Teens and substance abuse: How parents can help



From day one, as parents, we are nurturing our children and protecting them from all foreseeable dangers. As they grow and become more independent, it is our job to give them the skills to protect themselves – and just the right amount of independence to nurture that growth. The teen years seem to be the most challenging on both fronts. The autonomy and types of situations they will face makes this time frame very daunting from a parental perspective. Substance use is a difficult landscape to navigate. We want to open the conversation and create a very safe space for open communication, but we must also be very clear while we express family values and expectations.

Communicate with your teen that you want to sit down and talk with him/her about vaping, drugs and alcohol in advance of the actual sit-down. This helps avoid the defensiveness you may encounter if it is an impromptu conversation. Be very clear in your expectations and consequences if they choose to use these substances. By saying, “make good choices,” or “be smart,” you may mean not to use at all – but your child may hear, “don’t get so drunk that you get sick.” Say you expect them not to use any substances, and state clearly what the consequences will be. Always encourage your child to use the consequences as an excuse if they don’t feel comfortable just saying no. In addition, some professionals recommend drug/alcohol-testing your child randomly. This holds them more accountable because drug use/vaping can be difficult for parents to always detect.  It can also serve as a great tool for them to use in saying no to the pressure.

Be sure you are listening to your child, as well as helping them understand your expectations. An agreement to always allow your child to call you if they find themselves in a bad situation is important. Communicate to them that there will not be yelling or confrontation at the time, but the next day you will sit and talk about their choices and how to be safer.

A roadblock parents often encounter during these years involves your child feeling that you are a hypocrite for your current behavior or your own choices in your youth. There are several different approaches that can be helpful.

A parent can meet questions about their teen years by prefacing the conversation with the thought that parents’ jobs are to guide them and help avoid things that may result in regret. One approach is to suggest that, if you said you had used substances in your teens, they would say you were a hypocrite; and if you said you had not, they would say you don’t understand. Add that you are not going to share your past with them because the conversation is about how to keep them safe. Another approach is to be honest while being extremely cautious not to glamorize your experiences.

The important piece to the conversation is to be clear about your expectations, but also create a safe space for your child to come if there are pressures or situations they need to talk about.

The Youth First website (www.youthfirstinc.org) offers great articles and resources for further education on this topic and many other youth-related issues.

Valorie Dassel, LCSW, LCAC, serves as the Youth First social worker at Evansville’s Mater Dei High School.