Among the many issues that teens have to confront these days, substance use is one of the most widespread. Most parents know that it’s important to talk with your teen about drugs and alcohol. It’s not always easy to have that conversation. How do you talk to your teen about drugs? Here are a few tips:

Don’t lecture

As always, when the speech starts, your teen stops listening. Try starting a conversation with questions instead. How easy is it to find drugs at your school? What do you think about drug use? Are there some kids you know who have problems with drinking? You may want to agree to some “immunity” for your teen for sharing this information with you. “I won’t make you stop being friends with someone as long as you’re not in danger when you hang out together”, for example.

Don’t overstate the danger

Don’t try to use overblown scare tactics to get your teen’s attention. Many teens will quickly see through any over-dramatizing, whether it’s in a commercial or a conversation with you. The truth is that not everyone who drinks alcohol or uses drugs will abuse them or become addicted. It’s OK to acknowledge that. Point out, though, that even though some people experiment with drugs with little or no problems, drugs like cocaine, meth or heroin can harm or kill someone the first time.

Explain the real risks

The problem with drugs and alcohol is that while not everyone will become an addict, anyone can become one. One person can use heavily without developing a problem; others can use infrequently and become dependent. As Anthony Wolf, PhD. explains, the only way you know for sure which one you will be is when you become an addict.

Your teen needs to know about any factors that may put him or her at risk. Studies have shown consistently that a family history of drug or alcohol dependence can put a person at greater risk for substance abuse. If your teen has a family history of problems with drugs or alcohol, make sure he or she knows to be extra careful about his or her choices.

Don’t forget the other problems

Remember, drug and alcohol use has other dangers besides addiction. Underage alcohol use is illegal. All recreational drug use is illegal. Teens can get themselves or their friends into serious trouble. Also, drugs and alcohol make teens vulnerable to really dangerous behavior like driving impaired or having unsafe sex. Criminals look for potential victims who seem less aware of their surroundings, and a drunk or high teen can be an easy target.

There may be higher risks for girls

Alcohol and drugs are dangerous for teens, period. Some evidence suggests, though, that females are at greater risk for getting drunker quicker, and for abuse or addiction problems, than males. This is because most females metabolize or “absorb” alcohol more slowly than males. This leaves the alcohol in their systems longer and intoxication can be more severe.

Beware of bingeing

For both males and females, some of the most dangerous drinking is “binge drinking”, or drinking as much alcohol as possible in the shortest time. Bingeing is often a party game or part of a college initiation. This kind of consumption can lead to coma or death because the brain simply cannot handle so much alcohol all at once. Tell your teen to avoid those kinds of games.

Be truthful

If your teen asks about your use when you were a teen or young adult, tell the truth. If you experimented in your youth, say so. You don’t have to go into detail. You can also talk about what you thought then, what you think about it now, and how your mistakes (or close calls) have affected your life today. Sometimes teens make the argument, “Well, you have a couple beers after work. Isn’t that the same thing?” It’s OK and important to say, yes, there are some things about that which are the same. But there are differences too. The differences are:

  • It’s legal for me to use alcohol.
  • I’m not putting myself or others at risk (i.e., driving drunk).
  • You are still learning to make important decisions. Alcohol and drugs make it harder for you to do that (see above).
  • Acknowledge your own issues

This may be tough, but teens listen to and respect adults who can admit their own mistakes and inconsistencies. You may decide to confront your own use and make changes in your life. It’s OK for your teen to know that you are addressing your own problems. It’s even OK for your teen to see how tough that can be, especially if they also see you continuing to try.

Remember, teens report that their parents’ rules and expectations are a deterrent to using drugs and alcohol. Talk to your teen!