Open, honest conversations are some of the most powerful tools parents can use to connect with their kids. Yet, when tackling tougher topics, like drugs and alcohol, figuring out what to say can be a real challenge. How can parents have age-appropriate conversations about substance use with their kids that will truly help? 

Teens are often on a personal quest to figure out their place in the world. They give their friends’ opinions a great deal of power, while questioning their parents’ advice. Middle school and high school parents may want to start conversations before their kids are offered drugs or alcohol for the first time. 

Communication is key 

What you can say: “I know we talked about drinking and drugs, but now that you are older I’m sure you’ve heard about kids who are experimenting. I want you to know you can talk to me about things you see or are confused about. Don’t think there’s anything you can’t discuss with me, okay?” 

If your teen is just about to start high school, you may want to remind them that they don’t have to give into peer pressure from friends and other students.

The teenage years are a pivotal time for parents to help their kids make positive choices when faced with decisions about substance use. 

For example: “High school is going to be a ton of fun, but we also know there’s going to be some pressure to start drinking or taking drugs. You’ll have a lot of decisions to make and you might make some mistakes. Just know that you can talk to us about anything, anytime —even if you do make a mistake or feel stuck in a tough situation. We’ll figure out a way to help you. We want you to count on us to help you make smart decisions and stay safe.” 

If you have an older teenager, you might be aware that kids are selling prescription drugs at their high school. Most likely, they haven’t mentioned it, but this is a critical time to get the conversation started. 

You can say: “I heard from some parents that kids may be selling pills — prescriptions that either they are taking or someone in their family takes. Have you heard about any of your friends doing this?” 

Then you can say: “You’ll have a lot of personal decisions to make about drugs and drinking — and you might make some mistakes. Just know that you can talk to me about anything, even if you do make a mistake. You count on me to help you make smart decisions and keep you safe, okay?” 

Talk Often

The best thing you can do is communicate regularly with your teen. Try to preserve a position of objectivity and openness. If you want to have a productive conversation with your teen, try to keep an open mind and remain curious and calm. That way, your child is more likely to be receptive to what you have to say. To have more engaging conversations, ask open-ended questions. These are questions that elicit more than just a “yes” or “no” response from your teen. 

Additionally, let your teen know you hear him/her. Use active listening and reflect back what you are hearing from your teen — either verbatim, or just the sentiment. For example: “I’m hearing that you feel overwhelmed, and that you think drinking helps you relax. Is that right?” It’s also important to discuss the negative effects of alcohol and what that means in terms of mental and physical health, safety and making good decisions. Talk about the long-term effects. 

If your child is interested in drinking, ask him/her why — and what might happen if he/she does. This gets your teen to think about his/her future, what his/her boundaries are around drinking — and some of the possible negative consequences (he may be late to practice, do something stupid in front of his friends, feel hungover). It will also give you insight into what’s important to your child. 

Support your teen 

Offer empathy and compassion. Let your child know you understand. The teen years can be tough. Acknowledge that everyone struggles sometimes, but that alcohol is not a useful or healthy way to cope with problems. Let your child know that he/she can trust you. Remind your child that you are there for support and guidance — and that it’s important to you that she/he is healthy and happy and makes safe choices. 

The teenage years are a pivotal time for parents to help their kids make positive choices when faced with decisions about substance use. Teens are extremely savvy and it’s important for parents to be just as educated and informed to have productive family conversations and keep their kids safe.