Tips For Talking With Teens About Drugs And Alcohol

Posted on February 17th, 2015

When tackling life’s tougher topics with your teen, especially regarding drugs and alcohol, just figuring out what to say can be a challenge. While this is true for many parents, conversation alone has been suggested to be one of the most preventative measures to risky behavior. The goal of this article is to provide you with tips in making this difficult task enriching for both parent and teen.

1. Talk to your teen, not at them.

Common complaints I hear from youth when asked why they are hesitant to talk about drugs and alcohol with their parents are: They think they know everything. They are too judgmental. They don’t understand. They don’t listen. What this boils down to is if we are the ultimate experts on everything then there is no room for conversation or differing opinions. Thus, my recommendations are:

  • Listen: Limit your response to that exchange of information.
  • Learn: Avoid giving your child more information than they asked for and becoming the “expert.” This naturally lowers defenses creating valuable opportunities to understand your child.

Listening means entering with the goal of learning more about the person and in turn gaining valuable insight into how they perceive the world. The truth is some of your teen’s knowledge will come from popular culture and peers. You will never know what they know if you don’t listen.

2. Just talk.

Once you have mastered the art of listening and learning, get curious…talk. Talk about everyday life. This should be an ongoing effort happening randomly, and not just when you want to know something. This creates a mind state in the child that you as a parent really care about their life, and not just when they think they are doing something bad.

Some ideas to keep the conversations going are to avoid asking general questions like, “How’s school?” or questions that only need a yes/no answer. Instead, ask more specific questions on topics that interest both you and your teen, like “I like that tattoo your friend has, what does it mean?” “What are the cliques like in your school?” “What songs did you choose to perform at the recital?” Be curious about your teen.

3. Take advantage of teachable moments.

Teachable moments are everywhere, but keep in mind that if you know it all, you cannot learn. Intentionally removing yourself from the expert role is a powerful tool in which both parents and teens can learn equally.

“You know what, George, I don’t know what that drug does to you, let’s look it up.”.

“Hey, a couple of the parents were talking about a kid at school that got caught with Spice, what is it?”

One of my favorite teachable moments is when I take teens to volunteer in the Tenderloin District in San Francisco. Commonly you see people stumbling drunk on the street. This is a great opportunity to curiously strike up a conversation about their standards and thoughts on alcohol consumption. Remember, this is your opportunity to see where your child stands, not a “this could be you” moment. These discussions provide an opening to talk about what they observe and what the children know. These situations provide invaluable modeling and show that you don’t know it all. Use curiosity to work together to find the answers. Exhaust different resources to find the answer.

4. Two heads are better than one.

When all else fails, ask! Take the time to talk openly with others, and seek expert help from sources such as:

  • Local parenting classes
  • Support groups
  • Therapist
  • Drug counselor

There may be other avenues to gain tools. Many schools and agencies today offer evidence based life skills curriculum that encourages family communication, decision-making, and drug and alcohol education among many other invaluable topics that I have seen transform communities firsthand. You are not alone.

All things considered, sitting your teen down for “the big talk “ can be awkward for both teen and parent alike. Although direct conversations are necessary so that your children know where you stand on drug and alcohol use, leveraging everyday conversations about life and taking advantage of teachable moments are going to be the greatest tools in your belt. Oftentimes a combination of tools are used by parents to connect with and in turn protect their children.


How productive was the last conversation you had with your child? What made it productive?

How well do you know the friend’s that are most influential in your children’s lives?

What is the last drug reference you have heard your child or their friends speak about?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.

8 thoughts on “Tips For Talking With Teens About Drugs And Alcohol

  1. Lindsay Smith

    Great article Tiffany! I love the emphasis on listening and being curious in general about what your teen is going through – we get so much more information this way! I also really like the point about taking advantage of teachable moments. Sometimes it feels like life is so busy that we barely have time to breathe! But if we can slow ourselves down, keep our eyes open for these, and use them, they can be so powerful!

  2. Frederick

    This is a fantastic article Ms Irving! One of my big take aways from your post was that communication is key — and totally I agree. Sometimes it’s hard for adults to swallow their pride and admit they don’t have all the answers — and that’s where your advice to talk with others comes in. Thanks for writing this.

  3. Carol Satterlee

    So much talk today has been about “vulnerability”. Tiffany’s article speaks to how powerful it can be for parents to come from this stance. It’s true — we don’t know everything! No one does. I’ve always felt that my kids have been my greatest teachers in life. It is a willingness to come from accepting we don’t know it all and to be curious as Tiffany suggests. And particularly for teens, imagine how it feels for them to know parents/adults are curious and want to know what they think, what they know, what they experience “today” in a world that is so different than our own teen years way back when?

    Tiffany, great suggestions and insights!

  4. Tiffany Irving MA. MFTI

    Thank you for taking the
    time to read my article. I am pleased there are takeaways others can utilize,
    not only when talking to teens, but in life. Please feel free to comment;
    feedback is appreciated, and encouraged…”It Takes a Village”- we truly
    do learn from each other.

  5. Vanessa brakey

    Great article. I myself have a teen and struggle engaging with her about drug use. The last solid conversation I had was after watching a movie that referenced it. I really connect with the idea of the teachable moments such as these. I will be looking for more, and will be more aware to do so now. Thanks for the applicable points on how to.

  6. Ebony Irving

    I was in a firedrill today, at my student teaching site, and found myself looking at the sea of children in neat lines on the school sports field…when a question hit me…how am I going to manage a group of children? This article brought up excellent reminders to show interest in what interests them and use teachable moments to see where they are at in their thinking instead of using those moments to herd them to what I want them to think. Using litmus tests instead of cattle prods to guide kids. This was a very insightful article.

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