Talking to teens about alcohol and drugs

Regardless of how sensitive or difficult the issues, teens need parents they can turn to for guidance about alcohol and drugs.

Because alcohol is such a large part of society, teens need parents to help them act responsibly to avoid the risks. Parents need to emphasize that alcohol consumption by minors is illegal, and for good reasons:

  • Teens are still growing and they are more vulnerable to long term health risks if they drink regularly.
  • Teens feel the effects more quickly and more powerfully than adults.
  •  Teens need to know that, although alcohol consumption is a socially acceptable activity for adults in appropriate situations (celebrations, wine at a meal, for instance), it is never a necessity for having fun.

Parents should firmly declare illegal or addictive drugs (cocaine, heroin, marijuana, crack, amphetamines and barbiturates) off-limits. All of these drugs can damage a young person's health, mental clarity and emotional stability and can suppress motivation and hinder social opportunities.

Michigan State University Extension’s Building Strong Adolescents program suggests the following are some guidelines when talking to your teen about alcohol and drugs.

Stay involved in your teen’s life – Be aware and address your teen’s problems before substance abuse begins. Your teen may find that alcohol and drugs are not an outlet or escape they need. Take steps to praise and encourage a teen who is suffering from low self-esteem.

Set rules - Be firm but reasonable. Set limits based on family values as well as facts. Set clear consequences for violation of limits. Talk honestly with your teen – emphasize health, responsibility and safety over punishment. Talk about the importance of a designated driver or calling you for a ride if your teen or other teens they are with end up drinking. Be consistent. Teens are more likely to misuse alcohol if parents send mixed messages like, “Alcohol is fine – as long as you drink at home.”

Be a role model - Set a good example. Find alternative ways to deal with your own stress and do not abuse alcohol. Help find constructive activities for teens that provide them with “natural highs.” Teach your teen about self-control and the rewards of a healthy lifestyle.

Help your teen to think about realistic situations - Help teens develop assertiveness and confidence in responding when pressured to drink. Advise them to use caution in all social situations – not to take a drink offered by a stranger, avoid open punch bowls at parties.

Keep the lines of communication open - Have frequent discussions about a variety of issues regarding drinking and drugs. Don’t save it up for one big talk; communication should involve many discussions over time. Make sure you know the facts. Take advantage of opportunities to learn more about substances and the related issues that affect your community.

Above all – be the parent. Take responsibility for keeping alcohol away from teens and denying them access. Providing alcohol to under-aged persons (even making it available at an open house or party) is illegal. Regardless of how sensitive or difficult the issues, teens need parents they can turn to for guidance. Parents should actively and frequently talk with teens about how to make wise decisions about complicated issues like alcohol and drugs. The emphasis of discussions should be on basic knowledge, family values, self-esteem, responsibility for self and others, personal growth and self-respect, risks and health and safety precautions.

For more resources on talking to teens about alcohol and drugs, visit any of the following resources:

Partnership for a Drug Free America

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Al-Anon and Al-Ateen, Al-Anon Family Group

Mothers Against Drunk Driving

Coalition Against Drug Abuse

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