Talking with Teenagers: Substance Abuse


Just heard for the I’m not sure how many’th time in my 25 years counseling kids, “I don’t know why my parents got mad at me.  It wasn’t my weed.”  You can substitute alcohol, or Juuls, or any other substance that’s trending these days. And, honestly, in all of those years, that statement has almost never been true.  If you find a substance in your child’s room, or in their car, chances are it really is theirs.  Or, at least 99% of the time it belongs to your child, not the friend they’re trying to “keep out of trouble.”  They are not keeping it for someone else and wouldn’t risk getting in trouble themselves, no matter how “good of a friend they are”, or how “worried they are about them,” or even “how awful their parents are.”  (Can you tell I’ve heard LOTS of the excuses over the years?)  So, what do you do?  This monthly article is meant to spark conversation, to create meaningful dialog with the kids you love.  But, how do you have meaningful dialog when they’re making destructive choices…or is there even a chance that they might?

It is tough.  And, it’s tough in general to parent in light of all that the kids we love are being exposed to on a daily basis.  But, conversation continues to be profoundly important.  Before they even get to the age where kids are experimenting with substance use, you want to start the conversations.

Tell me what you know about being a teenager?  What is there to look forward to?  What do you think’s tough about it?  What do you want to be like when you’re a teenager?  Have you heard of peer pressure?  What do you think that means?  And then, based on what they know, fill in the gaps.  But, be mindful of lecturing.  Lectures really don’t help.  Talk with them.  Help them understand how hard it really can be to make good choices, but how proud you will be of them when—not if—they do.  

As they get older, continue the conversation.  But, beforehand, make sure that you know you’re there to listen and not to judge.  (And not to panic is important, too.)  What’s the culture like in your school these days?  Are you hearing much about alcohol or drugs?  Are kids vaping?  Why do you feel like it’s happening?  What do you think would help?  How can I support you?  And talk with them gently about your expectations and hopes for them.

If, at some point, your child does experiment with substances of any kind, first, they need consequences.  It’s always helpful to know your child’s currency…a car, friends, technology, whatever you think will have the most impact.  Consequences that are shorter-term and intense are most helpful.  If they’re grounded for 6 months, teenagers live so much in the present, that they can’t remember why they were grounded in the first place by the time the grounding is over.  And then, talk with them.  They need to hear truth from you, but they also need to talk with you.  What was going on?  What do you think got you to this place (a more helpful and non-threatening way to ask “why”)?  What was it like for you?  What do you want to do differently next time?  How can I help?

Your teenager needs to know your values, your expectations, and needs to hear regularly who you believe God made them to be…even when they mess up.  And, they also need to learn to connect the dots on their own.  Conversations help…and your belief in who they are and who they can be does, too.