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Effectively communicate with your teenager about substance abuse

Effectively communicate with your teenager about substance abuse

The availability of information through the internet and social media can be extremely useful. However, sometimes it can make problem situations even more challenging. When it comes to drugs, their use, availability and social acceptance, this information can be misused and create significant challenges for parents and their children.

It is never too early or too late to discuss drug use since this issue is present in every neighborhood, playground and school. Discussing drug use with teens can be difficult, as it is easy for both parties to become irritable, defensive and argumentative. But knowledge and preparation can turn these conversations into a positive exchange of information, love and support. This article discusses ways to take advantage of daily situations, which create opportunities to improve communication about drug use with kids of any age.


Do conduct your research

Accurate information is the best starting point, so do your research. Most schools, police departments and hospitals will gladly provide accurate information about drug types, effects, prevalence and signs of intoxication. Search the internet for additional information, so you can compare and contrast with what you already know. Take notice of the material and how it is being presented, because accurate or not, it is likely being read by your children. Some of the content may be disturbing, but the more information you have, the better equipped you will be for productive conversations with your child.

Do start talking

Once you feel knowledgeable on the subject, it is important to start talking about drugs with your child. There are many ways to begin conversations that are not anxiety provoking. Start by being prepared, set goals for what you would like to accomplish and develop a plan for handling your child’s possible responses. Approach the discussion from a place of genuine concern and use empathy to support mutual understanding.

Make use of open-ended questions to facilitate interaction and help kids feel like they are part of a conversation, rather than receiving a lecture. For example, trying the following: “I got this information from your school about alcohol and drugs. Can you tell me more about what they are teaching you?” Or “I read on the internet that this particular celebrity is using drugs. What do you know about it?” Remember to use your intuition as you experience their responses.

Do show unity

If you are concerned that your child is already using drugs, get support from your spouse, partner or another trusted family member to show unity. Look for signs and symptoms of use, such as impaired judgment, poor coordination, declining personal hygiene, isolation, irritability and poor grades in school. Keep the conversation going and set a firm expectation of abstinence. Remain focused on your goal and avoid the temptation to ask or answer questions that change the focus of the conversation. For example, if asked about your own personal experience, it is okay to say, “That’s a good question, but I’m not ready to answer it.” Keep in mind that it is not always productive to share personal experiences because this may cause the opposite of the intended effect and shift the focus from child to parent.

Do be encouraging

Look for ways to encourage responsibility and reinforce positive behavior. Making privileges contingent on performance, school and interpersonal relationships can be more productive in encouraging growth and healthy behavior.

Do talk to your teen when he or she is sober

Do not try and have a serious conversation when your child is impaired. This will help avoid unpredictable mood swings and anger. Talk to your child in a neutral location of your house or at another family member’s house.


Do not act in an accusatory manner

It is imperative that you do not act in an accusatory way. Assuming your children are using drugs and accusing them when they may not present symptoms conveys a lack of trust and respect, both of which are vital to keeping honest communication alive. That being said, don’t give up. Teenagers and adolescents can be tough, so be prepared for potentially negative or surprising reactions. Remain calm and direct if they act avoidant or defensive. Focus on the behavior, not the person. Remember that just because the conversation may not go as well as you had hoped, this does not mean you can’t bring it up again later.

Do not reward your child for staying clean

If you confirm that your child is abusing drugs, do your best to avoid rewarding him or her for getting or staying clean. This is a common pitfall that many parents and guardians make--only to find out the user is lying to them. Instead, do your best to instill the many reasons why drugs are problematic and detrimental to a child’s physical and mental health. Look for ways to encourage responsibility and reinforce positive behavior.

Do not give up

Be prepared for potentially negative or surprising reactions. Remain calm and direct if kids act avoidant or defensive. Focus on the behavior--and not the person.

Do not focus on the past

Refrain from focusing on the past. Remember to always stay in the present. Conflict about behaviors which cannot be changed is counter productive.

Do not forget to avoid criticism

The human defense mechanism is an unconscious response to conflict. Abstain from criticism and complaining as it increases defensiveness and makes productive communication much less likely.

Jumping cartoon

Preventing drug use is an important part of parenting, which can be made easier through awareness, education and understanding. Active involvement in communication and teaching by example are effective ways to positively influence your children. Turn off the television and computer, and put down cell phones to engage kids without distraction. Eat meals with your children and invite their friends over to find out what they are interested in and focused on. These steps can promote positive interaction, as well as make difficult conversations more effective and challenging situations more manageable.

More expert advice about Raising Teens

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Dr. Gerald GrossoClinical Director

FAMILY PSYCHOLOGIST (MFT 34495) Dr. Grosso is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience assisting individuals and families struggling with issues such as addiction, depression, trauma, and all levels of psychiatr...

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