The Impact of Tween-to-Teen Substance Use

By Julie Smith Posted October 20, 2014 under Guest Authors

Being a teenager is challenging. Raising a teenager is even more so. Each day, adolescents and their families face difficult choices. One of those choices – and challenges – comes in the form of alcohol, cigarettes, over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, prescription medications and illegal drugs. Sadly, substance use and abuse has become part of the landscape during the teenage years. Many view use as a rite of passage to mark their entry into adolescence. And, while most adolescents who use drugs do not progress to habitual abusers or addicts, even small degrees of use can have negative consequences in all areas of life, most notably in family relationships.

As substance use weaves it’s way into an adolescent’s life, all family members are affected. The most obvious impact in families is an increase in conflict and tension. Teens often feel that they have become the problem or the scapegoat for, well, everything. Parents wonder how they could have let something go so terribly wrong with their child. Siblings may feel ignored because the substance-using teen is drawing attention away from him or her. All sides begin to feel an increase in anxiety, worry, resentment, anger, confusion and guilt.

So, what can you do if your family is affected?

  • Breathe. Before you do anything, take a very deep breath. After you get your own emotions in check, you can start to move forward in a productive manner.
  • Have a courageous conversation. Believe it or not, most teens want to talk to their parents. However, they often turn away from conversations because, as one 15-year-old told me, “It’s more about advising and judging than sharing and conversing.” Start by asking your teen what’s going on. Let him or her know that you have observed certain behaviors that are concerning. Without judgment or blame, share how your teen’s behaviors are affecting the family. Even if your teen refuses to talk, know that if you are approaching him or her in a calm, direct manner, your message is getting in.
  • Suspend judgment. Teens shut down when they feel judged, so it is important to remember that you can love your teen without loving everything about his or her life.
  • Set rules, consequences and boundaries. While it is important to encourage a teen’s growing independence, it is also imperative to set emotional and physical boundaries, especially with a teen who is using substances. Set clear limits and rules about appropriate behavior. Set the expectation that you need to know where your teen is, what he or she is doing and who is he or she is with. Additionally, work with your teen to set clear consequences when your rules are broken.
  • Support your teen, but not the dangerous behaviors. Tell your teen that you love him or her no matter what. Offer to help find professional support if needed.
  • Forgive. Forgive yourself. Forgive your teen. Just forgive. Holding onto guilt will continue the cycle of anger and resentment. Forgiveness will also help you and your teen see that you are not aiming for perfection, but instead progress, health and happiness.

Do you have any other tips for navigating the challenging waters of parenting teens, especially with substance abuse becoming increasingly common? Feel free to share them in the comments below.

Julie Smith is an adolescent counselor and parent coach who partners with parents and organizations to navigate the chaotic and unpredictable world of tweens and teens. She specializes in supporting families and communities before, during and after a crisis. For free tips on tweens and teens, visit