Get ready to talk with your teenager about drugs

For many parents, talking with teenagers about drugs and alcohol is truly scary. It helps to start young, talk often, and remember that setting a good example, stating clear expectations, and being a supportive, assertive parent are the most effective ways to protect your teen.1

Understand the benefits of a "no-use" policy.

Is it OK for teenagers to drink now and then? How about trying pot? Current research shows that parents are becoming more tolerant of their teens experimenting. No matter what your viewpoint is, though, the research also indicates that a no-use policy is the best way to keep teens safe. Why?

  • First, people who begin smoking or using alcohol when they are very young are more likely to be heavy users of these substances later on.1 (In fact, one study showed that more than 40 percent of teens who started drinking at age 14 or younger developed alcohol dependence compared with 10 percent of those who began drinking at age 20 or older. 2) Genes may increase the risk for addiction. 3
  • Second, adolescent brains are going through big changes. That means teenagers can be more prone to making bad judgments and taking risks. It also means their brains are especially vulnerable to permanent damage from drugs and alcohol.

From a scientific perspective, the bottom line seems to be that giving a teen any leeway with drugs and alcohol is risky. That one beer you say is OK can easily turn into four. Add in a vulnerable, impulse-driven brain, a new driver's license, a few rowdy friends and a car, and you've got a recipe for disaster.

1The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Substance Abuse: The Nation's Number One Health Problem, February 2001, 30

2Substance Abuse, 30

3Kenneth S. Kendler, "Illicit Drug Use and Abuse May Be Genetic," Science News Daily, 5 July 2006

Support your teen with role modeling and firm guidance.

Does supporting your teen mean you have to give up wine with dinner or beer with the game? Not necessarily. The key is to be responsible. If you drink, do it in moderation (so it doesn't affect your behavior) and don't drive afterward. Also, don't use illegal drugs. (Teenagers who believe their family members use are more likely to use themselves.1)

Your guidance helps support your teen, too. Be warm but firm. Ask him to share his experiences and opinions about teenagers that use. (His answers will give you insight into his situation and help you build a stronger case against using.) Then tell him how you feel and what you expect from him. For example, to support a no-use policy, you might say:

  • "I'm not trying to ruin your fun. I love you and I want you to stay healthy. The best way to do that is to stay completely away from drugs and alcohol. I need you to promise that you will."
  • "I realize there's a lot of temptation out there. I also know you're a really smart, strong person. That's why I expect you to stay clean — no matter what your friends are doing. Agreed?"
  • "There's a lot of new science about teens, drugs and alcohol. It scares me to know how easily you could damage your brain or get addicted. I want your word that you'll steer clear of all that, and keep me in the loop on the kids you hang out with, too."

(If this feels weird, try practicing out loud before you talk to your teen. It may help.)

1 Elise R. DeVore and Kenneth R. Ginsburg, "The Protective Effects of Good Parenting on Adolescents" Current Opinion in Pediatrics 17, 2005, 460-65.

Be prepared to talk about your past.

"Did you do drugs or drink booze when you were my age? How come?" "If you did, why can't I?" If your teen hasn't asked you questions like these yet, she will. Don't panic. Just get ready to:

  • Be honest. You don't have to tell her all the details. But don't lie, either. (If she ever finds out, you'll lose credibility big time.)
  • Be specific. Find out why she's asking about your history, and then tell her what she wants to know — nothing more.
  • Be an example. If you didn't use, tell her why you made the choices you did. If you did use, try to turn her off the idea by sharing an embarrassing, dangerous or painful story about when you used.
  • Be convincing. No matter what you did (or didn't do) in the past, when talking with your teenager about drugs and alcohol make sure he or she hears these two points: First, today's drugs can be much more powerful and dangerous than anything that was around when you were a teenager. And second, the latest science proves that teens who use drugs and alcohol can damage their brainsforever.

Start talking early in life. And keep talking.

Ideally "the talk" is a series of talks that begins when our kids are young. Then, as they grow, the focus changes to match the child's mental ability and their current concerns. For instance, we might tell kids in:

  • Grades 4-6, "Smoking pot makes you cough and feel tired. What sounds fun about that?
  • Grades 7-9, "Did you hear about that ninth grader who got drunk last weekend? He was trying to impress a bunch of seniors. Instead he ended up puking and looking like a fool."
  • Grades 10-12, "That girl with the coke problem really needs help. If she doesn't get some soon, she's going to screw up her chances of getting a steady job or going to a good college."

To start conversations, look for "teachable moments" in the neighborhood, outside your car window, on TV shows, news, and movies. ("That woman overdosed. I wonder what'll happen to her kids?") You can also use questions to point out hidden messages, especially in ads. ("If he loves that beer so much, where's his big gut?") Give her the idea that she's way too smart to believe everything she hears. She may try hard to prove you right!


Consider putting your agreements in writing.

Because teenagers are more likely to follow guidelines they help create, get together to design rules and consequences that work for you both. Then consider putting the details in writing to make sure you're on the same page (now and in the future). The sample contract below spells out some rules about using drugs and alcohol.1 You can use this as-is or type in your own rules. (Click and drag to edit text)

[ This section available online only. ]


1 Adapted from a pledge found at Mothers Against Drug Driving

1 Theodore Jacob, Sheri Johnson, "Parenting Influences on the Development of Alcohol Abuse and Dependence," Alcohol Health & Research World, 1997, Vol. 21 Issue 3, p. 204.

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