How to Talk to Teens About Alcohol and Drugs
You know how important it is to talk to your teen about alcohol and drugs, but it is not always easy to get the conversation started. Finding the right words that won't trigger endless eye-rolling can be even more challenging. However, it's a conversation that needs to happen before it's too late. By saying nothing, you are actually saying something.
When is the right age to talk to kids about drinking and drugs?
Every child is different, so there is no set age when this conversation needs to take place. However, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 32 percent of eighth-graders had reported drinking in 2015, and 64 percent of those who reported drinking said that alcohol is relatively easy to get.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests that parents start talking to children about these topics when they are nine years old. This may seem way too young to you, but one study showed that children between the ages of 10 and 12 had both positive and negative reactions to alcohol and cigarettes, with outside influences playing a significant role in their feelings on the matter. By the age of 15, over 50% of teens have already tried smoking and/or drinking alcohol. At least half of young adults with a drug addiction started using substances before they were 15 years old.
You don't necessarily need to have a thorough conversation with your tween, but you should, at least, be planting the seed and making sure the lines of communication are open. It will make a more in-depth conversation in their teen years much easier.
Educate yourself about the current teenage trends and terms.
Most teens think parents don't know what they're talking about. Therefore, the more educated you are about the subject, the more likely they will respect, or at least really listen, to what you have to say. Drugfree.org has a helpful chart for parents trying to stay current on problem drugs and their latest nicknames, how the drugs are used, their biggest dangers, and their warning signs. For example, would you know that methamphetamine is also called chalk, ice, glass, fire, and crystal? This is information that could come in handy in the future.
Also, not all substances are as "black and white" as you might think. Cough medicine, nutmeg (yes, the spice in your cupboard), paint thinner, aerosol whipped cream cans, nail polish remover, and over-the-counter, and prescription medications in the medicine cabinet are being abused.
Plan your talk carefully.
Talking to your teen about alcohol and drugs is not something that should only happen once. This needs to be an ongoing discussion, but there also needs to be an in-depth conversation. Don't try to cram in the talk five minutes before they are going out with friends. It needs to happen when you both have time, and there are no distractions.
- Ask their views. Teens don't respond well to being treated like they need to be taught everything. If you begin the conversation by asking their opinion on the topic, they will appreciate that you are acknowledging the fact that they know a lot already. Maybe they can even teach you something.
- Ask open-ended questions. You probably already know that if you don't ask open-ended questions, you are not going to get any more than a "yes" or "no" answer. Phrase your questions in a way that will encourage them to engage with you.
- Listen. One of the most effective things you can do is just listen. Let them talk, because whatever they are saying, they feel it is important. There could also be hidden information there they are trying to tell you, but just don't know how. Learn to listen between the words — like reading between the lines. Pay close attention to facial expressions, body language, and if they seem to be searching for the "right" words to say.
- Debunk myths. No, beer and wine are not safer than hard liquor. Letting someone drive who only had two drinks is still drunk driving. There are a lot of myths that teens often believe that need debunking.
- Share statistics. You may want to have notes written down, and don't make things up. Don't think your teen won't go Google a random statistic you say just to prove you wrong. If they find you made up something, you will lose credibility. The statistics are disturbing enough that they don't need to be exaggerated. For example, 11 million adolescents and young adults in America ages 12 to 29 years old have a substance addiction, and 90 percent of these addictions started before the age of 18.
- Make it personal. As important as sharing statistics is, it's also helpful to focus on the personal effects of substance abuse, so it seems "real" rather than just being a set of abstract numbers that your teen doesn't think affects them. Maybe you know someone who has or is in recovery from addiction, or a family friend has a relative with a history of alcoholism. Putting the problem in this perspective will help them understand that substance abuse can affect anyone and those numbers you shared have an actual impact.
- Talk about the facts. Explain that the brain is still developing until you are in your mid-20s. Alcohol and drug usage will affect you for the rest of your life. Discuss real world consequences regarding losing their license, job, scholarship, etc. It is illegal, and when (not if) they get caught, they will be in be in trouble with authorities.
- Discuss appearance. Sometimes, the easiest way to get through to a teen is to explain how substance abuse will affect their appearance. Few teens want to think about having a horrible complexion, wrinkles, or rotten teeth.
- Explain the side effects. Teens need to know why it's bad to do drugs and drink alcohol. Saying, "Because I said so!" is not a good enough reason. They should understand the health risks. Chronic heavy drinking can result in cirrhosis of the liver, anemia, cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, seizures, gout, nerve damage, pancreatitis, and the list goes on.
- Talk about peer pressure. If you thought being a teen was tough when you were growing up, just imagine how hard it is now. It's not easy for teens to stand up to peer pressure, even if they know they are doing something wrong. They want to fit in. Help them be strong. Teach them to stand up straight, say no, and make eye contact. They don't have to make excuses because they are way above that.
- Encourage healthy activities and friendships. Are they feeling pressured because they don't have any other friends or outlets? Maybe it is time to ask if there are any new hobbies, sports, or other activities they want to try. Are they interested in a teen yoga class once a week? Would they like to start volunteering somewhere? Don't pressure them; just let them know they have options.
- Make the rules clear. The last thing you want to hear is your teen telling you they are doing drugs or drinking or smoking because you never told them not to. There should be clear rules, and this includes not staying at parties where people are doing drugs or riding in a car with a driver who has been drinking.
- Be approachable. It's important to stay neutral in the conversation. Don't start yelling because you don't like what they have to say or cry if they tell you they have already tried something. They need to feel like they can talk to you. If they know you are going to get upset, they may not come to you when they need to. Instead, let them know that you're there and will understand if they run into trouble, try something they shouldn't, or are worried that a friend has a problem. It's better to have them turn to you before any serious issues can arise than to keep it to themselves because they've done something they shouldn't.
Keep the line of communication open.
Don't expect your teen to all of a sudden become your best friend and want to open up to you if this is not the type of relationship you already have. However, make sure they know that no matter what situation they are in, they can call you to pick them up or come to you for help. Take advantage of teachable moments. Maybe an athlete gets busted for drunk driving, or their favorite celebrity is in the news for a possession charge. Talk about it.
Ongoing mini conversations are important. Remember to listen to their opinion, and provide them with the information they need to feel empowered to make healthy choices about alcohol and drugs.
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