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Substance Abuse

How to Talk to Your Teenager About Drugs

The history of the war on drugs has taught us much about all the wrong ways to approach the topic of addiction, both at home and at large. Addiction is no simple thing, and aside from being a difficult topic to approach, it is a very difficult thing to fight, especially without compassion or tolerance. 

Paving the path towards understanding is important if you want your teens to have a healthier relationship with the concepts of substance use, and mental health in general. 

Be Honest, Be Informative

Nothing hurts your teen’s trust more than editorializing the truth. It’s natural for a parent to wish to demonize drugs and drug use, but if a teen feels like their parents are leaving out or exacerbating certain pieces of information, they might feel skeptical about everything else they’ve been told by figures of authority. 

Kids who grew up hearing all about how drugs can instantly mess up a person’s brain might feel lied to when they see a coherent friend of theirs use a dangerous drug. Likewise, not knowing anything about the short- and long-term effects of drug use can be a powerful risk factor for addiction. 

Information is crucially important. Regardless of whether your teenager has or hasn’t tried drugs before, consider having multiple conversations with them about your potential family history with addiction and mental health, about the effects of drug use, about your own experiences with substances both legal and illegal, about regrets and misunderstandings, and about the facts of both short-term and long-term use – and the deleterious consequences of substance use, whether recreationally, for self-medication, or out of sheer curiosity.

Teenagers have unrestricted access to a treasure trove of information – and misinformation. Teach them to navigate the internet and double-check their facts, read citations, and identify scientific sources. 

Questionable substances, including marijuana, ketamine, and MDMA, play important roles in medical research and have been studied for efficacious use for years. But there’s just as much, if not more evidence showing the deleterious side of these substances, and why their unregulated and unsupervised use can lead to a decline in physical and mental health. 

Ask Questions and Listen

As kids get older, they appreciate being talked down to less and less. Teens are more likely to respond to a conversation that treats them like an adult. 

This can be annoying for some parents, but it provides others with a crucial avenue to discuss important topics with the understanding that a teen can and will shape their own opinions, seek information on their own time, and may disagree with you in several ways. 

Embrace opportunities to find out what your teen might know or think about these substances and utilize them as chances to challenge these beliefs with a wealth of medical information, and nuanced opinions. 

Do Not Underestimate Your Influence

As teens grow older and more distant from their parents, it’s easy to feel like all hope is lost, and your positive influence on your child is continuously waning. But it’s important to recognize that this isn’t entirely true. 

Even if your teen isn’t in the mood to talk to you, they still consciously or subconsciously respect you a lot more than you might expect. Parental influence is a much more powerful protective (and risk) factor in addiction, more so than peer influence. 

Your teens are more likely to mirror your attitude and behavior towards drugs than anything else, and are more likely to avoid drug use if your values and ethics don’t support it. 

But there is an important caveat in this, as it predicates on the idea that your teen has a good relationship with you. Parental influence wanes the strongest not with age, but with toxic or abrasive parenting styles. Authoritarian parents will have a harder time “controlling” their child despite their best efforts, versus firm, but more lax parenting approaches, such as the authoritative parent. 

Recognizing When It’s Time to Intervene

Teenagers make mistakes. They do things they shouldn’t, sometimes even on a fairly regular basis. They rarely, if ever, think things through, and a big part of growing up involves learning from the copious mistakes you make during adolescence. 

But there is a time and place when a parent’s intervention is important, and even necessary. While the number of teens who are addicted to drugs is less than the number of teens who have experimented with them, it’s likely not an insignificant statistic nonetheless. 

Teenagers are more likely to struggle with addiction after trying an addictive drug for the first time than their older peers, and as with most things, treating an addiction as soon as possible improves the chances of recovery. 

But when does a teen’s habit take the plunge towards a dangerous substance use disorder? The answer depends entirely on your teen’s behavior. Drug addiction generally sets itself apart from first-time use or curious experimentation by way of several key signs and symptoms

  • Sudden and drastic changes in behavior
  • Irritability and irrational thinking
  • Mood swings
  • Restlessness or oversleeping
  • Stark shifts in appetite
  • Relationship problems
  • Trouble with friends
  • Rapid decline in grades
  • Lying about stopping
  • Hiding drug paraphernalia or alcohol
  • Exacerbated mental health issues (if they have a concurrent diagnosis)
  • And more

If any or several of these issues apply to your teen, then it may be worth approaching the idea of seeking professional help together. If you think your teen would not be very receptive to the idea of visiting a therapist or professional, your best bet may be to schedule an appointment with a professional yourself and discuss options for an intervention. 

Don’t give up on the idea that you’re a major influence on your child’s life. While it can be incredibly difficult to get through to a stubborn teenager, especially one that’s struggling with an inner battle of this caliber, constant support and vigilance are key to helping teens fight against addiction, and work on putting themselves on the long road of recovery.