Talking to Teens About Substance Use

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“Go ahead, it just relaxes you and makes everything seem alright” said the teen as he passed the joint to another teen. The other teen looked at the joint reluctantly and then said, “I would, but my parents would totally freak out. You don’t understand how dead I would be if they ever found out.” The teen got up to go to another part of the room as the joint got passed to another teen.

Substance use in adolescence is frequently viewed as something that all teenagers will do at some point. One reason why is that adolescents are trying to establish their identity as an independent adult. Part of establishing their identity is to push the limits of parental control and engage in more adult-like behaviors such as substance use.

A particular problem with substance use during adolescence is that it can have long term negative effects on teenagers. The adolescent brain is still under development and it continues to develop all the way into young adulthood. When various substances are used during adolescence, it changes the brain’s connections and chemistry. The result is that the younger teens are when they start using substances, the higher the likelihood that teens will become addicted.

The key to preventing addiction is to delay teens’ substance use as long as possible and to minimize the amount they use. In order to accomplish this, parents need to have a talk with their teens about their view of substance use. However, the substance use talk should not just be sprung on teens. Parents should let teens know the talk is coming and to be specific regarding what it is about.

Once teens are given adequate notice, parents need to clearly state their rules regarding substance use. Parents also need to spell out the consequences if teens are found to have used any substances. When parents set limits regarding substance use, then teens tend to be safer and teens who are being pressured to use can use their parents as an excuse for saying no.

While setting limits, it is important for parents to state their reasons for their rules. Just looking at the front page of the newspaper can provide a good rationale for parents’ rules regarding substance use and its’ negative effects. Parents should be honest and acknowledge that some substances such as heroin are more dangerous than others like smoking cigarettes.

Parents should also focus on the more immediate negative effects of using substances rather than longer term effects. For example, substance use can impair judgment leading to difficult and possibly dangerous situation like driving drunk or performing poorly at school.

Once parents have laid out their rules, consequences for violating the rules, and their reasons why, it is time to let the teens have a chance to speak. Teens need a chance to express their own concerns and feelings. They may have questions and this give an opportunity to open a dialogue with parents that can pay dividends down the road.

The overall goal for parents is for their teenagers to be safe. To that end, parents should consider adopting an amnesty policy for their teens. An amnesty policy means that a teen can call and ask for help without incurring the regular consequences for violating the rules. This does not mean that the teen is left of the hook but it does mean that parents won’t yell at her and ground her that night. Rather everyone goes to bed and then calmly discusses the issue the following morning.

Having the substance use talk with teens can be uncomfortable but it needs to happen. Teens who have had the talk are more likely to delay when they start using substances and are less likely to use them as much compared to teens who don’t receive the talk. Of course the talk is just an initial step as keeping an on-going conversation about the issue is necessary. Teens change as they get older and what was true one day may be very different from the next day. Make the effort and allow teens to live up to their potential rather than getting bogged down in substance use and abuse.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on November 2, 2014.

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