4 Ways to Talk with Your Teens About Substance Abuse

To many teens today, substance abuse is something they see or hear about on a regular basis. It’s discussed—and in some cases, glorified—in the television, films, and music they consume. However, the recreational use of substances such as alcohol, prescription medicines, illegal drugs, and even over-the-counter (OTC) substances like cough medicine is not a game – it’s dangerous and can even be life-threatening. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is estimated that substance abuse claims the lives of thousands of people in America every year. While substance abuse is seen in all demographics – from older adults to young teens – our youth have been especially affected by substance abuse.

Currently, OTC cough medicine is the substance of choice for many teens. This is understandably causing many parents and guardians to wonder what can be done to help teens understand the dangers of substance abuse? Now more than ever, opening a line of communication between you and your children is essential. While this isn’t always easy, it’s far from impossible, and these four tips can help make it more simple, comfortable, and rewarding for both you and your children.

1. Honesty is Key

Your teen has likely heard the typical doom-and-gloom approach to substance abuse prevention. Obviously, substance abuse is a serious topic that comes with scary consequences, but this reasoning doesn’t always resonate with teens. They may be drawn to the perceived moments of pleasure without thinking of any of the negative consequences that come along with it. It is important to mention the short highs and long-lasting, life-threatening lows of substance abuse. Substance abuse prevention starts with an honest discussion. Teens are more likely to take your words seriously when they sense you are genuine, and have their best interests at heart, rather than just repeating the same scare-tactics they’ve heard dozens of times. Making a connection is the most important factor in talking with your teen and can make them take what you have to say to heart.

2. Understand How Your Teen’s Brain Works

We’re living in the age of technology, and there is a wealth of information on the real side effects of substance abuse and addiction. Teens can access the same information that you share with them, but they may not process it the same way as you do. Harvard Magazine emphasizes that teens’ “cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, and judgment” are underdeveloped. What does this mean? The teenage brain is a work in progress. Scientists believe that our brain is not fully developed until age 25, and therefore, more effort should be put into the overall message and the emotional connection than the facts. They know drugs are bad – it’s up to you to connect with them and show them why it matters.

3. Be Conversational, not Confrontational

Try to make your conversation less of an intervention and more of a friendly chat. Having a casual conversation about substance abuse prevention is an opportunity to find out about how they feel in addition to telling them how you feel. Whether your teen has already experienced drugs and alcohol or is simply curious and possibly considering experimenting, this is the chance to correct any misinformation and connect with your teen on a real, one-on-one level.

4. Offer Moral Support

Offer moral support with no strings attached. Let your teen know that you are there for them, regardless of whether they’ve tried substances before, feel peer pressure, or are even misusing substances currently. Substance abuse is rarely an isolated part of a teen’s life; usually, substance abuse is connected to something else, like peer pressure, depression, isolation, or other issues in a teen’s life. This is a great chance to offer your support not just in the realm of preventing substance abuse, but in every aspect of your teen’s life. Show that you are available to help with any issue that they may be struggling with and that you’re open to working through it together.

While talking to your kids about substance abuse will always be a challenge, utilizing these approaches can help make it a bit easier for everyone involved. Remember, while it is important to talk, it is just as important to listen. Give your teen a chance to talk about their feelings and experiences, in addition to sharing yours. Having a conversation with your teen doesn’t have to be a struggle – in fact, it can be an enjoyable, rewarding experience that can have a positive impact on their life – and yours.


Autumn is a writer, photographer, and film lover living in Detroit, MI. She currently blogs about addiction and how to move beyond it. You can find her on her days off cooking, playing hockey, or watching Netflix with her cat Luke Skywalker. Check out her blog at http://autumncavender.weebly.com.


Take Action

Increased awareness can only mean increased prevention. Join us in the fight against teen cough medicine abuse by exploring and sharing our free resources.