Talking About Drugs and Substance Use With Teens
Our goal is to raise our children to become successful, responsible adults prepared to thrive in a world full of challenges. Certainly, one of the most important things they must know is how to manage life with a clear mind, free of drugs and substances.
Young people have heard the “drugs are bad” and “cigarettes kill” messages. The reassuring news is that, as a result, most young people are substance free. Yet, too many young people still experiment with and ultimately use, substances. Although they hear messages about harm, they are also exposed to the hype that paints mind-altering substances as exciting. They are surrounded by marketing messages that suggest cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs make you more popular, attractive, edgy, cool, and mature.
Let’s be real. Substances do offer something — otherwise, they wouldn’t pose such a problem. They bring fleeting pleasures, loosen inhibitions, and offer temporary escapes. For these reasons, telling teens what not to do will never be enough. We must prepare them with the knowledge and skill-sets to use safe and wise alternatives that offer the same benefits. We must show them what to do.
Young people rely on parents and other caring adults to shape their views more than they rely on peers, the media, or even school. We must step up and fill our vital role. These critical conversations may not be easy to have, but no one can replace you.
1) Get Comfortable With Yourself and the Facts
Everyone’s comfort level is different when it comes to discussing substances. But avoiding the subject isn’t an option. The more comfortable you are, the more easily your child will come to you as they encounter real-world pressures.
One way of increasing your comfort level is to know the facts. There are a variety of well-regarded, accurate, resources, that will teach you how to offer the right kind of information to young people. They’ll even offer you sample dialogues.
There are some things books and websites can’t teach and that you are already an expert on. These aren’t “facts,” but they are critically important. Your values. Your community. Your knowledge of your children’s potential, as well as their vulnerability to influence. Your understanding of your children’s emotional needs, as well as their likelihood to want to escape the intensity of their feelings. Your life experiences — mistakes, and all.
Know what feels emotionally safe for you. If your own history involves decisions you regret or situations that are emotionally hard to revisit, your discussions may be more complicated. Give yourself a break. Talk about things you can. Involve others (co-parent, grandparent, friends) to talk about things you have trouble with. Professionals like teachers, counselors, doctors, and nurses, are well-versed in these topics. Partner with them to guide your teen.
2) Start Talking Early and Keep the Conversation Going
Even young children need to learn about the importance of healthy bodies, clear minds, and how to manage stress in positive ways. Older children need to understand the concept of addiction — that nobody chooses it, it creeps up on you, and can happen to anyone.
In general, it’s easier for teens to discuss sensitive topics as an ongoing conversation rather than a one-time talk in reaction to an event. Don’t start the conversation the night of a big party. Ongoing conversations are opportunities to clarify values and think through how to make decisions. Last-minute conversations can feel like they come from a place of fear or mistrust. Our teens may misinterpret them as controlling. Because young people rebel against control, your efforts can backfire.
But don’t worry! Sometimes we don’t have the option of turning back the clock. When that happens, emphasize the why. It’s not that you don’t trust them. It’s not that you want to ruin their fun. You love them. And you want to keep them physically and emotionally safe.
3) Make it About Values
It’s critically important that your teen learns the values around substance use and the risks associated with their use from you. If you don’t address these topics they’ll absorb messages from peers, the internet, television, and music. These carefully crafted messages often glorify substance use, overemphasize fun, and connect substances with maturity. They don’t discuss the downsides. You must. They’ll also learn from friends who, regardless of good or bad values, don’t have the benefit of life experience. You do.
4) Make it About Safety
Teens value our guidance when it prepares them to safely and wisely navigate the world. They reject it when it strays into their personal business. This is tricky because you need to prepare your teen to navigate the peer world. If you focus on specific friends’ behaviors you risk entering personal territory and may be shut down. Instead, keep the conversation about friends and peer pressure general and frame it around safety. Young people think it’s their parents’ job to keep them safe — substance use is clearly a safety issue. When you discuss it in that context, you are much more likely to be seen as protecting rather than controlling them.
5) Listen and Don’t Make Assumptions
Listen to what your tweens and teens have to say about substances. They likely know more than you think they do. Listening is the key to getting teens to talk to us. Fewer words coming from us often means more coming from them.
Young people ask questions to get trusted information or clarification. Don’t assume if they ask a question about certain substances that they must be using them or are somehow involved with them. Questions are good. Sometimes they are just curious or have heard others talking about it. It’s important they get accurate information. Be factual in the responses you offer. If asked a question you’re unable to answer, say you’ll work to get answers and get back to them.
We shouldn’t assume our teens understand everything we tell them. Ask them to repeat back what they’ve heard us say. “I’ve just thrown a lot of information at you. What did you take away from what I said?” If it seems like they’ve misunderstood, try reframing the information.
6) Use the Media to Create Teachable Moments
TV shows, movies, websites, books, and magazines can be helpful in educating young people about real life. Stories about people other than themselves or their friends allow teens to more comfortably ask or answer questions. Marketing efforts, ranging from billboards to magazines to television or internet ads offer critical opportunities for substance abuse prevention. Even when obligatory warnings are included, these advertisements have one objective, to create the next generation of new smokers, drinkers or users. They offer images of everything we hope to be — attractive, popular, forever young (but also mature). One of the most protective things we can offer teens is an explanation of how marketing works. With that explanation comes an understanding that encourages our teens to not take things at face value. As we view these advertisements alongside our teens, we can ensure they have a balanced view of the realities of substance use.
Set Clear Expectations for These Risky Behaviors
It’s essential for parents to establish clear and consistent expectations to keep teens safe. Click here to learn which behaviors require clear boundaries.
Parents should establish firm expectations about substance use. Discussions should address topics like legality, safety, and potential consequences for using different substances.
Sexual or Romantic Relationships
As uncomfortable as it may be to talk about sex with teens, it’s necessary. Parents who talk openly to their teens about sex have greater influence over their teen’s sexual behaviors.
Teens must be aware of parental expectations about driving. It’s a matter of safety. Topics to address include wearing a seatbelt, prohibiting driving while under the influence, banning texting while driving, and understanding what to do if stopped by the police.
Come up with a list of your family’s non-negotiables. Make sure you clearly communicate them to your teen. Teens should know what you expect and what consequences they face for breaking rules.
7) Explain the Whys — Don’t Lecture
It’s often tempting to just tell our teens what to do. But this can push them away. Sometimes when we try to warn them of the danger of drugs, it turns into a hysterical rant or a lecture. This may lead them to the very behavior we fear.
Lectures backfire because they tend to be too abstract and present complicated or sometimes scary consequences. We also tend to lecture during heated moments — but our anger and fear is all our teens experience. We must learn to offer the same information in a way that allows teens to take it in and come up with their own conclusions. That way, they are more likely to follow the solutions.
A starting point is to engage and discuss rather than preach and demand. Help them learn to make responsible choices. Make it clear that the intention is to keep them safe and moral. This helps them understand the whys. Why you are giving them guidance and why boundaries are in place. It’s not about control. It’s about safety.
8) Encourage Healthy Ways to Escape and Have Fun
Our culture associates substances with fun. When we don’t explain why we feel so strongly about substances, we run the risk of being labeled as a buzzkill. You are going against the tide of carefully crafted marketing messages. Sometimes you’re up against fun parties. So alongside anti-drug messages, we must also support healthy, social activities. We shouldn’t be afraid to check for adult supervision or the presence of substances.
On another level, much of substance use has nothing to do with fun. It is used to escape from intense feelings. To let go. To manage stress. Acknowledge these realities and support teens to choose healthy coping strategies that allow them to escape.
9) Offer Healthy Ways to Manage Stress
It is a mistake to believe that adolescents use cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol only to rebel, to fit in, or “to party.” While those factors may play a part, many young people (just like many adults) use substances to manage stress. And they work — sometimes too well. It is because substances can offer quick, easy fixes, that they can lead to addiction. They may relieve stress in the short run but can generate much greater stress and other threats to our well-being in the long run.
Parents must offer tweens and teens healthy strategies to manage stress. You can encourage them to plan ahead — we offer a comprehensive stress management plan that guides teens to come up with their own healthy ways to manage stress. As importantly, you can model healthy stress management for them while reaping the health benefits for yourself.
10) Trust Professionals
You are not alone. The most highly effective parents work in partnership with other trusted adults to create a multi-layered blanket of protection for their adolescents. Even in families with comfortable and open communication, adolescents still benefit from reinforcing guidance from other adults. Parents are irreplaceable in setting clear expectations, while professionals may more comfortably offer specific messages about health and safety.
In the event that you suspect that your child may have a problem with substances, it is critical to turn early to professional guidance. Teach your child that seeking help is an act of strength. And it shouldn’t be optional.
Parents Vital Role
Teens say, parents, not friends, influence their values more than anyone — but only if their parents effectively communicate. Having open and honest conversations allows us to shape our teens into adults who will live healthier lifestyles and avoid self-destructive decisions. But it is more than just what we say. It is also the safety net we create by setting clear boundaries. It is the strategies we build to help them navigate peer influence and be savvy consumers of information. And it is about how we model healthy coping and smart decision-making in our everyday lives.
For more resources on talking with teens about substance use, click here.