Preventing Teen Substance Use

Prevent Teen Alcohol, Drug and Substance Use

Parents play a critical role in preventing teens from using cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol.  To fill this role we must have the kind of relationship where we address issues head on, hold real discussions, and deal with the realities of substance use. This is a tall order, but nobody is in a better position to fill it than you.

What You Need to Know About Addiction

As long as addiction is seen as something that only happens to people with real problems, adolescents won’t know they are at risk. Addiction is a biologically driven behavior. Substances change brain chemistry. It is not a behavior of choice or a sign of moral weakness. Addiction is never planned, rather it happens after repeated exposures to mind altering substances. It can happen to anybody who is exposed to addictive drugs, including alcohol, tobacco cigarettes, or prescription painkillers.

Even when someone is addicted, there is a path for recovery. When addiction is treated as a  health problem that includes both prevention and professional treatment, people can recover. Stigmatizing people suffering from addiction only makes it harder for them to recover.

What You Need to Know About Substances

As long as substances are seen as relatively harmless, teens may believe they are just a way to have fun. Substances are particularly harmful to the rapidly developing adolescent brain. People also expose themselves to other dangers when under a mind-altering substance, ranging from car crashes to riskier sexual behaviors.  The dangers of tobacco are wide-ranging and without question. To learn more, the Partnership for Drug Free Kids offers accurate, timely information on all substances ranging from cigarettes and alcohol to prescription drug and opiate abuse.

As long as substance use is seen as a rite of passage, teens will think they are destined to include them as part of their journey towards adulthood. Many young people do not regularly use substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. It is not a rite of passage. The majority of teens actually choose to remain substance-free and don’t see this as normal behavior. For more on this, see Above the Influence.

Parents are key influencers. We are without question the most influential people in our tween’s and teen’s lives. Many of those who believe substance use is most influenced by peer pressure may be mistaken.

Prevention, Prevention, Prevention

Understanding these key points empowers you to shape your teen’s behaviors. You will be even more effective when you understand some of the driving forces that influence whether or not your teen will use substances. Our prevention efforts have to go beyond telling young people what not to do, we must just as clearly show them what to do.

Be a Lighthouse Parent

Parents who use a lighthouse (or balanced) parenting style raise children who do better in school and are emotionally healthier. They also engage in far fewer risky behaviors, including substance use. Parents with the most authority over their teens are those who express their love and warmth, are flexible to meet changing needs, and set and monitor clear rules. Their teens are also most likely to come to them for advice and to seek guidance when they find themselves under pressure or in a tight spot.

Promote Positive Sensation Seeking within Safe Boundaries

Adolescents’ brains are wired to seek new experiences. This is good! They are super-learners and their brain is developing at a very rapid pace. Adolescence is when they should be exposed to new opportunities to maximize their growth potential and brain development. The adolescent brain is particularly sensitive to new sensations precisely because it drives learning. Sensation-seeking prepares young people to get the most from this period of development. But it also puts them at risk for substance use.

What can we do? Two things. First, let teens have plenty of opportunities for seeking safe thrills.  Try out for a team. A first date. Take part in a play. These positive opportunities to stretch may largely fill their drive to seek new experiences. Second, monitor our children closely and set clear boundaries. These boundaries can’t be random or placed on a whim, or teens may interpret them as an attempt to control them. When teens feel controlled they go around our rules. We must help them clearly understand that the boundaries are set to keep them safe and moral. And allow room for stretching and sensation-seeking within those boundaries. If teens’ lives are stimulating within safe boundaries, there may be less of a need to go beyond them.

Our prevention efforts have to go beyond telling young people what not to do, we must just as clearly show them what to do.

Guide Towards Positive Stress Management Strategies

Life can be stressful. Stress creates discomfort. Anything we do to lessen our discomfort is called coping. So many of the behaviors that destroy lives are negative coping strategies. They offer fleeting relief but bring more stress to our lives, harm our relationships, and damage our health. Cigarettes, alcohol, and other drugs are tops among dangerous coping strategies.

Telling kids what not to do is only a start. We have to teach them ways to manage life’s stressors in healthy ways that bring us together,  build strong bodies, enable us to express our feelings, build communities, and solve problems.

We offer a comprehensive stress management plan that offers positive, life affirming, strategies. Encourage your tweens and teens to design a plan that works for them by using our interactive tool.

Stress Management Plan for Teens
It’s great you want to help your teens to manage stress. They can build their own plan. Everything they need is right here. Suggest they get started today!

Support Healthy Escapes

Sometimes the best way to manage stress is to disengage from the problem by not even thinking about it. Drugs and alcohol are dangerous ways to disengage. We want to raise our children with healthy escape strategies, so there’s no need to reach for harmful ones. An effective escape should keep the mind so busy and focused that there is no room for thoughts that remind us of our stress.

For example, reading utilizes all the senses — we imagine the sounds, sights, and smells, and experience the emotions. Our minds work so hard painting a picture, that there is little room for anything else. Mindfulness allows you to be so attuned to the present that there is little room to dwell on the past or worry about the future. For more strategies, see our piece on Instant Vacations.

Support Positive Peer Influence

Peers hold powerful influence over each other. However, that influence can as easily be positive as negative. We can’t choose our teen’s friends, but we can influence the likelihood that they will be surrounded by supportive, caring friends who make wise choices. We do this when we support participation in after school activities or community and religious programs. When we know their friends’ parents and share common rules so that our teens can stay well within our boundaries and not feel like an outcast. And when we prepare our teens to safely navigate peer culture by:

  • Supporting teens to use the word “No” clearly, wisely, and effectively.
  • Teaching teens how to make the right choices without losing their friends.
  • Showing teens how to get themselves out of risky situations by shifting blame to you. Or by using a “Code Word” to signal you should pick them up or demand they get home.

Build Wise Consumers

Carefully crafted marketing messages are trying to build the next generation of smokers and drinkers by making substances look exciting and attractive. We must help our children understand they are being manipulated. It can actually be fun to make children advertising skeptics. We must help them grasp the dangers of substance use. These dangers are anything but fun, nor do they make us attractive.

Help adolescents understand that they are being manipulated by people in the name of profit. It activates youth to want to push for justice and fairness. We want our young people saying, “What?! That’s not right! They won’t get me.” The Truth Campaign stands as a model of this kind of effective prevention.

Model, Model, Model

Our actions speak loudly. This doesn’t mean you have to be an angel or choose to never have a drink. It does mean that you should model positive coping strategies, seek safe excitement, independent decision-making, and choose healthy temporary escapes.  It also means that when you do choose to drink, you are not doing so to “escape” or to manage anger.

In the event you are a smoker or involved with other substances, consider whether now is the time to model the strength it takes to do something about it and get professional help if and when you need it. Click here for links to helpful programs and resources.

If You’re Worried

Partnership for Drug Free Kids offers warning signs that your adolescent might be using harmful substances. Here are some thoughts on what to do (or not) if you believe your child is using substances:

  • Don’t ignore your instincts or wait to intervene. Time will not make it better.
  • Don’t call something normal that’s not. This is not a phase all teens have to go through.
  • Don’t enable your teen’s alcohol, cigarette, or drug use. Know what they are doing with their money and free time.
  • Do be unwavering in your support. Make it clear you remain totally by their side. Whether they show it or not, our teens want to make us proud.
  • Do remember who your children really are. They are the very same people you have always loved. You are needed now more than ever.
  • Do engage professional guidance. Highly effective parents comfortably turn to professional support.

Prevention isn’t just about acting before your child even considers trying a harmful substance.  It is also about taking quick action before circumstances worsen.

About Ken Ginsburg

Ken Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, is Founding Director of CPTC and Professor of Pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He travels the world speaking to parent, professional, and youth audiences and is the author of 5 award-winning parenting books including a multimedia professional toolkit on “Reaching Teens.” CPTC follows his strength-based philosophy and resilience-building model. For more on Dr. Ginsburg visit

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