The best thing parents can do to help prevent drug and alcohol use by their children is to get involved before a problem begins. Starting when your child is age 5 or 6, talk with him or her about how these substances are harmful to kids. Talk honestly and openly about all kinds of tobacco, drugs, and alcohol as well as other things kids may do to cope with stress in their lives. Using any kind of substance is just one way that children try to deal with things that bother them.
Teens who experiment with drugs put their health and safety at risk. Help prevent teen drug abuse by talking to your teen about the consequences of using drugs and the importance of making healthy choices.
Why teens use or misuse drugs
Various factors can contribute to teen drug use and misuse. First-time use often occurs in social settings with easily accessible substances, such as alcohol and cigarettes.
Continued use might be a result of insecurities or a desire for social acceptance. Teens may feel indestructible and might not consider the consequences of their actions, leading them to take dangerous risks with drugs.
Common risk factors for teen drug abuse include:
- A family history of substance abuse
- A mental or behavioral health condition, such as depression, anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Impulsive or risk-taking behavior
- A history of traumatic events, such as experiencing a car accident or being a victim of abuse
- Low self-esteem or feelings of social rejection
Consequences of teen drug abuse
Negative consequences of teen drug abuse might include:
- Drug dependence. Teens who misuse drugs are at increased risk of serious drug use later in life.
- Poor judgment. Teenage drug use is associated with poor judgment in social and personal interactions.
- Sexual activity. Drug use is associated with high-risk sexual activity, unsafe sex and unplanned pregnancy.
- Mental health disorders. Drug use can complicate or increase the risk of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety.
- Impaired driving. Driving under the influence of any drug can impair a driver's motor skills, putting the driver, passengers and others on the road at risk.
- Changes in school performance. Substance use can result in a decline in academic performance.
Health effects of drugs
Drug use can result in drug addiction, serious impairment, illness and death. Health risks of commonly used drugs include the following:
- Cocaine — Risk of heart attack, stroke and seizures
- Ecstasy — Risk of liver failure and heart failure
- Inhalants — Risk of damage to heart, lungs, liver and kidneys from long-term use
- Marijuana — Risk of impairment in memory, learning, problem solving and concentration; risk of psychosis — such as schizophrenia, hallucination or paranoia — later in life associated with early and frequent use
- Methamphetamine — Risk of psychotic behaviors from long-term use or high doses
- Opioids — Risk of respiratory distress or death from overdose
- Electronic cigarettes (vaping) — Exposure to harmful substances similar to exposure from cigarette smoking; risk of nicotine dependence
Talking about teen drug use
You'll likely have multiple conversations with your teen about drug and alcohol use. Choose times when you're unlikely to be interrupted — and set aside phones. It's also important to know when not to have a conversation, such as when you're angry with your child, you aren't prepared to answer questions, or your child is drunk or high.
To talk to your teen about drugs:
- Ask your teen's views. Avoid lectures. Instead, listen to your teen's opinions and questions about drugs. Assure your teen that he or she can be honest with you.
- Discuss reasons not to use drugs. Avoid scare tactics. Emphasize how drug use can affect the things that are important to your teen — such as sports, driving, health and appearance.
- Consider media messages. Social media, television programs, movies and songs can glamorize or trivialize drug use. Talk about what your teen sees and hears.
- Discuss ways to resist peer pressure. Brainstorm with your teen about how to turn down offers of drugs.
- Be ready to discuss your own drug use. Think about how you'll respond if your teen asks about your own drug use. If you chose not to use drugs, explain why. If you did use drugs, share what the experience taught you.
Focus on the positive
- Discuss ways for your child to make responsible choices, no matter what his or her friends are saying or doing.
- Praise achievements. Never miss a chance to praise your child and build his or her self-esteem.
- Set a positive example. If you smoke, try to quit. Cigarettes tend to be a "gateway" drug for kids. If you drink alcohol, drink only in moderation. Never drink alcohol and drive. Also, take medicines only as prescribed by your doctor.
- Help your child get involved in sports, clubs, hobbies, and other activities. These activities can help teach kids that they can have fun without drugs and alcohol.
- Spend time with your child. When you take part in your child's life, you show you care. You also get to know your child's routines and can more easily recognize when he or she may get in situations involving drugs or alcohol.
Explain the dangers and consequences of tobacco, drug, or alcohol use
- Tell your child how the body gets addicted to nicotine and other drugs. Explain withdrawal symptoms that happen when a person tries to quit. Tell your child it may take only one cigarette to start a dependence on tobacco.
- Talk about the legal problems that can result from using drugs or alcohol. For example, a person younger than the legal drinking age can lose his or her driver's licence or be sentenced to community service or time in a detention centre.
- Discuss how people who are using drugs or alcohol can say or do things that they normally would not. It is easy to make bad choices, get hurt, and get into trouble. For example, people may end up driving while drunk or riding with someone who is drunk, or they may find themselves in an unsafe place.
- Set clear limits about what will happen if your child uses drugs or alcohol. Follow through if those rules are broken. Don't make promises you will not keep. The prospect of parental disapproval is often one of the most powerful disincentives. Remind your child that you set these rules because you love your child and don't want him or her to be hurt.
- Explain that inhalants are dangerous. Glue, shoe polish, and gasoline are the most common substances that adolescents inhale. Make sure your child knows that these and other inhalants are harmful. Inhalant use can cause sudden serious health problems, such as seizures, or death from sudden heart failure. It can cause lasting brain damage or other lifelong problems.
Other preventive strategies
Consider other strategies to prevent teen drug abuse:
- Know your teen's activities. Pay attention to your teen's whereabouts. Find out what adult-supervised activities your teen is interested in and encourage him or her to get involved.
- Establish rules and consequences. Explain your family rules, such as leaving a party where drug use occurs and not riding in a car with a driver who's been using drugs. If your teen breaks the rules, consistently enforce consequences.
- Know your teen's friends. If your teen's friends use drugs, your teen might feel pressure to experiment, too.
- Keep track of prescription drugs. Take an inventory of all prescription and over-the-counter medications in your home.
- Provide support. Offer praise and encouragement when your teen succeeds. A strong bond between you and your teen might help prevent your teen from using drugs.
- Set a good example. If you drink, do so in moderation. Use prescription drugs as directed. Don't use illicit drugs.
Recognizing the warning signs of teen drug abuse
Be aware of possible red flags, such as:
- Sudden or extreme change in friends, eating habits, sleeping patterns, physical appearance, coordination or school performance
- Irresponsible behavior, poor judgment and general lack of interest
- Breaking rules or withdrawing from the family
- The presence of medicine containers, despite a lack of illness, or drug paraphernalia in your teen's room
Seeking help for teen drug abuse
If you suspect or know that your teen is experimenting with or misusing drugs:
- Talk to him or her. You can never intervene too early. Casual drug use can turn into excessive use or addiction and cause accidents, legal trouble and health problems.
- Encourage honesty. Speak calmly and express that you are coming from a place of concern. Share specific details to back up your suspicion. Verify any claims he or she makes.
- Focus on the behavior, not the person. Emphasize that drug use is dangerous but that doesn't mean your teen is a bad person.
- Check in regularly. Spend more time with your teen, know your teen's whereabouts, and ask questions after he or she returns home.
- Get professional help. If you think your teen is involved in significant drug use, contact a doctor, counselor or other health care provider for help.
It's never too soon to start talking to your teen about drug abuse. The conversations you have today can help your teen make healthy choices in the future.