What to Say and What Not to Say When Talking About Substance Abuse with Teens

Parents are a great influence, and discussing substance abuse...

James Ekbatani
April 2, 2024

As a parent, there are likely hundreds of other conversations you’d rather have than talking about substance abuse with teens. However, talking to your teenager about drugs and alcohol is important, as they need structure to make good choices and stay safe. While you can’t guarantee your rules won’t be broken, having clear expectations about drug and alcohol use can help.

During adolescence, your teen’s brain is still in the process of maturing. This can be a challenging time for parents, as the brain’s increased focus on rewards and risk-taking can drive adolescents to seek greater freedom. If teens experiment with drugs and other substances, they’re not only putting their health and safety at risk; their brains are vulnerable to being rewired by these substances. The less your teen is exposed to substances throughout their adolescent years, the better the likelihood of preventing negative interference with their development.

You can help prevent teen substance use by talking to your adolescent about the importance of making healthy choices and the consequences of using drugs and other substances. Many common risk factors lead to substance use in teens, including

  • A family history of abuse
  • A mental or behavioral health condition
  • Impulsive or risk-taking behavior
  • A history of traumatic events
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of social rejection

It’s important to remember that as a parent, you have a significant influence on your teen’s decisions when it comes to substance use. It’s better to talk to your adolescent about substance use before they’re exposed to alcohol and other drugs. Some children may try alcohol and other substances at a very young age, and the older they get, they’re more likely to experiment. As hard as it can be to have these conversations, not talking about substance use still sends your teen a message.

Before Talking to Your Teen

It can seem overwhelming at first, but taking some steps before talking to your teen can help set your conversation up for success. You can start by monitoring changes in your teen’s behavior, group of friends, appearance, habits, health, and school performance. Find a note-taking method that works for you and keep track of dates when your teen breaks the rules or exhibits worrisome behavior. You may also want to consider monitoring alcohol and prescription medications if you keep these substances in your home.

It’s important to get on the same page as your spouse or partner. Presenting a united front can lead to a successful outcome for everyone involved, as you will need one another’s support during this stressful time.

When talking to your teen, remember to come from a place of love and concern. Be prepared to talk about substance use, addiction, family history, and consequences. Teens need to clearly understand the serious risks that come with substance use and that you are conveying concern because you love them.

Prepare beforehand and don’t surprise your teen with a big talk. Choose the right time and place, frame conversations positively, and offer support and resources. Explain that you want to have a conversation about substance use. Set clear rules and boundaries with specific consequences if they are broken, as teens do better when they know what’s expected of them.

Speak to your teen the way you’d like to be spoken to, showing respect through trusting them to act responsibly. Be sure to allow them to express their feelings, concerns, and questions, letting your teen know you value their honesty. Let them know you’re listening without judgment by paying attention, listening between the words, asking questions, and giving praise and positive feedback.

Let your teen know that your goal is to help them stay healthy, safe, and happy by expressing how much you care. Reassure them that they can always count on you for support and that they can always confide in you when they need to.

And don’t forget to thank your teen for talking with you, even if things don’t go as planned. Showing gratitude will help your teen associate the conversation with good feelings and create an environment that fosters open communication. Encourage ongoing open communication with your teen so you can continue to be a positive and supportive role model for their choices and well-being.

What to Say

The main goal of your conversation is to have a smooth, productive experience for all involved. You want to strike a balance between educating your teen about the risks and encouraging self-expression. Establishing open communication can help build trust with your teen and create a non-judgmental environment for them to share their thoughts and feelings.

Here are 11 things you can say or do in your discussion with your teen:

  1. Be direct and speak calmly instead of yelling.
  2. Withhold judgment so your teen feels safe to tell you the truth.
  3. Show you disapprove of underage substance use and your expectations.
  4. Express that you care about your teen’s health, well-being, and success, not bad behavior and punishments.
  5. Provide factual information on various substances, highlighting the potential consequences of substance use.
  6. Validate their experiences and actively listen.
  7. Convey you’re paying attention and that you will discourage risky behaviors.
  8. Build your teen’s confidence by working together to develop skills and strategies to avoid substance use.
  9. Develop an amnesty policy that grants your teen immunity if they are truthful.
  10. Ask thorough questions about their activities and try to learn more about why they are trying substances.
  11. Share your own experiences and mistakes to your level of comfort so you can relate to each other.

What Not to Say

Here are some things you should avoid when talking about substance use with your teen:

  1. Don’t judge your teen.
  2. Steer away from accusatory language.
  3. Rather than assigning blame, focus instead on understanding.
  4. Refrain from scare tactics and explain risks without resorting to fear.
  5. Without invading privacy, balance your concerns with respect to your teen’s autonomy.
  6. Don’t have a conversation if your teen is under the influence, heading out the door, or going to bed.
  7. Withhold from getting defensive if your teen makes a remark that feels like a personal attack.
  8. Resist answering the phone, door, or other distractions, and give your teen your undivided attention.
  9. Stop the conversation if it gets too heated or emotional. You can always regroup and try again.

When to Reach Out to a Substance Use Treatment Center

As you have these discussions with your teen, it’s important to follow through by monitoring your teen’s behavior and taking appropriate action when expectations are not met. This shows your teen you are serious about their not using substances.

If you realize your teen needs outside help, a substance use treatment center can serve as a great resource. The first step is reaching out to set up an evaluation for your teen by a healthcare professional.

At Lotus Behavioral Health, we’re committed to creating a nurturing and therapeutic environment to foster a healthy lifestyle in teen clients. We provide a well-rounded, evidence-based approach to teen drug rehab 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 on navigating the delicate path of substance abuse with teens, contact Lotus Behavioral Health for an intake consultation at (833) 954-2040 or visit our website.