4 Do’s and Don’ts For Talking To Teens About Drugs
Talking to teenagers about drug abuse and drug addiction is not easy. As a parent, it can be challenging to confront your son or daughter about drug use. For teens who are worried about a friend’s drug abuse, it can be hard to know what to say or when to say it.
Drug abuse is a serious issue that affects a lot of young adults. According to an annual survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug use among teens overall is on the decline, but drug addiction is still a major concern. In 2017, over 30% of adolescents in grades 8, 10 and 12 had used an illegal drug at some point in their lives. High school is often the first time a young person encounters alcohol or illicit drugs. Most teens know at least one person in their age group who is drinking alcohol or using drugs on a regular basis.
When talking to a teenager about drug abuse — or if you suspect a teen has become addicted to drugs — know that there are different ways to have this conversation.
Here are 4 do’s and don’ts for talking to teens about drugs:
1. DON’T Attack or Shame Them
If you’re a parent, the most important thing to do when you’re talking to your teenager is to let them know you’re a safe person to talk to, and that you want to help. What you don’t want to do is alienate your teen by confronting them too harshly about their drug or alcohol use.
For example, instead of getting angry and saying things like “I can’t believe you’re throwing your life away like this,” try to remain calm, but firm. Let your teen know how worried you are and then listen closely when they share about what’s going on. Your goal is to let them know you’re concerned, and that you’re their ally. Be curious, not defensive, and listen without judgment. Family members can play a big part in a teen developing strong values and staying drug-free.
If you’re a teen worried that a friend might be abusing drugs, it’s equally as important to not attack, shame or belittle the person when talking to them about drug abuse. It’s also important that you do speak up. You may not want to hurt someone’s feelings or “rock the boat” by saying something, but you are one of the most important ways in. If you’re concerned that a friend might be abusing drugs, let them know you’re worried — they need to know.
2. DO Take a Teen’s Drug or Alcohol Use Seriously
Sometimes, a parent or family member might brush off a teen’s drug use as a “rite of passage.” It’s not uncommon to hear things like “all teens experiment with drugs and alcohol” or “trying it once won’t hurt.”
However, heavy drinking or recreational drug use among teens can lead to addiction. As a parent, it can feel uncomfortable to speak up -- for many, talking about addiction with a teenager is even harder than talking about sex. But it’s far better to address the problem directly, rather than tiptoeing around what’s really going on.
In some cases, a teenager might not even realize the negative effects of drugs on their lives unless a parent or friend talks to them about it. Serious drug abuse can begin with a young person experimenting with drugs like marijuana, “party drugs”, or by drinking cough syrup, etc. A teen who drinks heavily could become an alcoholic, or begin using drugs as well and develop an addiction.
3. DON’T Think You Have To Do This Alone — Get Support
If you’re a parent or family member of a teen you believe is abusing drugs or alcohol, you likely feel scared. You may not know what to do and feel like it’s all on your shoulders. Good news: there are a lot of ways to get support, and you should take advantage of them.
First, you can talk to the school counselor. You can even talk through how to discuss alcohol or drug use with your teen. Some counselors are trained to deal with teenagers who are abusing drugs or can guide you to good resources (like other therapists or counselors who specialize in addiction in teens, a rehab facility, etc.).
If you’re a teen with a friend who may be struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, it’s also smart to talk to the school counselor. You might think you’ll get your friend in trouble by mentioning drug use, but that’s not how it works. Conversations with school counselors are confidential. The only exception to this is if a counselor is worried that a student is in serious danger of harming themselves or someone else -- in that case, they’re legally obligated to notify the authorities. Remember: it’s the counselor’s job to protect students, and you’re doing the right thing by talking to your friend about their drug problem.
In addition to school counselors, there are a number of excellent books on adolescents and addiction. There are also podcasts, including My Child is an Addict: A Parent-to-Parent Podcast. Finally, there are invaluable support groups specifically for parents or other loved ones of addicts. You are not the first to go through this, and you don’t have to do it alone.
Finally, one of the best things you can do is to start going to family therapy. Addiction can stem from a dysfunctional or unstable family dynamic, and it is a boon to have a therapist or counselor there to help the family communicate and grow together. Counseling can have a huge positive impact on a teen’s drug use, as well as strengthen your family as a whole.
4. DO Understand the Root Causes of a Teen’s Drug Abuse
There are many root causes of addiction. A teenager may start abusing drugs due to peer pressure, like wanting to be “cool” or “fit in” at school. Some teens abuse so-called “study drugs,” like Adderall or other ADHD medications, due to pressure to succeed in school. Other reasons teens abuse drugs or alcohol include bullying, rebellion, watching people use drugs in the media (including social media), and trying drugs simply because they’re curious.
Drug problems can also stem from more serious issues, like abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual abuse), depression, anxiety, an unstable home life, poor body image or low self-esteem. Family issues — such as abusive family members, lack of a supportive family environment or family trauma — also play a heavy role in drug abuse and addiction among teens. Again, family therapy can help everyone involved.
If you’re worried about a teen’s drug use, talk to them about it. Don’t worry that you don’t have the perfect words, or that you might do it wrong. Instead, educate yourself on the subject, speak up, and then listen. Be available and compassionate, but don’t avoid the issue. The fact is, talking to teens about drugs can keep them safe, and might even save their life.
Also know that even if your friend or your child is addicted to drugs, you -- and they -- can get through it and have an even better life on the other side. Drug and alcohol addiction isn’t a life sentence, and it’s not irreversible. Millions have been through this before you, and millions will come after.
"Hope is an essential part of the equation,” says addiction specialist Doug Tieman. “We must end the shame and blame and raise awareness that addiction is a family disease and that families need their own support and treatment to truly recover.”
This is doable. Get help for both yourself and your teen now. It may be the healthiest decision you ever make.