HOW TO TALK WITH YOUR CHILD ABOUT SUBSTANCE USE
It’s no easy matter for many parents to bring up the subject of substance use. Your child may try to dodge the discussion and you may feel unsure about how to proceed. As intimidating as it may be, the topic should not be avoided.
Children who talk to their parents frequently about substance use are up to 50% less likely to use substances themselves. Having these conversations decreases the chances of having to talk with your child about seeking professional help down the road. So talk with your child as soon as the time is right — and keep the conversation going!
TALK EARLY. Adolescents are being exposed to drugs at earlier and earlier ages. Ideally, you’ll start the conversation long before your child really needs it. By the time children are ages 12-14, it is likely they already have been offered substances. Experts say it’s best for parents to talk to their kids around ages 10-12 or even earlier.
Of course, It’s never too late to start. However, if your child already has started using substances, the conversation will be different. Even if your child has experimented, there is still time to make sure they have all the facts. Knowing the risk may inspire a child to cut back or quit.
TEACH YOUR CHILD REFUSAL SKILLS. Some children are able to confidently say “no thanks” when offered alcohol or a drug. Others may prefer to use an excuse. Role playing can help. Examples of excuses to use are “I have to get up early”, “my parents wait up for me to see if I’m sober”, “I don’t like the taste of alcohol”, “my mom is crazy. She drug tests me”. In addition, being a designated driver is a ready-made excuse.
DISCUSS YOUR CHILDHOOD ENVIRONMENT. Children like hearing about their parents’ personal experiences. While it is not wise to overshare or tell war stories, it is helpful to get their attention by sharing the environment you navigated as a child and compare and contrast it to theirs.
JUST SAY "KNOW". Before you talk to your child, get the facts about alcohol and various drugs from our Blog. However, don’t assume that simply dropping information on a teen will automatically lead them to make wise choices. Drill home key points. But don’t let all the fact based research you know dominate the conversation.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT TIME AND PLACE. Look for blocks of time to talk such as after dinner, before bed or in the car. Turn off any devices. Consider telling your child in advance that you have something important to discuss and ask when they would like to have the conversation. If your child sets the time and place for the discussion, there’s a good chance they will be more actively engaged.
Another option is to take a walk or go for a drive together. With less eye contact, your child won’t feel like they are under a microscope.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF "TEACHABLE MOMENTS." Using every day or special events to naturally start conversations is less threatening to a child and can be more productive. For example, if you see a group of kids vaping, talk about the addictiveness of nicotine and its negative effects. Point out celebrity headlines or stories going on in your own community that show the negative consequences of substance use. When watching TV or a movie together or if you notice advertising, ask how it makes alcohol or drug use look, how that makes your child feel about drugs and whether it’s a problem at school.
GET THEIR PERSPECTIVE. Instead of leading with facts, start with genuine curiosity and ask open-ended questions (that don’t result in a simple “yes” or “no” response) without sounding judgmental. Examples are “what do you think about weed”?, “are a lot of kids drinking?” or “hey, I just read about this thing called a JUUL. What do you know about it?”
Finding out what your teen already knows and thinks about a substance will determine how the rest of the exchange might proceed. If your child wrinkles their nose and says, “I tried it and didn’t like it”, you’re going to have a different conversation than if they respond “lots of kids are doing it and It’s not a big deal”.
Asking children what they know about a topic increases the chances that they’ll want to hear what we know about that topic too.
MAKE YOUR POSITION AND RULES CLEAR. Long before your kids face the pressures of adolescence, they should know your position on underage substance use. Parents’ disapproval is a huge factor in preventing substance use. Children whose parents explicitly disapprove of their using substances are three times less likely to use.
Clearly state that you do not want your child to
drink alcohol or use drugs until they are older. Don’t treat alcohol and marijuana lightly. Explain why your advice is to delay. Establish specific rules that are consistent with your family values and priorities.
Tie them all together, state them clearly and discuss under what circumstances there will be consequences.
Follow through and consistently enforce your rules. Express confidence they will make the right decisions. While your rules may change over time, your child should never be unclear as to what they are.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE LIMITS OF YOUR AUTHORITY. After stating your expectations, concede that you don’t have the power to make your child’s decisions and they must make those choices themselves. Express your hope they will be healthy decisions. Point out that independence centers on the willingness to look after oneself.
USE ACTIVE LISTENING. Let your child know they are understood by reflecting back what you hear — either verbatim or just the sentiment. Listen without interrupting, summarize what you’ve heard, and then confirm. Examples of phrases are “it seems like you’re feeling ...”, “I hear you saying ...” or “am I right that ....?”
USE "I" STATEMENTS. These let you express yourself without your child feeling judged, blamed or attacked. Describe the behavior, how you feel about it and how it affects you. Then spell out what you need.
An example is “when you don’t come home on time, I worry that something terrible has happened. I need you to call me as soon as you know you’re going to be late so that I know you are okay”. Or “because I love you and I want to keep you safe, I worry about you going to the concert. I need to know that you will obey our rules about not drinking or using drugs”.
DON'T USE SCARE TACTICS. While it’s important for parents to tell children that substance use can have negative consequences, focus on the positives too. Tap into their goals, such as a scholarship, playing first-string on a team, a high GPA, SAT or ACT score, passing driver’s ed, earning admission to a desired college, or getting a job. Explain that avoiding substances can make these goals easier to achieve.
USE CARROTS IN ADDITION TO STICKS. Children want our trust and their freedom. Explain that you are much more likely to grant that if you have confidence they will abstain from using substances. Offer praise when they are doing so. “Catch them being good”.
WHATEVER YOU DO, DON'T LIE. When asked “did you drink or smoke when you were a teenager?”, an approach is to admit that you did experiment, but that it was a mistake. Give your child an example of an embarrassing or regretful moment that occurred because of your substance use.
Differentiate between how little information we had versus what we know now about the effects of substances on the developing adolescent brain. Point out how powerful today’s marijuana is versus its low potency back in your day. Or distinguish between drinking a bottle of beer as you may have done in high school and taking swigs from a handle of vodka, as youth do today.
DON'T SHAME THEM WITH ANGER. Do not discuss the issue if they are under the influence. If your child comes home drunk or high, it’s tempting to confront the issue right then, but this won’t be productive.
Wait until your teen is sober, coherent and can be fully present for the discussion. Yelling matches won’t help. Anger and accusations only make your child defensive and shut down. Take a few breaths and remain calm. Express your disappointment and explain the concerns you have. Don’t guilt or shame them.
OFFER EMPATHY AND SUPPORT. Approach your child with concern and show compassion. Let your child know you understand that the adolescent years can be challenging. Acknowledge that everyone struggles sometimes, but alcohol and drugs are not a useful or healthy way to cope with problems.
Remind your child that you are there for support and guidance. Make sure your child knows that if they make the wrong choice, you’re still there for them.
SHARE YOUR FAMILY HISTORY. If there is a history of chemical dependency in your family, educate your child about genetic vulnerabilities towards substance abuse. If you have personal experiences with addiction and recovery, share them.
If there is mental illness in your family or a vulnerability to it, share that too. Certain drugs (e.g., cannabis) can trigger a condition if there is a predisposition to it. Don’t hide valuable knowledge you’ve gained from experience in an effort to maintain a perfect image. Your child can learn from your mistakes, but you have to be willing to share them.
TAKING A "HARM REDUCTION" APPROACH. At some point, prevention efforts by necessity may turn to reality-based efforts, which focus on safety and moderation. This especially applies to older teens with more autonomy who may be using substances, as well as college-bound teens or those who are leaving home to travel or work.
For specific tips on talking with your teen about moderation and safety, check out our blog entitled Now What? What To Do if My Teen is Drinking or Using Substances.
MAKE DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE A NON-NEGOTIABLE "NO-NO". In particular, explain that this prohibition includes being under the influence of cannabis. Teens report that it is not unusual for so-called “designated drivers” to have used marijuana. Many teens think this is safer than driving under the influence of alcohol.
ESTABLISH A SAFE RIDE POLICY/EXIT PLAN. Tell your child that if they or their designated driver have been using, or they simply want to leave, they can always call an Uber/Lyft or text you for a safe ride home. Agree on code words to use. Assure them there will be “no questions asked” in the moment (and then consider gently asking questions the next morning but don’t demand answers). Don’t make the mistake of “no drunk driving” being the entirety of your message. Continue to stress your disapproval of substance use.
MAKE IT AN ONGOING CONVERSATION. Remember you don’t need to cover everything at once. In fact, you’re likely to have a greater impact on your child’s decisions by having a number of talks about substance use throughout their adolescence. Think of your talks as part of an ongoing conversation. If they are not complaining that you’re talking about the topic too much, then you are probably not talking about it enough! Eye rolling can be a good thing!
A NOTE ABOUT CANNABIS LEGALIZATION.
Legalization bolsters the common belief among adolescents that cannabis is safe for their recreational use. Teens are likely to be skeptical of adults bearing bad news about a widely used drug that is now legal for adults.
One suggestion for a successful conversation is to discuss what legalization does and doesn't mean. Point out that it's easy to be on the right side of the law and the wrong side of science. Examples are cigarettes and tanning beds. Explain that savvy consumers need to look at the available evidence, not legislation, when making decisions about their own health and well-being. Parents can say “whatever has happened with the laws, don’t ignore the science. You only get one brain for your whole life. I'm hoping you will take great care of it”.
A NOTE ABOUT SEX, ALCOHOL/DRUGS AND CONSENT. It's so important to have ongoing conversations about sex with your child, including the effect of alcohol and drugs. Explain that alcohol and other drugs can cloud one’s judgment, increasing the incidence of unprotected or regretted sex.
For those teens who are college bound, it's especially critical to discuss how being under the influence increases the risks of either being subject to — or accused of — sexual assault or unwanted touching. Educate your teen about the concept of "affirmative consent”, which is now required on most college campuses. In particular, explain that being under the influence can negate consent, i.e., drunk sex, even if seemingly consensual, especially puts males at risk of a sexual assault accusation with serious, life-long consequences.
TIPS ON SETTING BOUNDARIES AND MONITORING YOUR CHILD
In addition to discussions with your teen and using BTI's Parent Directory, review the comprehensive list of parenting tips under Setting Boundaries and Monitoring Your Child.
I'd Listen to My Parents If They'd Shut Up: What to Say and Not Say When Parenting Teens by Anthony E. Wolf. This is an excellent book on communicating with teens.