When Should I Talk to My Teen About Drinking & Drugs?
Updated: 2 days ago
The idea of having "The Talk" with our kids about drinking and drugs is something that most parents dread. We don't want to believe that our child could get in with a bad crowd, or go to parties where other kids are drinking or using drugs. We want to believe that we have raised them right, and that they will "Just Say No."
Often our own fears will lead to not talking to our kids about drinking or drugs at all, and that is a big mistake.
What Parents Say Matters.
According to the Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration, (SAMSHA), "One of the most influential factors during a child’s adolescence is maintaining a strong, open relationship with a parent. When parents create supportive and nurturing environments, children make better decisions. Though it may not always seem like it, children really hear their parents’ concerns, which is why it’s important that parents discuss the risks of using alcohol and other drugs." (Why You Should Talk With Your Child About Alcohol and Other Drugs | SAMHSA)
If we talk to our kids early and often about drug use, it is more likely that they will feel comfortable talking to us if they are facing peer pressure for drug use.
It doesn't have to be a big "we need to talk" conversation, because often those conversations can be too high-stakes for both parents and kids, and making it difficult to say what we actually mean to say.
My daughter first talked to me about drugs when she had a unit in her Freshman Biology class about the effects of drugs on the body. She was actually learning things that I didn't even know, like how meth can rot out your nasal passages so much that the membrane in the middle of your nose is gone. Scary stuff. But the conversation was just a few minutes long, sharing information without judgement.
Having little conversations when issues pop up organically, either through our experience or in the media, allows us to talk to our kids about drinking and drugs in context. Small moments with movies, videos, books or news can be used as teachable moments. Showing how characters suffer because of drinking and drugs allows us to contextualize often.
What Parents Don't Say Matters Too.
My parents never talked much about drinking or drug use. My mom told me once that, "I never smoked pot, but I did crack and speed." Which was a huge revelation from a Sunday School Teacher. But she never gave me any context, or said why she did drugs, or why she stopped either.
According to SAMSHSA "Kids don’t always have all the facts when it comes to alcohol and other drugs. If parents don’t talk about the risks of underage drinking and substance use, their kids might not see any harm in trying alcohol and other substances. Having a conversation allows parents to set clear rules about what they expect from their kids when it comes to alcohol and other drugs." (Why You Should Talk With Your Child About Alcohol and Other Drugs | SAMHSA)
Basically, if we don't tell kids that drinking and drug use can have detrimental effects, they may take our silence as an OK.
"About 10 percent of 12-year-olds say they have tried alcohol, but by age 15, that number jumps to 50 percent. Additionally, by the time they are seniors, almost 70 percent of high school students will have tried alcohol, half will have taken an illegal drug, and more than 20 percent will have used a prescription drug for a nonmedical purpose. The sooner you talk to your children about alcohol and other drugs, the greater chance you have of influencing their decisions about drinking and substance use."
Don't let your kids just be a statistic.
When we talk to our kids about drinking and drugs, we get to shape the conversation. In our family, we have a European culture where it is taught that alcohol use is alright in moderation. Once in a while at dinner we will have a beer or a glass of wine.
Modeling moderation, and especially responsible alcohol or marijuana use (now that pot is legal many places) can show kids that responsible behavior is important. Never drive while intoxicated.
Many times, it isn't the substance use itself that is 'bad' it is the overuse, and the risky behaviors that can ensue. Excessive alcohol and marijuana use can lead to lowered inhibitions, which can cause the user to engage in behaviors that they otherwise wouldn't. It is this type of behaviors that will cause the greatest damage to your teen's life.
Risky behaviors can include drunk driving, also risky sexual activities, or engaging other dangerous behaviors like lying or stealing. That is when things become really problematic.
What if You Think Your Teen Is Drinking Or Using Drugs?
According to SAMSHA, some warning signs may include, "Although the following signs may indicate a problem with alcohol or other drugs, some also reflect normal growing pains. Experts believe that a drinking problem is more likely if you notice several of these signs at the same time, if they occur suddenly, or if some of them are extreme in nature.
Mood changes: flare-ups of temper, irritability, and defensiveness
School problems: poor attendance, low grades, and/or recent disciplinary action
Rebellion against family rules
Friend changes: switching friends and a reluctance to let you get to know the new friends
A “nothing matters” attitude: sloppy appearance, a lack of involvement in former interests, and general low energy
Alcohol presence: finding it in your child’s room or backpack or smelling alcohol on his or her breath
Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, poor concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination, or slurred speech" (How To Tell If Your Child Is Drinking Alcohol | SAMHSA)
This is me when I was a teenager. You can probably tell from the glassy eyes, and overly relaxed smile that I was high when this picture was taken.
If your kid comes home looking like this, and you suspect them of drinking or using drugs, it is important to address it in the moment by letting them know that you are aware that they are in a chemically altered state. However, they are probably not likely to be in the mindset for a lecture at that point, so letting them know you will talk about it in the morning is probably a good starting point.
The Questions You Ask Matter.
When you start the dialogue with your child about drug use, the first question you should ask is why they decided to drink or to use drugs.
Some of the most common reasons for teen drinking and drug use include stress, boredom, peer pressure, depression, and lack of family supports.
Once you understand the underlying reason for your teen acting out and trying alcohol or drugs, you will be better equipped to address the behavior. There are many other ways to deal with stress or the desire to fit in with others. By addressing the cause of their substance abuse, it will be easier to stop the problem behavior than if you simply go straight into a punishment.
The first time I tried drugs, it was immediately after being sexually assaulted.
After that, I ran away from home multiple times, tried to commit suicide, and used drugs regularly for about 2 years.
During that time, I was arrested by the police several times, and taken to the emergency room. Not once did anyone ever ask me why I had done the things that I had. Professionals only told me that I needed to stop being so mean to my parents.
When you ask an open-ended question like why, it shows that you have an interest in your child's feelings, and want to help with the underlying cause of their problems. It shows that you are open to them.
Creating an environment of openness allows your child to feel trust for you as parents, and that you have their best interests and want to help them. It puts you on your child's side.
Substance abuse is rarely the actual problem, but a symptom of a deeper problem. When you address the actual problem, it opens the door for real solutions.
If a child has only tried alcohol or drugs once, there is a chance that you can address the problem within the family if the cause has been peer pressure or boredom. In those cases, providing positive alternative activities within the family, or a positive peer group, it may be easier to get your child on track quickly.
Before I actually tried drugs, I had said no many times.
If your child trusts you to tell you that they have been approached to try drugs or alcohol, you can begin the conversation early, and provide support to continue to say no, and to find a different peer group.
However, if a child has been using drugs or alcohol for quite some time, or if there is an underlying mental health issue, it is probably time to seek professional support.
Taking a child for therapy can be very helpful to learn coping strategies to stop using alcohol or drugs, as well as to deal with the cause of their substance abuse.
If you need to locate a counselor in your area, you can use this helpful website:
It may also be helpful to speak with your insurance provider, as many are able to provide referrals.
It is important to remember, when you are trying to help your child with a substance abuse issue, to stay on their side, and show them that you care. When you approach a situation as a problem solver, instead of with blame, you are showing your child that you still love them unconditionally, and that they can rely on you to assist them in getting well.
Even if there has not been open conversation prior to a substance use incident, if you react in a caring and helpful manner, it can help to create trust, and allow your teen to feel more open to coming to you in the future.
If you are struggling with this type of issue, it can be helpful to seek therapy for yourself as well, or to participate in a support group such as ALANON.
If you have been through something like this with your child, and have additional helpful strategies, please leave a comment!
For more information on helping kids cope with stress (which can often lead to substance use) check out these other blog posts: