Talking to Your Teen About Drug Use and Coping Skills   

Talking to Your Teen About Drug Use and Coping Skills

Mom and teen daughter sitting close on the couch, having a good conversation.
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Harshasu Barot, D.O.

When is the right time to talk to your teenager about drugs? And what should you say?

It's a crucial dialogue – research shows that delaying the start of illicit drug use among teens by just one year can decrease their substance use for the rest of their lives.

"The teenage brain is still developing, particularly in the areas responsible for decision-making and impulse control," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Harshasu Barot, D.O. "Because of that, adolescents are more susceptible to peer pressure or glamorized views of drugs and alcohol, and they might not fully grasp the long-term consequences of their actions."

On the bright side, studies show that teens who have open, honest conversations with their parents about drug use are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. So, by initiating this dialogue early and maintaining an ongoing conversation, you're fostering trust and providing valuable guidance that can shape your teen's future choices.

As a parent, you have the opportunity to influence your teen's choices and give them the coping skills and empowerment they need to make safe and healthy life choices. Here’s how to navigate this subject with patience and wisdom.

A Parent’s Playbook for the Drug Conversation

Start Early

Drug use starts earlier than most people think. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that:

  • Kids as young as nine years old already see drinking alcohol as a positive thing.
  • Roughly 3,300 children as young as 12 years old try marijuana every day.
  • About 10 percent of 12-year-olds say they’ve tried alcohol, but by age 15, that figure rises to 50 percent.

Don't wait until you suspect your teen is using drugs; instead, initiate open dialogue before they reach the teenage years. This proactive approach sets the tone for honest communication and lets your child know that they can come to you with questions or concerns without fear of judgment.

Be Curious

Use questions to guide the conversation. Start by asking your teen what they know about drugs. As they answer, ask more questions. When needed, clarify any misconceptions they may have and provide accurate information about the risks involved. The goal is not to lecture them but to have a curious conversation that encourages critical thinking.

“See what they know, because they might have this view of drugs that’s completely off from reality,” says Dr. Barot. “Clarify what they know and explain the difference between good drugs (e.g. antibiotics) used for medical purposes and bad drugs (e.g. cocaine) used for recreational purposes or to deal with emotional pain. If you have that conversation first and get their understanding, that’ll give you a baseline.”

Role-play Different Scenarios

Empower your teen with a strong sense of self-worth and coping skills they need to navigate peer pressure, stress, and other triggers that could lead to experimentation with drugs or alcohol. Role-playing scenarios, like how to handle peer pressure at parties, can help your teen prepare to make healthy decisions in real-life situations.

For example, pretend to be a friend offering alcohol at a party, while your teen practices refusing politely but firmly. Then, try a scenario where your teen is being pressured to vape, and you help them learn to decline and stand their ground. These role-playing sessions help your teen feel more confident about making smart choices when faced with tough situations. If something similar happens in real life, they’ll know exactly what to do.

Encourage Healthy Outlets

Developing a strong sense of identity is like a protective shield against substance abuse. Encourage your teen to explore their interests and passions. By nurturing their interests, your teen can discover what truly matters to them. For example, if they love painting, encourage them to join an art class or start a creative project at home.

"When they do more activities they enjoy, they'll build confidence and a sense of purpose, making them less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to fill a void or try and fit in," explains Dr. Barot.

Lead by Example

No matter their ages, kids are like sponges – they soak up what’s around them. Model positive behaviors by having healthy coping mechanisms in your own life, such as exercising regularly, managing stress effectively and seeking support when needed.

“You expect this from your child, but are you living it?” asks Dr. Barot. “Model the behavior you want to see.”

For example, if you're feeling stressed, show your teen how you cope by going for a walk or practicing deep breathing exercises.

Keep Communicating

Even after the initial drug talk, seek out more opportunities for open communication. Make sure your child knows they can talk to you about this topic no matter what. Leverage opportune moments, such as during car rides or quiet time doing chores, when your teen may feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings.

To keep the lines of communication open, avoid jumping to conclusions or resorting to punishment. Create a judgment-free space where your teen feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences.

Remember that the above steps aren't one-and-done; talking to your teen about drug use and coping skills is an ongoing process. By following this playbook as often as needed, you can empower your teen to make healthy choices and navigate life's ups and downs with confidence.

Next Steps & Resources

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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