6 tips for talking to your teen about drugs and alcohol

January 29, 2016 | by David Lott, M.D.

"This is your brain on drugs." You may remember this ad from back in the day, intended to scare kids away from drugs. And while you may think drug and alcohol abuse could never happen to your child, don’t be fooled.

More than a third of eighth graders have drunk alcohol, one in five eighth-graders has already used some type of illicit drug, ranging from tobacco to heroin, one in five teens has abused prescription medications, and by 12th grade, about half of teens have used an illicit drug at least once. 

Drug and alcohol abuse that starts in the teen years can lead to lifelong abuse and addiction if the problem isn’t addressed early on. Teens who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to become addicted to alcohol later in life than those who waited until after age 21.

Mental health issues such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders are often linked to drug and alcohol addiction, and the combination of the two can be devastating. Overly anxious or depressed teens often self-medicate to feel better. Teens who drink or do drugs are more likely to commit self-harm than those who don’t.

Parental involvement is critical for preventing drug and alcohol abuse. Don’t expect the school to do it for you. You need to take an active role in helping your teen say no.

Here are 6 tips for talking to your teen about drugs and alcohol:

  1. Don’t lecture; listen. Instead of lecturing, be a good listener. You want your teen to come to you with questions and concerns. Ask them how they view drugs and alcohol. Let them know no question is off limits. Don’t overreact to what they say. When censored in their own homes, kids go elsewhere to find answers. Have an open mind so you can have an open discussion.
  2. Talk often and openly. Teaching your teen about drugs and alcohol shouldn’t be just one talk — it needs to be part of your regular, normal conversation. Take advantage of teachable moments in your daily life, in the news, on TV, etc. as an opportunity for discussion. Avoid scare tactics. Instead, use facts and clearly explain the risks and dangers involved. If you’ve had a problem with drugs or alcohol, it is good to let them know, but you don’t need to share every detail, and make sure you discuss it in a way that doesn’t glamorize it or make light of the problems.
  3. Set clear rules and expectations. Lay out clear rules and consequences for your teen. Studies show kids are less likely to use drugs and alcohol when they know their parents disapprove of it. Make it clear from an early age that drugs and alcohol are dangerous and that you expect your kids not to use them. In case they are ever in trouble, encourage your teen to call you anytime (even at 2 a.m.!) if they need a safe ride home and you will pick them up, no matter what.
  4. Get to know your teen’s friends and their parents. Teens want to fit in and those who have friends who use drugs are likely to try drugs themselves. Get to know your teen’s friends by finding ways to meet them and making small talk. Encourage your teen to avoid friendships with kids who use drugs. Let them know it’s ok to say no to their friends.
  5. Be involved in your teen’s life. Spend one-on-one time with your teen regularly. They will have better self-esteem and learn your values. Monitor your teen’s whereabouts and activities, including social media. Let them know that you're available and willing to listen whenever they need you. Pay attention to signs of anxiety or depression. Provide resources for additional support if they need it. Make sure they know they are loved.
  6. Use role playing to help your teen say no. If your teen hasn’t been offered drugs or alcohol already, they will most likely at some point. Talk about ways to deal with peer pressure and how to say no before they’re in the situation. Role playing possible scenarios can help your teen come up with ways to turn down alcohol or drugs if/when they are offered it.

Even with the proper guidance from parents, any kid can end up in trouble. There are numerous resources available to get your teen the right kind of help.

Read a parent’s guide to prevention or learn what to do if your child is using drugs.

Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

David Lott, MD is a psychiatrist with Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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