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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.

Children who talk to their parents frequently about substance use are up to 50% less likely to use substances themselves. 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!


TALK EARLY. Adolescents are being exposed to drugs at earlier and earlier ages. Ideally, you’ll start the conversation long before your child really needs it. By the time children are ages 12-14, it is likely they already have been offered substances. Experts say it’s best for parents to talk to their kids around ages 10-12 or even earlier.

JUST SAY "KNOW". Before you talk to your child, get the facts about alcohol and various drugs from our Blog. However, don’t assume that simply dropping information on a teen will automatically lead them to make wise choices. Drill home key points. But don’t let all the fact based research you know dominate the conversation.


CHOOSE THE RIGHT TIME AND PLACE. Look for blocks of time to talk such as after dinner or before bed. Turn off any devices. It may be more comfortable while in the car or out walking. With less eye contact, your child won’t feel like they are under a microscope. 

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF "TEACHABLE MOMENTS." Using every day or special events to naturally start conversations is less threatening to a child and can be more productive. For example, if you see a group of kids vaping, talk about the addictiveness of nicotine and its negative effects. Point out celebrity headlines or stories going on in your own community that show the negative consequences of substance use. When watching TV or a movie together or if you notice advertising, ask how it makes alcohol or drug use look, how that makes your child feel about drugs and whether it’s a problem at school. 


GET THEIR PERSPECTIVE. Instead of leading with facts, start with genuine curiosity and ask open-ended questions. Finding out what your teen already knows and thinks about a substance will determine how the rest of the exchange might proceed.

TEACH REFUSAL SKILLS.  Some children are able to confidently say “no thanks” when offered alcohol or a drug. Others may prefer to use an excuse such as “I have to get up early” or “my parents wait up for me to see if I’m sober”. Role playing can help. 


MAKE YOUR POSITION AND RULES CLEAR. Long before your kids face the pressures of adolescence, they should know your position on underage substance use. Parents’ disapproval is a huge factor in preventing substance use. Children whose parents explicitly disapprove of their using substances are three times less likely to use.


Clearly state that you do not want your child to drink alcohol or use drugs until they are older. Don’t treat alcohol and marijuana lightly. Explain why your advice is to delay. Establish specific rules that are consistent with your family values and priorities. Tie them all together, state them clearly and discuss under what circumstances there will be consequences.


Follow through and consistently enforce your rules. Express confidence they will make the right decisions. While your rules may change over time, your child should never be unclear as to what they are.

ACKNOWLEDGE THE LIMITS OF YOUR AUTHORITY. After stating your expectations, concede that you don’t have the power to make your child’s decisions and they must make those choices themselves. Express your hope they will be healthy decisions. Point out that independence centers on the willingness to look after oneself.


USE ACTIVE LISTENING. Let your child know they are understood by reflecting back what you hear — either verbatim or just the sentiment. Listen without interrupting, summarize what you’ve heard, and then confirm. Examples of phrases are “it seems like you’re feeling ...”, “I hear you saying ...” or “am I right that ....?”


USE "I" STATEMENTS. These let you express yourself without your child feeling judged, blamed or attacked. Describe the 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 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”. 

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. 

OFFER EMPATHY AND SUPPORT. Approach your child with concern and show compassion. Let your child know you understand that the adolescent years can be challenging. 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.  


SHARE YOUR FAMILY HISTORY.  If there is a history of chemical dependency in your family, educate your child about genetic vulnerabilities towards substance abuse. If you have personal experiences with addiction and recovery, share them. If there is mental illness in your family or a vulnerability to it, share that too. Certain drugs (e.g., cannabis) can trigger a condition if there is a predisposition to it. 

TAKING A "HARM REDUCTION" APPROACH.  At some point, prevention efforts by necessity may turn to reality-based efforts, which focus on safety and moderation. This especially applies to older teens with more autonomy who may be using substances, as well as college-bound teens or those who are leaving home to travel or work. 

Recommended Read

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.


Additional guidance on talking to your teens with specific language suggestions is available

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