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How to have an open and honest conversation about drugs




May 5, 2023

There is no sugarcoating this one — it’s so important to talk to kids and teens openly and honestly when it comes to drugs and alcohol. But where in the world do you begin, especially if you came from the 90’s “just say no” generation? 

The reality is that drugs are more dangerous and readily available than when we were kids, so it’s crucial to do everything you can to create a comfortable, non-judgmental space for honest conversations surrounding substances within your home. We’re here to help you navigate this tricky topic so that you can give your child the tools they need to make positive choices and stay safe. 

Why teens are susceptible to substance abuse 

Brain development continues into our 20s. Because of this, the teen brain does not always fully grasp consequences and can be more focused on rewards and “feeling good.” 

This is why focusing your discussion only on abstaining from drugs and alcohol is not effective for many teens. Plus, in this stage of life, it is common for teens to push for freedom, independence, and self-autonomy — all while figuring out who the heck they are. 

Most are also looking to fit in with their friends, making them especially vulnerable to peer-pressure. And some teens are looking for opportunities to push boundaries  or are just genuinely curious. Teens that are lonely, coping with anxiety or depression, or have a family history of substance abuse may be especially susceptible to using drugs. 

Tips for talking to your child about drug use 

  • Be honest. Instead of using scare tactics or avoiding the topic all together, honesty is the best policy when it comes to talking to kids and teens about the dangers of drugs. Teens are smart, curious, and usually have access to the internet to myth bust. If you’re able to have conversations about drugs and consequences without bringing shame or fear-based language into the mix, they may be more likely to have an open dialogue with you in the future.

  • Find the right time to talk. It’s best to bring up the subject in a safe, comfortable environment. Avoid discussing tough topics when you or your child is feeling frustrated or defensive and try to check distractions, like phones, at the door. It can be helpful to use side-by-side communication so that you can both talk and listen without making direct eye contact. Opportunities like when you are doing chores together, while out for a walk, or sitting side-by-side at the dinner table can take some of the pressure off and allow you both to communicate with more ease. 
  • Encourage questions. Ask your child about their views on substance use and actively listen without jumping in to correct or fix. You may even want to repeat back what you heard so they feel heard and understood. It's best to avoid lectures and let them know that they can ask anything and talk openly without the fear of getting in trouble. 
  • Start conversations early. Like all tough topics, starting a dialogue with your child when they are young will serve them well in the future. You can use age-appropriate language to explain the importance of taking care of your body, being thoughtful about what choices you make, and always coming to a trusted adult when they are exposed to dangerous or confusing things like drugs. 
  • Go further than “just say no.” Take the time to warn kids about the dangers associated with various forms of substances — both illegal and prescribed drugs. Open up the conversation asking them what they know about addiction, overdosing, and physical, emotional and psychological damage that can occur and offering information to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Telling your child to avoid drugs all together without any context isn’t realistic and creates less of an opportunity for them to come to you later down the road if they have experimented or been exposed to substances. 
  • Talk about consequences. Without being overly emotional or dramatic, let your child know how drugs can affect the things they care about. Ask them first how they think using drugs and/or alcohol would impact important things in their lives like sports performance, friends, romantic relationships, or their health. Then share your own examples of the negative effects of use. In a straightforward manner, remind them about the legal consequences involved if they are caught using drugs and how it could affect their future.

  • Keep it grounded in science. One way to be an objective source for your child is to just stick to the facts. Let them know about the risks of drugs and encourage them to research the topic themselves, looking up things like addiction statistics, effects on the body, and rates of overdose. Explain how drugs can be mislabeled or laced with things like fentanyl, making them more dangerous than ever before
  • Share your experiences. This one can get a bit tricky, but be as open as possible with your child about any family history surrounding addiction. How open and honest you want to be is your decision, but letting them in on any lessons you’ve learned or sharing times you’ve experienced peer pressure will likely go a long way. You can even use the time to brainstorm ways to turn down offers of drugs. 
  • Establish clear boundaries. It’s important to pay attention to your teen’s whereabouts and who they are hanging out with. As a family, discuss expectations and rules (such as never drinking and driving or curfews) and what the consequences will be if they violate these boundaries. It’s also important to come up with a plan together if they ever find themselves in a dangerous situation. Encourage honesty and let them know that they can always come to you, no matter what. 

We know this is so hard to navigate, so remember that you don’t have to do it alone. Reach out for professional support if you think your teen is using drugs, or if you would like some help in navigating the topic as a family.