How to Talk to Kids About Drugs and Alcohol

teenage boy being handcuffed

Don’t let your children pay the price for your denial and inaction.

You’ve probably never tried to pull one of your own teeth. But if you have, and you are also the parent of an adolescent son or daughter, you may have discovered that talking to your kids about serious and important topics is actually more difficult than performing your own dental interventions. If the legendary folk hero John Henry were a modern father, even he would have difficulty breaking through the stone walls that teenagers build up around themselves, and no matter how caring or attentive a parent might be, it can be all but impossible to get some adolescents to open up about what has been happening in their lives.

But when the topics for discussion are drugs and alcohol, failure to communicate is not an option. The stakes are too high and the dangers too real, as teens eager to grow up and to obtain the approval of their peers frequently begin experimenting with intoxicating substances long before they are ready to handle the consequences.

So how exactly do you initiate a substantive and productive conversation with your teenage children about such an awkward topic? Here are three suggestions for approaching the situation that can help you bridge the generation gap and break down those formidable walls that kids so often put up to protect themselves from the prying eyes of their interrogators (a.k.a. mom and dad):

  • Be around and take time for everything: Your children are not going to respond positively if you are there only to talk to them about the bad stuff. Show an interest in their lives, attend their concerts and games and congratulate them on all of their accomplishments. Let them know that when you come to speak to them about a sensitive subject, it is only because you are concerned for them and not about them (the difference is subtle but important).
  • Speak about drugs and alcohol in general terms: Ask your kids questions about how they feel about adolescents who drink and use drugs, and talk to them about the hypothetical troubles that young people could encounter if they jump headfirst into mature behaviors for which they are poorly prepared. If you solicit your kids’ thoughts and opinions about drugs and alcohol in this manner, you will not fool them—they will know why you are really doing it—but by keeping things a bit impersonal you will give your children an opportunity to express themselves honestly without putting them on the spot or turning their personal lives into fodder for uncomfortable conversation.
  • Talk about hopes and dreams and the future: Let your kids know that even though you are now old and gray, you still remember what it was like to be young and to have grand ambitions for your future. As you make your subtle anti-drug/anti-alcohol pitch, you should emphasize to your children how important it is that they stay focused, keep their eyes on the prize and not let anything or anyone sabotage their dreams.

It will not easy to talk to your teenagers about drugs and alcohol. In fact, you will probably be doing a lot of squirming while those discussions are taking place. But if you don’t speak to your children before temptation comes along, you may have no choice but to speak to them about it later, after they have been arrested for DUI, been involved in a traffic accident or been forced to enroll in a court-ordered substance abuse program. Drugs and alcohol can cause enormous troubles for young people, and if you stick your head in the sand and refuse to face the risks they represent, your children could end up paying a very heavy price for your denial and inaction.

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