How to Talk to Teens About Drugs and Alcohol

Parents have a lot of tough tasks to deal with when raising their teenage children, especially in the modern age of cell phones, text messaging, and the Internet. One of the most important responsibilities a parent faces is having a conversation with his/her teens about the dangers of alcohol and drug use. Understandably, most parents worry about the best way to relay accurate drug and alcohol information while retaining their children’s interest and respect. Typically, teens respond best when their parents communicate openly and allow them to speak openly in return.

Background Facts

Parents have good reason to worry about drug and alcohol use among teenagers. By the time they enter high school, roughly half of all teens and preteens have experimented with alcohol. Another 20 percent of kids in this age group have experimented with marijuana. In addition, roughly 40 percent of kids entering high school have already experimented with cigarettes. While teenagers don’t use illicit drugs now as frequently as they did in the past, roughly 15 percent of all U.S. high school seniors have abused prescription drugs. Alcohol still plays a tragically prominent role in teen life, and alcohol-related fatalities among teens occur more than six times as often as all drug fatalities combined. In addition, when compared to teens who don’t drink, teens who drink have roughly fifty times the risk for later cocaine use.

The Importance of Parents’ Role

Despite the intrusions of a commercial culture that tends to treat teenage children as if they were already adults, parents still hold a prominent position of influence in their teenagers’ lives, particularly when it comes to determining patterns of drug and alcohol usage. For instance, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens who talk frequently with their parents about drug-related dangers are roughly 40 percent less likely to use drugs than teens who don’t talk with their parents. Still, only about 25 percent of teens have regular access to these vital conversations.

Having the Talk

While teenagers tend to respect their parents’ opinions, they’re also very inquisitive and well on their way to developing their own communication styles and sense of self. This means that a traditional sit-down or lecture approach may not work very well when it comes to discussing drugs and alcohol. Teens do best when they feel able to express their own points of view, even when that means sharply questioning the information they receive and/or responding to your words in an argumentative fashion. In fact, Health Canada reports that when teens feel free to argue and express themselves without fear of getting cut off or rejected, they typically feel closer to their parents and work harder to establish strong parent/teen relationships.

Specific tips that can help you during drug and alcohol conversations include staying focused, thinking through your responses before speaking, working with your teen to set appropriate boundaries for the conversation, avoiding criticizing your teens’ behavior during the conversation, listening to your children when they speak, and truly considering the meaning of your children’s words before forming an opinion or responding. While you need to respect your children, they also need to respect you; don’t be afraid to make your position on the issues clear, and make sure to firmly enforce any boundaries you have established.

Remember, your teens need accurate information from you in order to combat the uninformed influences of hearsay and peer pressure. Educate yourself about the relevant facts on drug and alcohol use and abuse, then relay those facts as clearly as you can. In addition to having “the talk,” look for recurring moments in everyday life where you can casually introduce drug- or alcohol-related information into normal conversations.

Talking About Your Own Drug History

Some parents hesitate to talk about their own drug or alcohol histories when discussing these topics with their children. This may be especially true for you if you have fond memories of any aspect of your former drug- or alcohol-related behaviors or if you use these substances in any form in the present day. Even in these circumstances, kids do best when they receive accurate, honest information. If your teen asks you about your drug or alcohol use, answer his/her questions, but don’t glamorize your activity or deemphasize the dangers involved. If you don’t want to directly answer questions about your own usage, try framing your answers more generally and talking about how “teens behaved in the past” or the like.