The Importance of and How to Talk to Your Adolescent About Teen Substance Abuse

If you’re a parent, it’s important to talk to your adolescent about drugs...

James Ekbatani
April 2, 2024

The teenage years are an exciting time, but they can also bring challenges. With peer pressure and a desire to fit in, some teens may be tempted to experiment with substances like drugs and alcohol. If you’re a parent, it’s important to talk to your adolescent about using these substances and teen substance abuse sooner rather than later.

Statistics show that a significant number of teenagers have already dabbled in substance use. Shockingly, 67% of 12th graders have tried alcohol, while almost 20% have misused prescription medication without a prescription. Additionally, half of high schoolers have experimented with marijuana, and 4 out of 10 have smoked cigarettes.

Teenagers need to understand the consequences that come with substance use. Research shows that using substances during this crucial developmental stage can hinder growth and lead to conditions like hypertension, sleep disorders, heart disease, and continued substance use disorders later in life.

Parents and caregivers play a vital role in guiding and protecting our children. By educating kids and teens about the risks associated with substance use, we empower them to make responsible choices and safeguard their well-being.

The Importance of Talking to Your Teen

As a parent, one of the best ways you can help protect against drug or substance use is by talking to your teen about it as part of your general health and safety conversations. Having conversations might seem difficult at first, but they can be imperative to reducing experimentation and helping your teen navigate risky situations. Instead of relying on their friends for answers, talking about drugs with your teen can cement you as a role model in their lives while creating a safe space for them to ask questions and learn.

Talking to your teen is more important than you realize. Some of the ways having discussions with your teen can affect their drug or substance use include:

You Have a Significant Influence on Your Teen’s Decisions

Maintaining a strong, open relationship with your teen is one of the most influential factors during adolescence. Teenagers make better decisions when parents create a supportive and nurturing environment. It’s important to discuss the risks of using drugs or other substances even if teens might not like hearing their parents’ concerns.

Talk Before Exposure to Drug and Substance Use

Talking to your teen early and often about drugs and substance use can protect them from many high-risk behaviors. By taking a direct and honest approach, the more likely your teen is to respect your rules and advice.

Experimentation with Drugs or Substances Can Start at a Young Age

The earlier you start having conversations with your teen about drugs and other substances, the better. It’s never too early to talk to your teen about these topics, as children as young as nine years old can start viewing alcohol more positively. Kids as young as 12 try marijuana each day, and half of 12-year-olds obtain prescription pain relievers for nonmedical purposes.

Experimentation Increases with Age

While starting to experiment with drugs and other substances at a young age might be a scary thought, consider this: about 10% of 12-year-olds have tried alcohol, and by age 15, the number increases to 50%. Almost 70% of high school students will have tried alcohol, 50% will have taken an illegal drug, and more than 20% will have used a prescription drug for nonmedical purposes by the time they are in their senior year. Talking to your teen early about these issues gives you a greater chance of influencing their decisions about drinking and substance use.

Not Talking Still Sends Kids a Message

When parents avoid talking about drugs and other substances, it might send a message to their teen that there’s no harm in trying alcohol and drugs. Teens don’t have all the facts when it comes to drugs and other substances, so talking about the risks and setting clear rules about expectations when it comes to alcohol and other drugs can help them navigate risky situations.

When to Talk to Your Adolescent About Substance Use

It’s never too early to start talking to your adolescent about substance use. Parents should never assume that their teens are aware of substance use risks and dangers or the impact using substances can have on their family.

Starting early can make all the difference, as some teens may begin experimenting with drugs and other substances before they reach their teenage years. As a parent, you want to convey that rules are there to keep them safe, and reinforcing the seriousness of substance use without scaring your adolescent is the most effective way to begin talking about substances.

Young Children

It might seem unfathomable, but starting conversations about drugs and substance use before your teen reaches middle school is a good idea, as they might be more receptive to information and guidance. You’ll want to explain to children at the beginning of elementary school that drugs are serious, can cause problems in the body, and how they can say no if they’re offered something dangerous. You’ll also want to address how familiar medications (such as cold or allergy medicines) are safe when taken according to the dosage directions, but they can become harmful when taken incorrectly.

8- to 12-Year-Olds

At the middle school level, you can ask your adolescent what they’ve heard about drugs or substance use. You’ll want to show your adolescent that you’re listening, and paying attention to their concerns and questions. While this age group is still willing to talk openly to their parents about difficult subjects, using a nonjudgemental, open-ended approach is more likely to get you an honest response and can help keep the door open as they get older.


Teens are more likely to have peers who use drugs or other substances. As they gain more freedom, like getting their driver’s license, it’s a good opportunity to talk to your teen about the dangers of driving under the influence. You’ll want to talk about legal issues like jail time and fines, and the possibility of serious injury or death caused by operating a motor vehicle while impaired.

This is a good time to consider creating a verbal or written contract between you and your teen about rules surrounding going out and using the car. You can also create amnesty agreements, like promising to pick your teen up at any time, no questions asked, if they call you when the designated driver has been drinking or using substances.

By starting discussions with your teen early on, you can make your rules and expectations clear while addressing their questions and helping them feel safe coming to you.

Explaining Addiction to Youth

Talking to teens about substance use disorder is crucial for discussing overall substance use. As teenagers gain independence, they must understand the risks associated with repeated alcohol and drug use to make healthy choices.

When discussing substance use disorders with teens, honesty and accuracy are key. Start by explaining that substance use disorder is a mental health condition. You can explain to your teen that substance use disorder manifests as a compulsive cycle involving reward, motivation, and memory. Individuals with this condition may display impulsive behavior, lack of self-control, and an increased desire for the substance.

People living with substance use disorders may struggle to manage their daily lives without engaging in substance use. Your teen needs to know that those with substance use disorder may develop a physical dependence on substances like drugs and alcohol. This can result in an escalation of substance use over time, which can be dangerous and potentially lead to overdose and even death.

It may be helpful to discuss the long-term consequences of substance use disorder, which can worsen over time and cause serious health complications. Additionally, you’ll want to talk about how substance use disorder can negatively impact various aspects of a person's life, including financial strain, strained relationships with family and friends, and potential consequences at work, such as job loss.

How to Talk to Your Teen About Substance Use

Talking to your teenager about drugs and alcohol is crucial for their safety. By establishing clear rules, you can help reduce the likelihood of serious trouble. Don't surprise your teen with a lecture, instead, let them know you want to have a conversation. Be specific about the rules and consequences if they are broken. Teens thrive when they know what to expect and having clear rules makes it easier for them to say no if they feel pressured. Treat your adolescent with respect and trust them to act responsibly, not just for your sake, but for their own well-being, too.

It can be challenging to know what to say, but honesty and reasonability are key. Give your teen the chance to express their concerns and feelings and address any troubling issues. Reiterate that your goal is to keep them safe and let them know they can always call you for help in any situation.

How Teens Think Adults Should Talk to Them About Drugs

The Learning Network asked teens how they want adults to talk to them about drugs and substance use. The overwhelming response was that teens want honesty and strategies for harm reduction.

Among the responses, teens suggested ideas for how to approach the conversation, including:

  • Honesty is the best policy
  • Focus on harm reduction
  • Start conversations early
  • Help kids understand the risks
  • Share your personal experiences
  • Talk to teens in ways that they like to listen
  • Make a safe space to ask questions
  • Start slowly and generally before diving into specifics
  • Educate them on why people do drugs, how it starts, the impact it has, the physical/emotional/mental consequences
  • Provide strategies for prevention, like joining sports, clubs, or having a hobby, and have friends who bring good influence

Take the Next Step Toward Healing

At Lotus Behavioral Health, we’re committed to creating a nurturing and therapeutic environment to foster a healthy lifestyle in teen clients at our addiction center in Florida. We provide a well-rounded, evidence-based approach that includes assessment, four distinct levels of teen behavioral health services, individualized treatment options, and more.

If you are a parent of a teenager with a substance use disorder, reach out to the Lotus Behavioral Health team for additional information on our services and the different levels of care we offer at our adolescent treatment facility. You can start the process by visiting our Admissions page, where you can view more information about a complimentary brief assessment to determine eligibility.

For more information, contact Lotus Behavioral Health for an intake consultation at (833) 948-2273 or visit our website.