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Talking to Teenagers… About Substance Use

Becoming Aware of Substances

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 might emerge. This is normal.

As you consider this topic, visions of your own teenage years might flash before your eyes, bringing discomfort, guilt, or regret.

I invite you to sit with this. Let whatever sensations come up be. Name them. And keep breathing. 

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. Truly, I’m still grateful that I felt comfortable calling my dad and he came to pick me up, no (well, some) questions asked. 

Can you relate? Embarrassment or shame over a similar experience from your own life might come up as you approach this topic here, as well as when you sit in conversation with your teenager. If and when this happens, I invite you to take breaks to check in with yourself, maybe even offering your inner teenager some love and attention. 

Using Boundaries in the Conversation About Substances

Boundaries are a foundational component of this conversation. As you explore the power of clear expectations and structure, you are modeling boundaries with and for your teenager. Furthermore, you will support them in naming and upholding their own boundaries. 

I often refer to the “teenage brain.” This developmental stage often comes with the intense desire to fit in with peers, establish an independent identity, and test limits. Drugs and alcohol are ways that some teenagers experiment with these desires and attempt to manage personal and social pressures. 

This said, as young people navigate this impressionable time, it’s important that parents provide both support and boundaries. This is not to suggest micro-management, rather, it’s an invitation to help your teen understand where their own limits are.

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

I invite you to keep this long-term goal of your teenager’s self-discipline in mind as you create intentional conversations about substances (and any other challenging topics for that matter).

10 Tips for Talking to Teenagers About Substances

1. Make Connection the Goal.

The primary goal of the initial conversations should be connection. It’s important that your focus is on being WITH your teenager; otherwise, you may take an overly authoritative approach that leaves your teenager feeling small or talked down to. 

2. Create an environment that values honesty.

Prepare yourself for this conversation. Acknowledge that it will likely bring up emotions and possibly differences in opinion. Additionally, be clear and state that the conversation will be about substances, AND explain to your teen that they are not in trouble. You might even consider and visualize how you will express and manage your feelings– and your teen’s! As you contribute to a space of safety and trust, your teen might share something that catches you off guard or stirs up emotions. This is a normal part of the process. 

3. Focus on safety.

Let your child’s well-being be a motivation for conversations about substances. I invite you to share this intention and acknowledge aloud that this is part of 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.” Moreover, you can use safety as an anchor to help yourself stay grounded and compassionate during the conversation.

4. Be Mindful with Your Opinions. 

After more than a decade of growing up with you, your teenagers already 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?” Instead of sharing opinions, you can consider sharing your philosophy behind this topic. 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.

5. Be direct, yet open, in sharing your expectations.

Share your expectations surrounding drugs, nicotine, and alcohol in direct, concise language, AND encourage your teen to check in with their inner voice as they navigate their journey toward independence– to stay true to themselves. Part of your expectations may be for your teen to practice self-monitoring and honesty; share that. 

6. 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 need to share every detail. However, 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. Consider sharing reflections you experienced, lessons you learned, and how you began to fine and define you own boundaries. 

7. Encourage your teen to ask for help.

Address instances in which your teen does decide to experiment with or try 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 using with drugs, nicotine, 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 had a plan.

8. Research and learn together.

Explore the positive aspects of sobriety and avoiding drug and alcohol use. Similarly, spend time researching the potential harms (including addiction).

9. 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. Email me if you live in the Austin-area and would like referrals.

10. Keep the dialogue open.

This topic will be recirculated, reconsidered, and reevaluated regularly. Keep the communication lines open. Assure your teen that they can come to you anytime, and inform that them that you will check in with them regularly. 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. Finally, as you and your family explore the topics of drugs, nicotine, alcohol, and boundaries, you may enjoy documenting your go-to supports using this support system map

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