy are essential. To begin with, explain that substance use disorders are mental health conditions.

In order to explain substance abuse disorder to your child, the following cycle can be described:

  • Reward

  • Motivation

  • Memory

The following symptoms may be displayed by someone with this condition:

  • Impulsive behavior

  • Having a lack of self-control

  • A greater desire for the substance

Substance users may find it increasingly difficult to function without substance abuse.

You should let your teen know that people with substance use disorders may become physically dependent on substances. Eventually, this may lead to an increase in substance abuse, which can lead to overdoses and even death.

Reinforcing possible long-term consequences of a substance use disorder, which can become more severe and cause serious health issues, may be beneficial.

The following are some other negative effects of substance abuse on a person's life:

  • Financial hardship

  • Relationship issues, including issues with family and friends

  • Work-related consequences, including job loss

Just make sure that the information you’re sharing is accurate. Why? Correcting misinformation is a crucial part of discussing substance use accurately. Marijuana, for instance, is not addictive. They should know, however, that street drugs are more dangerous than ever because fentanyl can contaminate any other drug and cause a life-threatening overdose.

6. Warn them about peer pressure.

In about half of the cases, a peer's recommendation leads to the first time a person uses drugs. Sometimes peer pressure doesn't seem like pressure. Instead, it can seem like a casual event that many kids underestimate until they suffer the consequences. For example, before a school test, a classmate might offer them Adderall or fentanyl.

There are many types of peer pressure. Kids need to be warned about peer pressure when discussing drugs and alcohol. Provide them with information about common peer pressure situations, such as parties, and how to respectfully decline a friend's offer. Teenagers especially may worry that saying "no" might make them appear "lame," which could harm their social standing. Let them know this is not true, and that those who stand their ground and think for themselves deserve respect.

7. Follow the golden rule.

Communicate with your kids in the same way you would with yourself. You must remember that teens are extremely sensitive to condescension. And, in the end, they have the final say.

Be the adult you want them to become by treating them as such. By modeling respect, you show them that you expect them to behave responsibly, not only for your sake but also theirs.

8. If your child uses drugs, find out why.

In addition to managing anxiety and stress, teens may use substances to distract themselves from unpleasant emotions or to connect with their peers socially. They may feel less judged if they are curious about those reasons. Additionally, it may help you understand your teen's underlying struggles, help them gain insight into their own behavior, and identify problems that may require professional assistance.

Nevertheless, parents may find it challenging to have these conversations with their children, and some adolescents may have little understanding of why they use substances. Adolescents who regularly use substances should be assessed by a professional who can help them change their behaviors.

9. Be ready to discuss your own drug use.

Suppose your teen asks you about your own drug use. What would you say?

In some cases, parents feel hypocritical for hiding their own experiences. You can choose to keep your experiences private if your teenager asks if you've ever tried drugs. However, you do not have to share everything in your past with your kids. However, do not reminisce or otherwise embellish your experiences.

It's also your job as a parent to protect them from things they'll regret. Substance use definitely increases the likelihood of regrettable behavior.

In short, explain why you did not use drugs. If you did use drugs, tell them what you learned from the experience.

10. Keep the conversation going.

If you want your child to learn about substance use often, you should bring the topic up again every two months at least. Discussions on a subject become easier the more you do them, and they can set the stage for more effective discussions about substance abuse in the future.

During the conversation, you can say, “I just wanted to get in touch with you and find out what you think about smoking, drinking, and using other drugs.” It is important to establish the habit of having non-emotional, supportive discussions about substance abuse before they use it so that if there is a problem later on, it will be easier to discuss the topic.

Studies show that discussing your values with your teenager reduces the likelihood that they will engage in risky, impulsive behavior. Furthermore, regular conversations are an excellent way to communicate your values and expectations.

When discussing your values, you should explain why you value them. For instance, you could say, “It's bad if you use drugs like nicotine, alcohol, or any other substance, because these days anything can be laced with fentanyl, which kills, and addicting chemicals can seriously damage your health.”

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