Advice for Parents on How to Talk to Your Teens About Drugs and Alcohol

If you thought your child was at risk for or had diabetes, how long would you wait to seek help?

Barbara Farnsworth, executive director of Second Growth, which provides prevention education, treatment and recovery services in the Upper Valley, posed the question while discussing how parents can talk to their children and teens about drug and alcohol abuse.

Farnsworth’s question gets to the heart of the issue surrounding how parents approach — or too often, avoid — the subject. In interviews with numerous area experts who work to educate the public about drug and alcohol prevention and treatment, the theme of denial runs deep.

This is key because research shows that the earlier teens start using substances (alcohol, tobacco and drugs), the higher their risk of becoming addicts later in life. Add to this the facts that early use of one substance often leads to use of other, more serious substances and that these substances have a particularly damaging effect on the teenage brain, and it becomes clear why prevention and treatment are so vital.

Protective Factors And Risk Factors

“There are certain factors that decrease or increase the likelihood that a teen will begin to use substances,” said Jacqui Baker, coordinator of ALL Together, a Lebanon-based collaborative that focuses on prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery.

“Some protective factors include having all of your basic needs met, being well bonded with your family, and a sense of belonging in the community. Risk factors include alienation, peer norms, parental attitude and involvement in use, and substance availability,” Baker said.

The formula to reduce substance misuse is pretty straightforward: Increase protective factors, and decrease risk factors. It’s not rocket science; parents understand that if they are involved in their children’s lives — for instance, if the family sits down to dinner every night and talks to each other — their children are less likely to misuse substances (though it’s no guarantee). Parents who are involved in their children’s lives are also in a better position to assess whether their child might be drinking or using drugs.

This is where it gets complicated, because research shows that there is often a level of acceptance of substance use among parents.

A survey conducted last spring by ALL Together of residents in five Upper Valley communities over the age of 18 (of which nearly 82 percent were parents) found that 21 percent of respondents said that it is OK for people under the age of 21 to occasionally use marijuana, and 29 percent said it is OK for the same age group to occasionally use alcohol as long it doesn’t interfere with schoolwork or other responsibilities.

“One area of concern is social norms,” said Angie Leduc, Drug Free Communities coordinator at ALL Together. “A norm in the Upper Valley, based on our survey, is that it’s acceptable for kids to drink underage, as long as they’re still achieving. This tells kids it’s OK to drink, and may increase the likelihood they use or increase their use.”

If a teen is getting good grades and doing well in sports, his or her parents may be more likely to turn a blind eye than if the teen is struggling academically and socially.

At the same time, the survey found an overwhelming concern about substance abuse in the community: 91 percent about prescription drug use, 76 percent regarding alcohol use and 69 percent about marijuana use.

While parents care about the issue of drug and alcohol abuse in their community, on a personal level they may accept a certain level of use among teens as inevitable. However, Leduc has found in her discussions with area teens that many have no desire to use, but feel that they are expected to by society, their peers and even their parents.

“Teenage use is not inevitable,” Leduc said. “Teens have a choice to not use, and we need to talk to them as though they have a choice.”

Parents who think teenage drinking is unavoidable may believe that serving their teen a glass of wine with dinner teaches responsible drinking, but the experts say this is the wrong approach.

“It’s a very slippery slope,” Farnsworth said. “What we know about young people who drink is that they’re not asking to have a glass of wine with dinner; they’re binge drinking.”

Letting your teen drink at home “is confusing to the adolescent and demonstrates that, frankly, the parent approves of underage drinking,” she said. “There is a direct correlation between disapproval and usage. The higher the disapproval, the lower risk that the teen will consume that substance.”

Discussing Substance Use

Parents need to recognize that discussing substance use with their children offers an important opportunity to have an influence on their children’s health — and to not miss the opportunity.

“If you have a really high functioning adolescent who is using marijuana every day, then as a parent you’re less likely to address the issue because you’re not seeing in the moment how their usage is impacting their functionality,” Farnsworth said.

However, Farnsworth pointed out that the long-term impact on the brain, which is not fully developed until about age 26, will be significant. Moreover, substance use is a form of self-medicating, and she advised parents to get to the root cause.

“If you look the other way, you’re missing an opportunity to help your child develop healthy ways to cope while they’re still in your home,” Farnsworth said, “because once they leave, the parent has much less opportunity to impact how they develop those skills. For now, marijuana or alcohol work, but what about when they don’t work; what will your child be using then?”

Compounding the problem is the fact that some parents may have been recreational alcohol or drug users themselves as teenagers, and they think it’s no big deal for their children to experiment, too. This brings up a couple of issues. First, use is not the same today as it was in previous generations due to access, types of drugs available and the potency and purity of the drugs on the market.

Even if parents don’t think it’s OK for their kids to experiment, they may be unsure about discussing their own teenage use with their children.

“If parents choose to discuss their own substance use with their kids, evidence suggests parents should be intentional, thoughtful and stay away from normalizing harmful choices,” Leduc said.

Parents who are currently abusing alcohol or drugs, whether or not in recovery, may feel a conflict when addressing the issue with their children. According to Leduc, “studies show a possible benefit to informing your child of their increased risk for alcohol or drug addiction.” Parents still need to be deliberate, and cognizant of not “normalizing” their harmful experiences.

A Problem That Affects Us All

Like denial, shame can be a barrier to the prevention and treatment of drug and alcohol abuse.

“We need to reduce the stigma all around. If you know that somebody has a child who has a substance use disorder, don’t shy away from that person, talk to them,” Baker said. “We as a community need to come together and realize that these are real problems that affect us all.”

“Get educated,” said Leduc. “It’s quick enough to make a call or look online. Then just start talking to your kids. If they don’t want to talk about it, try, try again. Be honest, forget the finger-pointing and say, ‘I love you, I’m worried about you, I want to make sure you’re OK and that you’re equipped to deal with what’s coming your way.’ ”

All of the experts said the most important take-away is to be proactive and reach out.

“Pick up the phone,” Farnsworth said. “Don’t be ashamed; this is a problem that more families than you imagine are struggling with.

“This is not a time to wait and see what happens. There’s too much at stake.”

Jaimie Seaton is a writer who lives in Hanover.

Upper Valley Perceptions

21% think it’s OK for people under 21 to occasionally use marijuana

29% think it’s OK for people under 21 to occasionally use alcohol as long as it doesn’t interfere with responsibilities

91% are concerned about prescription drug use in the community

76% are concerned about alcohol use in the community

69% are concerned about marijuana use in the community

Source for statistics: ALL Together Upper Valley Region Community Survey released in 2015.

Talk About It: What the Community Says About Drugs, Alcohol Access

68% have talked to their children about substance abuse in the past year

83% have alcohol and marijuana use rules in their households

77% discuss the consequences of violating alcohol and marijuana rules

Source for statistics: ALL Together Upper Valley Region Community Survey released in 2015.

What You Do and Say Does Make a Difference

1. Know your teen’s activities — where they are, whom they are with when you are not with them, and what their plans are for the day.

2. Remind your teen about your family rules, enforce them, and let them know you expect them to avoid alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other illegal drugs.

3. Praise and thank your teen for good behavior.

4. Check that homework and other responsibilities have been completed.

5. Have family meals together as often as possible.

Source: A Parent’s Guide For the Prevention of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Use, from the Mascoma Valley Prevention Network (an ALL Together Coalition).


This article was previously published on by Jaimie Seaton on February 5, 2016.