HOW TO TALK WITH YOUR TEEN
ABOUT SUBSTANCE USE
It's no easy matter for many parents to bring up the subject of substance use. Your child may try to dodge the discussion and you may feel unsure about how to proceed. As intimidating as it may be, the topic should not be avoided. Having these conversations decreases the chances of having to talk with your child about seeking professional help down the road. So talk with your child as soon as the time is right — and keep the conversation going.
Bonding. Developing a strong, connected relationship between you and your child is essential to helping your child avoid substance use. If your child feels comfortable talking openly with you, you'll have a greater chance of guiding your child toward healthy decision-making. When the relationship between a parent and teen is full of conflict or is very distant, the teen is more likely to use substances.
Acknowledge the limits of your authority. After stating your expectations, concede that you don't have the power to make your teen's decisions for them and they must make those choices themselves. And that you hope they will be healthy decisions. Point out that whereas adolescence centers on the wish for independence, independence centers on the willingness to look after oneself.
Don't underestimate your power. Surveys consistently show that the number one response by teens when asked "why are you not using drugs? What's holding you back?" is "because my parenting expect me not to use them". Of course, they will never admit this to you!
Just say "know". Before you discuss substance use with your teen, its best to familiarize yourself with the topic by reading the facts about alcohol and various drugs. (To do so, review our Newsletter Archives on this website. However, don't assume that simply dropping information on a teen will automatically lead them to make wise choices. Drill home key points, e.g., marijuana is habit-forming and may be addictive, affects the adolescent brain and respiratory system, and contributes to anxiety, depression or psychosis. However, don't let all the fact based research you know dominate your conversation.
Talk early. Adolescents are being exposed to drugs at earlier and earlier ages. Experts say it is best for parents to talk to their kids around age 10-12 or even earlier. Ideally, you'll start the conversation long before your child really needs it. By the time they are ages 12-14, it is likely they already have been offered substances.
Of course, its never too late to start. However, if your teen already has started using substances, the conversation will be different. Even if your child has experimented, there is still time to make sure he or she has all the facts. Knowing the risk may inspire a teen to cut back or quit.
Choose the right time and place. You can look for blocks of time to talk such as after dinner, before bed, on the way to or from school and extracurricular activities. Turn off your TV, radio, cell phone and computer and really listen. Before having the discussion, consider telling your teen that you have something important you would like to talk about and ask them when they would like to have this conversation. If teens set the time and place for the discussion, there's a good chance they will be more actively engaged.
Another option is take a walk or go for a drive together. With less eye contact,your teen won't feel like he or she is under a microscope.
Take advantage of "teachable moments". Additionally, use opportunities to naturally start conversations. These are less threatening to the child and can be more productive. Use every day events to start a conversation. For example, if you see a group of kids vaping, talk about the addictiveness of nicotine and its negative effects. Point out alcohol and drug-related celebrity headlines or stories going on in your own community that show the negative consequences of alcohol and drug use. When watching TV or a movie together or if you notice a billboard advertising alcohol, vaping or marijuana, ask how the show or advertising makes alcohol or drug use look, how that makes your child feel about drugs and whether it's a problem at school.
Do not discuss the issue if they are under the influence. If your teen comes home drunk or high, it's tempting to confront the issue right then, but this won't be productive. Wait until your teen is sober, coherent and can be fully present for the discussion.
Don't shame them with anger. While you may feel blindsided or disappointed if you catch your teen under the influence, don't let these normal emotions guide conversations with your teen. Yelling matches won't help. Anger and accusations only make your teen defensive and encourages him or her to shut down. Instead approach your teen with concern. Take a few deep breaths. Show compassion. Remain calm. Explain the concerns you have. Let your child know your are a source of support rather than guilt or shame.
Approach your talk with openness. If you want to have a productive conversation with your teen, try to keep an open mind and remain curious and calm.
Get their Perspective. Instead of leading with facts, start with genuine curiosity and ask open ended questions without sounding judgmental. Ask open ended questions (that don't result in a simple "yes" or "no" response) like "what do you think about weed"? or "are a lot of kids drinking" or "hey, I just read about this thing called a JUUL. What do you know about it?"
Finding out what your teen already knows and thinks about a substance will determine how the rest of the exchange might proceed. If your teen wrinkles her nose and says, "I tried it and didn't like it", you're going to have a different conversation than if she responds "lots of kids are doing it and its not a big deal".
Asking teens what they know about a topic increases the chances that they will want to hear what we know about that topic too. For an excellent list of questions to start conversations and help your child develop agency (i.e, act independently and make his or her own decisions), go to the website of The Coalition Connection.
Make your expectations clear. Long before your kids face the pressures of adolescence, they should know your stance on alcohol, marijuana, vaping and other drug use. Don't treat alcohol and marijuana lightly, even in conversations with other adults your children may overhear. If you convey the message that experimentation is okay, they are more likely to use substances. Parents' disapproval is a huge factor in preventing substance use.
Clearly state your expectations and set firm rules - that you do not want your teen using drugs. You can say something like "my expectation is that you won't drink, smoke or use other drugs. I have high standards because I know you'll meet them and do what's right." Establish that there will be appropriate consequences for breaking your rules - and consistently enforce them.
Make driving under the influence a nonnegotiable "no-no". This also extends to getting into a car with a driver who has been drinking, using marijuana or other drugs. In particular, explain that the prohibition includes being under the influence of marijuana, as a lot of teens think this is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol. Our teens report that it is not unusual for so called "designated drivers" or "DDs" to have used marijuana.
Taking a "Harm Reduction" Approach. At some point, prevention efforts by necessity may turn to reality based "harm reduction" efforts — especially for older teens with more autonomy who are using substances. A list of talking points using this approach is HERE.
Talk alone is not enough. Finally, remember that while parent-child conversations about substance use are essential, you also need to take concrete action to reduce access to substances. Use the BTI Parent Lists to reach out to other parents to monitor your child and ensure there is adult supervision without teen use of substances.
Use active listening. Let your teen know she is understood by reflecting back what you hear - either verbatim or just the sentiment. Listen without interrupting, then sum up what you've heard, and allow her to confirm. Examples of phrases are "It seems like you're feeling ...", "I hear you say you're feeling ..." or "Am I right that you're feeling ...."
Use "I" statements. These let you express yourself without your teenager feeling judged, blamed or attacked. Describe his behavior, how you feel about it and how it affects you. Then spell out what you need.
An example is "when you don't come home on time, I worry that something terrible has happened. I need for you to call me as soon as you know you're going to be late so that I know you are okay". Or "because I love you and I want to keep you safe, I worry about you going to the concert. I need to know that you will obey our rules about not drinking or using drugs".
Don't just use scare tactics. While it is important for parents to tell children that alcohol and other drug use can have negative consequences, focus on the positives too. Tap into their vested interests, by explaining that avoiding substances can make easier something they value or are working toward: a scholarship, their first-string playing time on the court or field, a high GPA, a high SAT or ACT score, passing driver's ed, getting into a desired college, getting a job, etc.
Use carrots in addition to sticks. Teens want our trust and their freedom. Explain that you are much more likely to give them that if you have confidence they will abstain from using substances. Offer praise when they are doing so. "Catch them being good".
Teach them how to say 'NO". Tell your teen to stand up straight, make eye contact, say how they feel and don't make excuses. Standing up for yourself applies to other situations such as unwanted sex.
Give teens more advice than "just say no". As a back up to just saying "no", help your teen think of other ways to refuse offered substances. Examples are "I have to get up early", "My parents wait up for me to see if I'm sober", "I don't like the taste of alcohol", "My mom is crazy. She drug tests me".
Give kids a "way out" of a risky situation. Decide on a code word that they can say to text you to get them with a "no questions asked" policy. Make sure they know they can always call you for a ride home or use an Uber in an emergency.
Discuss your childhood environment. Teens like hearing about their parents' personal experiences. While it is not wise to overshare or tell war stories, it is helpful to get their attention by sharing the environment you navigated as a teen and compare and contrast it to theirs.
Whatever you do, don't lie. When asked "did you drink or smoke when you were young?", an approach is to admit that you did use substances as a teenager, but that it was a mistake. Give your teen an example of an embarrassing or regretful moment that occurred because of your substance use.
Differentiate between what we know now about the effects of substances on the developing adolescent brain. Point out how powerful today's marijuana is versus its low potency back in your day. Or distinguish between chugging a bottle of beer as you may have done in high school and a taking gulps from a bottle of vodka, as teens do today.
Offer empathy and support. Let your child know you understand that the teen years can be fraught with social, emotional and academic challenges. Acknowledge that everyone struggles sometimes, but alcohol and drugs are not a useful or healthy way to cope with problems.
Remind your child that you are there for support and guidance and that its important to you that your child is healthy, happy and makes safe choices. Make sure your child knows that if they make the wrong choice, you're still there for them.
Share your family history. If there is a history of chemical dependency in your family, educate your teen about genetic vulnerabilities towards substance abuse. If you have personal experiences with addiction and recovery, share them. Don't hide valuable knowledge you've gained from experience in an effort to maintain a perfect image. Your teen can learn from your mistakes, but you have to be willing to share them.
Make it an ongoing conversation. Remember you don't need to cover everything at once. In fact, you're likely to have a greater impact on your child's decisions by having a number of talks about substance use throughout their adolescence. Think of your talks as part of an ongoing conversation. If they are not complaining that your are talking about the topic too much, then you are probably not talking about it enough!
A note about marijuana legalization. Legalization bolsters the common belief among adolescents that the drug is safe for their recreational use. Teens are likely to be skeptical of adults bearing bad news about a widely used drug that is now legal for adults.
One suggestion for a successful conversation is to discuss what legalization does and doesn't mean. Point out that its easy to be on the right side of the law and the wrong side of science. Examples are cigarettes and tanning beds. Explain that savvy consumers need to look at the available evidence, not legislation when making decisions about their own health and well-being. Adults might say "Whatever has happened with the laws, I hope you'll keep your eye on the science. You only get one brain for your whole life. I'm rooting for you to take great care of it".
A note about sex and consent. Its important to have the conversation about drugs and sex with your teen, especially those who are college bound in an area where "affirmative consent" is the law. Explain that alcohol and other drugs can cloud people's judgment, increasing the chances of unprotected sex. Just as important, being under the influence can vitiate consent, putting a teen at risk for sexual assault.
Additional guidance on talking to your teens with specific language suggestions is available on the website of The Coalition Connection (Click on "Conversation Starters") and directly HERE.
I'd Listen to My Parents If They'd Shut Up: What to Say and Not Say When Parenting Teens by Anthony E. Wolf. This is an excellent book on communicating with teens.
TIPS ON MONITORING YOUR TEEN
In addition to discussions with your teen and using BTI's Parent Lists, review the comprehensive list of parenting tips under Monitoring Your Teen such as restricting access to your liquor or prescription pills or searching for fake ID's and drug paraphernalia.