Talking to Teenagers… About Substance Use

Talking to Teenagers… About Substance Use

Drugs, nicotine, and alcohol often come into the awareness of children as they hit the tween and teen years. For parents, a great deal of fear and a desire to grasp tighter and keep your teen safe (under lock and key) might emerge. A vision of your own teenage years might flash before your eyes, bringing discomfort, guilt, or regret.


Just sit with this. Do your best to accept yourself– your present self and your inner child. Let whatever sensations come up be. And breathe.


When I think back to my teenage years, there are moments that make me cringe. The first one that comes to mind is a drunken night at a high school party. I had lied to my parents about where I was going and ended up drinking. Next thing I knew, I was crying over my on-again, off-again boyfriend… and hiding in the backyard. I knew that driving home and escaping the relationship drama wasn’t an option, but I was too embarrassed to ask friends for support. I ended up calling my dad, sobbing, asking for help. Can you relate? Embarrassment or shame over a similar experience from your own life experience or your life as a parent might come up as your reading. Remember to breathe, be, accept.

Building upon last week’s conversation about boundaries (LINK), we will explore the power of clear expectations and structure, especially in the context of substance use.

I often refer to the “teenage brain;” this developmental stage comes with the intense desire to fit in with peers, establish independent identity, and a tendency towards testing limits. Substances are a common way that young people experiment with risks.

As youth navigate this impressionable time, it’s important that parents provide boundaries. This is not to suggest micro-management, rather, it’s an invitation to help your teen/tween establish a container that allows for empowered exploration.


The ultimate goal is for your teens to regulate their own behavior, but as they develop these skills, they need your guidance:

“The purpose of parental discipline during adolescence is not for parents to manage the teenager’s life; rather, it is to teach the teenager sufficient self-discipline to ultimately be able to independently and responsibly manage themselves.” Carl E Pickhardt Ph.D., Psychology Today


Keeping this long-term goal of self-discipline in mind, parents can create intentional dialogue about expectations, structure, and substance using these strategies:



1. Create a safe environment for authenticity. Be clear and state that the conversation will be about substances, but explain to your teen that they are not in trouble. Prepare yourself for this conversation. Acknowledge that it will likely bring up emotions and possibly differences in opinion. Consider how you will express and manage your feelings– and your teen’s! Know that when you build safety and trust, your teen might share something that catches you off guard or stirs up emotions, and you might go through another layer of processing your own history. Keep faith in the process, knowing that the goal of the conversation is to help your children learn boundaries as they continue to grow.


2. Focus on safety. Let your child’s well-being be the foundation for conversations about substances. State that this is your goal! (And your job, as a parent.) You might say, “This topic feels really important to me because I care about you being happy, healthy, and safe.” Also use this idea of safety to help yourself stay grounded and compassionate during the conversation.


3. By now, your adolescent children already know your opinion. But… they might not know your philosophy! After more than a decade of growing up with you, your children likely know your preferences, judgments, and opinions about most things. It can be meaningful to briefly share your emotions and worries, but you leave your opinions aside. You might ask, “What do you believe my opinions about drug and alcohol use are?” Furthermore, consider sharing your philosophy for this conversation. For example, it might be “to help you have all the information you need in order to make decisions that help you grow and bring you joy.” Express this.


4. Be direct, yet open, in sharing your expectations. Share your expectations surrounding drugs, nicotine, and alcohol in direct, concise language. What boundaries do you expect them to hold? Encourage your teen to check in with their inner voice as they navigate their journey toward independence– to stay true to themselves. Explore the importance of practicing self-monitoring and behaving with intention.


5. Self-disclose what feels relevant and right. If your teen asks about your experiences with substances, choose to share what feels authentic and comfortable to you. There is no pressure to share every detail. If you share some of your process (without glamorizing it), you provide a model for your teen to think through their own actions. You also put yourself in the position of relating and understanding, which contributes to trust and connection in the relationship.


6. Encourage your teen to ask for help. Address instances in which your teen struggles to meet the expectation of avoiding substances. What do they do now? Create a plan together– one that focuses on safety, not punishment. For example, “If you or a friend end up intoxicated, call me for a ride, rather than getting behind the wheel.” This is also a great time to talk about how your child can support a friend who is experimenting with drugs or alcohol. When I called my dad sobbing and clearly intoxicated, he came to pick me up, heard me out about my heartbreak on the drive home, and took me to get my car the next day– which also entailed a conversation about boundaries. I’m grateful that instead of testing my limits even further and getting behind the wheel, I knew that I could call my dad for support.


7. Research and learn together. Explore the positive aspects of not using drugs or alcohol as you engage in this dialogue. Spend time researching the potential harms (including addiction), but also give weight to the benefits of living substance-free.


8. If you suspect that your teen has a problem with substance use, focus on behavior. Describe what you’re observing, without labeling or accusing. For example, “I’ve noticed that you are more irritable on the weekends, and you’re missing curfew more regularly. I’d like to talk about this.” Allow your teen the time and space to respond. Consider asking, “What kind of support do you need right now?” Additionally, seek resources through a counselor, drug-treatment center, or specialist if you suspect regular use or addiction.


9. Keep the dialogue running. This topic will be recirculated, reconsidered, and reevaluated regularly. Keep the communication lines open. Assure your teen that they can come to you anytime, but also that you will check in with them regularly (and do that– set reminders for every few months on your calendar now).


This topic, like most of the big, tough ones, doesn’t come with straightforward answers, but trust yourself and the process of dialogue. Clear expectations and structures will help you provide your child with all the love, support, and guidance they need to thrive.


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