The Teen Years
The teen years are a time of tremendous growth and change. Your teen is continually testing limits to form an independent identity. However, the desire to push boundaries can quickly lead to dangerous territory when a teen is experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
At Mountain Laurel Recovery Center‘s Pennsylvania drug and alcohol addiction treatment program, we believe addiction is a family illness. We encourage our clients to take advantage of our family program during their treatment and to openly discuss the dangers of substance abuse with their children.
In this post, we offer tips to help parents of teens begin a conversation about substance abuse while creating a home environment that encourages open and honest communication.
1. Remove Distractions
This is a serious conversation, so plan a time to talk when you don’t have to rush off to another appointment and won’t be interrupted by others. Turn off the TV and put the cellphones away.
Some parents find that discussing sensitive topics works best when you’re in the car together. This prevents your teen from simply leaving the room to avoid discussing the issue. However, talking while you’re dealing with heavy traffic can be distracting. Use your best judgment to decide how to approach the conversation.
2. Provide a Realistic Risk Assessment
Movies, TV shows, music, and pop culture tend to portray substance use as a “grown-up” way to have fun and neglect to show the consequences of addiction. Your teen needs to know that while genetics aren’t destiny, having a parent who has struggled with addiction places them at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. This risk increases even further when drug or alcohol use begins at a young age, since the brain does not fully develop until the age of 25.
While you don’t need to share every detail of your own recovery journey with your teen, discussing the negative consequences you experienced as a result of your addiction can help your teen better understand why staying sober is the safest choice. This might include talking about the health effects of continued substance abuse, how substance abuse negatively impacts personal relationships, the dangers of impaired driving, the effects of a substance-related criminal charge on future opportunities, or how being under the influence can lead to risky sexual activity. Owning up to your past mistakes can be difficult, but knowing why you’re worried can help your teen better understand your point of view.
Often, teens experiment with drugs or alcohol because they want to fit in with their peers and avoid feeling like an outsider. Build a connection with your teen by sharing your own experience with peer pressure and what strategies you learned in recovery to comfortably turn down drugs and alcohol in a social setting. Additionally, you can offer a “no-questions-asked” policy to give your teen a way to get a safe ride home with you whenever they are in a situation where they feel uncomfortable.
Empathizing can also include discussing what a toxic relationship looks like. While many of your teen’s friends will respect the decision to stay sober, it’s likely that some will not. Your teen needs your help to learn how to handle people who don’t have their best interests at heart.
4. Stay Calm
No one likes to feel attacked. Even if you suspect your teen has already been drinking or using drugs, resist the urge to yell, shame, or criticize. If you can stay calm and collected, you’ll increase the odds that your teen may be comfortable enough to share what struggles they are having. Listen without interrupting and use “I” statements to describe how you feel about your teen’s behavior in a non-judgmental way.
If your teen does confess to substance abuse, thank them for being honest with you. Ask questions to determine how often the behavior has occurred and if it’s an attempt to self-medicate the symptoms of a mental health condition. Reassure your teen that you’ll get through this together, then schedule an appointment with their healthcare provider.
5. Offer an Opportunity to Ask Questions
Don’t forget to give your teen a chance to ask questions. Even if your teen has been exposed to substance abuse education in school, these classes are far from comprehensive. Your teen may have questions that they were simply too afraid to ask before.
If your teen asks a question that you don’t know the answer to, it’s OK to admit that you’re still learning. Explain that you can find out the answer together.
6. Be Persistent
Talking to your teen about addiction once isn’t enough. This needs to be an ongoing conversation, since the challenges teens face change as they move from middle school to high school and prepare for college.
Strive to make time to connect with your teen each week, whether by planning family meals, playing a favorite game together, or simply taking a stroll in the park. Get to know your teen’s friends and encourage an involvement in sports and other school- or community-based extracurricular activities. Parenting isn’t easy, but the steps you take now will help your teen confidently face whatever the future holds.