How to Have a Healthy Conversation with Your Teen About Substance Use

Teen walking

Contributor: Staff at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center

Getting your teen to talk about, well, anything can be tough. But if you’re concerned that they might be experimenting with drugs, that’s a conversation worth having.

About half of teens today have misused drugs at least once in their life, with alcohol, marijuana, and vaping products ranking among the top substances adolescents abuse. More than 10 million adolescents across the country need substance use treatment, but only 1 in 10 receive professional help [1].

Even if your child hasn’t tried drugs or alcohol yet, chances are they know someone who has. In fact, 86% of teens know someone who smokes, drinks, or uses drugs while at school [1].

Why Substance Use Conversations Are Important

Teenagers struggle to control their emotions and don’t always show the best judgment because their brains are still developing. The prefrontal cortex, or the brain’s voice of reason, develops last, which is why teens are more likely to take risks and look for short-term thrills [2].

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Adolescents are seven times more likely to get in an alcohol-related accident when they begin to drive if they start drinking at a younger age [1]. And adolescents are much more likely to engage in unprotected sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Adolescents are also at a higher risk for suffering from short- or long-term damage from substance use. Using drugs or alcohol in adolescence can affect your child’s brain development and can also contribute to health problems later in life, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders. And teenagers are much more likely to develop a substance use disorder if they start using drugs or alcohol at such a young age [3].

“It’s a learning process when you become addicted,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told The New York Times. “It’s a type of memory that gets hard-wired into your brain. That occurs much faster in an adolescent brain” [4].

That is why it is so important for you to be the voice of reason for your child. You can play a crucial role in helping them understand the risks of substance use and navigate peer pressure.

How to Have a Healthy Conversation about Substance Use

As a parent, you want your teen to abstain from using drugs and alcohol. But how do you talk to your child about substance use without pushing them away?

Even though teenagers are beginning to establish their own identities and independence, their parents are often still the biggest influence in their lives. Starting a dialogue about substance use might seem daunting, but it is possible to have a healthy conversation. These tips can help you get the ball rolling:

1. Choose a Time Wisely
Some teens do not react positively when adults bring up serious subjects without warning, and they may become defensive or shut down emotionally. If this is your child, let them know ahead of time that you would like to have this conversation, and be clear about your intentions so that there’s no miscommunication.

Woman sitting watching the sunset concerned about Substance UseThe Child Mind Institute suggests saying something like, “Tomorrow night, let’s have a talk about drinking and drugs. You’re not in trouble. I just want to talk about where we stand and hear any concerns you might be having” [5].

You can also look for quiet moments to talk when you know that you won’t be interrupted, such as after dinner, before bed, or on the drive to or from school. Taking a walk or going for a drive is also a less personal approach that doesn’t force your child to make eye contact during such a difficult conversation.

2. Make Your Rules Clear
Research has shown that adolescents are often safer when they have parents who set clear boundaries [5]. But it is crucial to make sure that you and your child are on the same page about what those boundaries are.

When you say, “Be smart,” you might think that you are telling your child not to drink, while your child might think that you mean to not drink until they blackout. Harvard University recommends using specific language such as, “You can go out with your friends as long as you can assure me that you will not use marijuana” [6].

3. Explain Why
Adolescents are starting to form their own opinions, which do not always align with the way their parents think. Maintaining open communication with your child is essential, especially when it comes to their health and safety.

By explaining why you want your child to abstain from substance use, you create an environment that welcomes open dialogue. Stick to the facts, and speak to your child with respect to model the behavior you expect from them.

4. Listen to Your Child
This is a conversation, not a lecture, so encourage your child to talk to you about their knowledge and experiences and make sure to listen to their viewpoint.

If you are not sure where to start, Harvard University suggests asking questions like, “Tell me, what do you know about marijuana?” Remember to not judge your child’s responses. Instead, ask them to reflect on their knowledge. You might ask, “So, you’ve heard that marijuana is pretty safe because it is natural. Do you think that is correct?” [6]

If your child has already used drugs or alcohol, get curious instead of angry. They may have tried substances to relieve stress, cope with distressing emotions, or fit in with their friends. Understanding why your child started using drugs or alcohol will show what aspects of their life need intervention.

There’s no perfect formula for how to talk to your teen about substance use. But knowing that they can come to you to talk about drugs and alcohol is a great first step.


[1] National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics. (2019). Drug use among youth: Facts and statistics.

[2] Partnership to End Addiction. (2021, February). Brain development, teen behavior and preventing drug use.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, February 10). Teen substance use and risks.

[4] O’Connor, A. (2021, March 29). Teenage brains may be especially vulnerable to marijuana and other drugs. The New York Times.

[5] Jacobson, R. (2021). How to talk to your teen about substance use. Child Mind Institute.

[6] Levy, S., & Sundaram, S. (2018, August 16). Teens and drugs: 5 tips for talking with your kids. Harvard University.

About Our Sponsor:

Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center bannerAt Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, located outside of Chicago, Illinois, we provide specialized care for women and girls who are living with mental health conditions such as substance use disorders and eating disorders. Our private facility offers female-only treatment programs for eating disorders, addiction, and a range of mental health conditions. We work closely with each person to develop treatment goals to maximize strengths while focusing on individual needs. Our treatment team understands that each woman has unique needs and that she must play a role in her journey to wellness.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental, and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 15, 2021
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 15, 2021
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.