Talking to your teenager about substance abuse can be scary. You may struggle to come up with the right words, especially if you have personally struggled with substance use in the past. Ultimately, we want to protect our kids and give them the support they need to thrive. The teenage years are full of experimentation and pushing boundaries, and with support, your teenager can navigate risky situations with confidence.
If you want to talk to your teenager about substance abuse, you can do a few things to lay the foundation. First, you’ll want to work to develop open communication without consequences. Ideally, this should start when your child is young, but it’s not too late to start if this hasn’t been your approach in the past.
Next, you’ll want to learn more about the causes of addiction. This is especially important if you have a history of substance use or addiction runs in your family. It’s also important to familiarize yourself with the signs of substance abuse. Knowing the signs allows you to help your child if they are in crisis.
You can develop a framework of how you want to talk to your child about drug use. We’ve included tips to walk you through all of the steps. Parenting and raising teenagers is a complex, emotional, and difficult process. With the right resources and support, you and your teenager can work together to build a relationship rooted in trust and love.
Finding Common Ground
The teenage experience tends to be somewhat universal because we all go through similar biological, social, and psychological changes as we grow from a child into an adult. Even though evolving technology might leave you feeling like you can’t relate to younger generations, it’s important to remember that many of our teenage experiences are associated with hormonal changes and our shifting perception of the self. These aspects of growing up are generationally universal.
Think back to your teenage years and try to recall the complex emotions you had to navigate on a daily basis. Nowadays, there is a lot of pressure for teens to plot out their lives, even before they become adults at 18. There is more pressure to manage an image with access to social media, and they are more likely to experience cyberbullying.
While many of these issues are signs of the times, there is common ground: we all know what it feels like to struggle with our identity at a young age. It can be helpful to acknowledge that while your experiences aren’t exactly the same, you know that your teen is under a lot of pressure because you experienced something similar growing up.
Reminding your child that you love them unconditionally can go a long way in boosting their confidence. When kids feel safe and loved by their parents, they are less likely to engage in attention-seeking behavior. Teenagers who have a healthy relationship with their parents are less likely to develop friendships that encourage deviant behavior¹.
Understanding the Statistics
Navigating adolescence is difficult for teens and parents, and it can become even more complicated when teens start engaging in risky behavior. To some extent, rebellion and experimentation are normal and natural, but they can quickly become very dangerous when drugs and alcohol are involved.
In the United States, tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana sales (in some states) are all illegal for individuals under 21. Despite the law, drug and alcohol use by minors is pervasive across the country. By the time they’re in 12th grade, 46.6% of teens have tried illicit drugs. In the same time frame, 61.5% of teens will have abused alcohol².
Many of these cases are in moderation and have little to no lasting effects, varying across communities and individuals. Unfortunately, however, intersectional cultural factors like the necessity to hide substance use from authority figures and the normalization of binge drinking make these habits quite dangerous.
In the U.S., 407,000 teenagers aged 12- to 17-years-old met the criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the last year². With consumption rates among teens rising each year, it’s urgently necessary for parents and guardians to be aware of their child’s habits and behaviors to identify AUD or Substance Use Disorder (SUD) before it becomes deadly.
Know the Causes of Addiction
To understand how to intervene effectively, we need to understand what drives adolescents to use drugs and alcohol. In a previous post, we took a deeper dive into the causes of addiction. Below, we’re revisiting the risks through the lens of teenage substance abuse.
Family members with addiction put your teenager at a higher risk of developing SUD. While we cannot change our genetic makeup, knowing you have a higher risk of alcoholism and SUD from a young age can help inform your decisions related to consumption later in life. Parents and families should talk to their teens about family members who have experienced these conditions to bring gravity to the discussion.
Age, sex, and race affect how your body and mind respond to substances and your propensity to develop addiction or disorder. Similar to genetic makeup, these things can’t be changed, but knowing the risks can prepare you to face them.
Brain Chemical Makeup
Drugs and alcohol alter the natural balance of chemicals in the brain, affecting mood, bodily functions, and thoughts. This will look different from person to person and can be especially confusing for teenagers already dealing with hormonal mood swings. Some teenagers might be more at risk for drug use because they are looking for a way to escape complex and confusing feelings.
If you suspect your teen is acting differently and is experiencing new and more negative mood swings, don’t just chalk it up to hormones. While many things can affect an adolescent’s emotions, it’s vital to understand the difference between “moody” and hungover, high, or depressed due to drug use.
Early Childhood Trauma and Abuse
Experiencing trauma and abuse as a child increases your teenager’s risk of using substances. Unfortunately, even parents don’t always know everything their child has gone through. Sometimes, parents can cause harm as well.
If the teen in your life has suffered trauma and abuse, they must get the therapy and care they need. If their behavior has changed and you suspect something has happened, make sure you approach the situation delicately and without blame. Many people consume substances to alter their mental state and avoid the bad things that have happened to them.
Sometimes, we engage in behaviors to fit in. This is especially true for teens: social assimilation is one of the most significant factors contributing to teenagers drinking and doing drugs. Knowing your teen’s friends and their families is the best way to stay in the loop about who they’re spending time with and where they’re hanging out.
Mental disorders and SUD are strongly correlated³. If your teen has a mental disorder, talk to their doctor about how their condition intersects with SUD.
Lack of positive role models, authority figures, and supervision contribute to an increased risk of substance use and abuse. It may be challenging to recognize from the inside, but consider the dynamics in your family and the way your teen may perceive them. Open discussions are always beneficial when presented with respect and care. If there’s trouble at home, try to examine ways in which you may be contributing to that environment and how you can improve it.
Drug use can fundamentally change undeveloped brains, predisposing teenage drug users to addiction. Many parents adopt a quasi laissez-faire attitude towards drinking and smoking, as in “I’d rather you do it under my roof than out on the street!” While some parents may choose this type of harm reduction, it can put kids at higher risk for addiction.
In general, stress also correlates with higher instances of substance abuse because of hormonal changes in the brain. This is especially true for teens – hormones affect their moods, emotions, impulses, and bodies. Think back to your teenage years and all of the changes you had to navigate while balancing school, relationships, and other responsibilities.
Parents are often surprised when their straight-A, star athlete, student government leader is drinking or abusing drugs. The fact is, stress and substance abuse are correlated at any age. Teens face an enormous amount of stress academically, physically, and socially. It’s necessary to remind them that their value exists outside these metrics and that the “perfect student” trope is unachievable, and the pursuit can be extremely damaging.
You can affirm your child’s experience, emphasize that weaknesses are normal, and remind them that they can come to you for support.
Increasing Drug Amounts
Regularly consuming addictive substances will build up a tolerance. This often leads people to take higher amounts of the drug or switch to a more potent substance. This happens when an adolescent’s drug use goes unnoticed and unchecked. What may seem reasonable may quickly get out of hand, so it’s on the parent to ensure they’re aware of their teen’s decisions and check in consistently about how they feel.
Lack of Support and Adequate Treatment
The earlier you address your teen’s substance misuse, the easier it is to diffuse. Without support, it’s more challenging for younger individuals to seek help on their own. Ultimately, as SUD develops, it requires outside support and treatment, so grappling with your own preconceived notions of rehab should happen without your teen bearing witness.
Signs Your Teenager May Be Using Drugs
Parents should prepare to intervene when they see signs of a possible substance abuse disorder. According to Partnership to End Addiction, a few telltale signs can indicate an issue. Some of the signs may be associated with puberty or sickness outside of drug use, so consider the possibilities before making snap judgments.
Changes in Mood and Personality
You may notice changes in your teenager’s mood and personality. They may use more hostile communication or your child being withdrawn or depressed. They may be less motivated or unable to focus.
Alternately, you may witness a sudden loss of inhibitions, hyperactivity, or heightened emotions. If attempts to talk to your child are futile because they are silent, unwilling to communicate, deceitful, or secretive, this could mean there is a deeper issue at hand.
Changes in Hygiene or Appearance
You may also notice changes in your child’s hygiene or appearance. This could look like poor hygiene, messier appearance, or unusual smells on their breath or clothes. They may look flushed, pale, or sweaty, even when they haven’t been active. You may see unexplained burns or even track marks, or they could try to cover their body and wear long sleeves or pants even if it’s not seasonally appropriate.
Compromised Physical Health
Changes in your child’s physical health can also signal drug use. Some of these signs are alarming and may require immediate medical assistance, so please use your best judgment in assessing the risk to your child’s health. In case of seizures, vomiting, dizziness, slurred or rapid speech, or excessive nosebleeds, it’s best to contact emergency services or your family doctor.
Here are some other physical signs to look for:
- Sudden or dramatic weight loss or gain
- Frequent unexplained sickness
- Unexplained fatigue or lethargy
- Nosebleeds or runny nose unrelated to allergies or a cold
- Sores or spots around the mouth
- Skin abrasions or bruises
Changes in Behavior
While mood swings are common in teenagers, significant changes in behavior can signify a bigger issue. Keep an eye out for changes in relationships with family members or friends. It’s good to have an open dialogue with your child and ask them about their friends. If they exhibit a loss of interest in school, work, or other activities that used to bring them joy, this could be a sign that they need help.
Other behavior changes to look out for:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Increased privacy measures: locking doors, hiding their phone, etc.
- Disappearing for long periods
- Breaking curfew, going out often
- Making excuses for changes in behavior
- Using chewing gum or mints to cover up breath
- Using eye drops or nasal spray
- Increased stress around money
- Stumbling, lacking coordination, poor balance
- Struggles with sleep or energy: too much followed by too little, or vice versa
Unless your child exhibits dangerous symptoms, it’s important to pause before reacting. You should plan conversations around drug use with intention.
How to Talk to Your Teenager About Drugs
Raising a teenager is challenging, and there is a lot of pressure for parents to get it “right.” Your child’s safety is of the utmost importance. When it comes to protecting your teenager, you have to consider their physical safety and their emotional and mental safety.
Luckily, a few tried and true guidelines can help you prepare to talk to your teenager about drugs. We’ve adapted the following information from the Partnership to End Addiction, an excellent resource for anyone needing support around substance abuse.
Consider Your Experience
If you have a history of substance use, it may be hard to feel confident in communicating your concerns with your child. However, this shouldn’t keep you from being honest. Additional resources help you balance your expectations with honesty if your child asks you if you’ve ever experimented with drugs.
Present a United Front
If you co-parent with someone else, be sure to involve them in the process so you can be on the same page and provide your child with consistency. Before you get started, set guidelines about how you’ll talk to each other in front of your teenager.
You might find it hard to stay calm in conversations around risky behavior, and that’s normal. Before you start, take a breath, collect yourself, and think of what you want to say before you speak.
Know that things might get heated – in intense conversations, it’s understandable for you and your child to feel passionate or defensive. If things start to escalate, agree to take a break, take a breath, or set a timer and revisit the conversation. Remember: how you handle the conversation sets the stage for how your child interacts with you in the future. You want them to feel safe, heard, and understood.
Set Your Expectations
Think about what you want your child to take away from this conversation and keep your expectations low. Ultimately, we all want our kids to be safe and healthy. You can communicate that you want your child to avoid using drugs because you care about their mental, physical, and emotional well-being.
Remember: if your child seems less receptive than you’d like, consider that they are likely to reflect on your words on their own time or use your advice to ground them through a challenging situation when they need it most. Maintain a supportive tone and know that you can continue the conversation as your child’s needs evolve.
Define the Consequences
It can be helpful to set consequences around drug use with your teenager. For more information on setting limits and monitoring behavior, check out this resource. Remind your child that you are there to help them make choices that will keep them safe, healthy, and happy.
Trust and Connection Are the Best Interventions
In any conversation with your teenager, resist the urge to approach them with aggressive authority or center the conversation on shame. This requires a lot of patience, but ultimately, the goal is to encourage your child the opportunity to be open and honest with you.
Much of the information that breaks down parenting psychology tells us that a parent figure should be someone a teen can confide in without risk losing the things they enjoy, such as time with friends, games and electronics, and their privacy. While there are extreme circumstances where deeper involvement may be necessary, it’s crucial to give them autonomy while steering them in the right direction.
Sometimes, being a good parent means you have to reparent yourself and work through painful emotional wounds from your own childhood. If you need support, we can help. At All Points North, we offer virtual family therapy, individual therapy, and group sessions. You can work with a clinician to understand and process emotional obstacles from your childhood and connect with your teenager on a deeper level. Get the support you need to build a loving, healthy relationship by calling (855) 510 4585 or starting a .
- “Parents Have More Influence than They Might Realize to Prevent Substance Use.” ScienceDaily, Iowa State University, 10 Dec. 2015, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/12/151210093313.htm.
- “Drug Use Among Youth: Facts & Statistics.” National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 8 Feb. 2022, https://drugabusestatistics.org/teen-drug-use/.
- “Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mar. 2021, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health.
- “Prepare to Take Action If You Suspect Teen or Young Adult Drug Use.” Partnership to End Addiction, Feb. 2017, https://drugfree.org/article/prepare-to-take-action/.
- “Addressing Substance Use: Set Limits & Monitor Behavior.” Partnership to End Addiction, Sept. 2017, https://drugfree.org/article/prepare-to-take-action/.