Raising challenging yet extremely important topics, such as sex, drugs and money with teenagers can often seem daunting. For most of us, our parents didn’t model how to have such discussions, which left us to learn about them mostly from our friends (who often didn’t know much and got at least a few important things wrong).
Let’s face it: Most parents tend to avoid talking about sex and drug use with their teenage children, and it’s easy to see why. The immediate results of having these discussions rarely seem positive because these topics commonly feel awkward (at best) and are likely to generate an argument and/or potentially completely shut down communication (at worst).
The problem with avoiding these discussions is that most parents overvalue the immediate and potentially negative consequences and under-weigh the more distant and likely positive consequences of having these conversations. Fortunately, you can minimize and eliminate the immediate negative reactions your teen may have when you bring up substance use, and you should know that such discussions have a much bigger positive impact than you may think.
In other words, you can have hard discussions in productive ways short term, while in the long term, having the hard discussions increases the likelihood that your teen will make wiser and safer choices.
So, how do you effectively talk to your teen about substance use? The short answer is: early, often, accurately and with kindness. Let’s break this down.
How to talk to teens about substance use
1. Start early
Having these discussions early ideally means talking to your teen before you’re actually concerned that they might be using substances. If you speak to your child before they enter their teenage years, you can get to them before their peers start to spread common misinformation about how great using substances can be and how relatively harmless they are.
Another advantage of talking about substance use early is that it gives you and your teen the chance to build a habit of speaking calmly about the subject and how you feel about it. In addition, it can help you get used to hearing about some things you may not really want to know.
2. Speak to them about it often
Speaking to your child often about substance use means bringing the topic up regularly, which I suggest should be no less than every two months. The more you discuss a topic, the easier it gets, and it can set the stage for talking about substance use more effectively if a problem is identified later on.
The conversation can be simple and straightforward and include statements such as, “I want to check in with you about what you think about using nicotine, alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.” Keep in mind that establishing the habit of having supportive, non-emotional discussions about substance use at a time before they use alcohol or drugs will make it easier to discuss the topic if there is a problem down the road.
Related: Why your teen will tune you out
Moreover, frequent discussions enable you to communicate your values and expectations to your teen, and studies have shown that communicating your values to your children reduces the likelihood that they will engage in risky, impulsive behaviors.
Your discussions should include a statement of what you value and why. For example, “I want you to know that I don’t want you using nicotine, alcohol or any other drugs because these days, any substance can be laced with fentanyl, which kills, and because addicting chemicals can seriously damage your physical and mental health over the long term.”
3. Make sure your information is accurate
Speaking accurately with your teen about substance use means making sure you discuss both the positive reasons people use nicotine, alcohol and other drugs, as well as the real dangers of them. Acknowledging the positives of substance use not only establishes that you can discuss the topic in a balanced way, but it will also give you more credibility when you share the very real dangers of substance use.
Discussing substance use accurately means correcting misinformation (such as marijuana isn’t addicting) and making sure your teen knows the reality that street drugs are now more dangerous than ever, because fentanyl can contaminate any and all other drugs and cause life-threatening overdoses. Accurate information from the parent is the best counterweight to peer pressure, which often encourages use through minimizing its potential harms.
4. Talk to them with kindness
Finally, talking about substance use with kindness is simply more effective in helping your child make smart choices. The teen years are often a time of rebellion, as they typically push back against parental rules, norms and expectations. In the end, your teens are much more likely to follow a path you recommend if you communicate kindly, with respect and recognition of their growing autonomy. Your children will typically not be able to hear the content of what you tell them when they’re reacting emotionally to the negative emotions with which you convey the topic.
In summary, although talking to your teen about substance use can be difficult, with planning and practice the discussions can be productive. And these conversations will typically have positive impacts on your teenager’s choices by increasing the likelihood that they will act in accordance with the values you convey. So don’t wait. Start the conversation today.
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