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How to Talk to Your Kids About Substance Abuse

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

Medically reviewed by

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

February 11, 2019

A difficult but necessary part of parenting is talking to children about the dangers of using drugs or alcohol. While many parents may not want to have that talk, it can help keep their kids educated and safe.

What Kids Are Taking and How They’re Taking It

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reports that in the last 30 days:

  • 39 percent of high school seniors reported drinking some alcohol
  • almost 23 percent reported using marijuana
  • 16 percent reported smoking cigarettes

They go on to report that one-fifth of kids in this same bracket admits to binge drinking daily, and one out of two confesses to having abused some type of illicit drug at least once in the previous month, if not more.

This means that, as a parent, your likelihood of dealing with some form of substance abuse or addiction-related issue with your child is uncomfortably high.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse conducted a survey of 8th and 12th graders and found that the most used drug among both was marijuana. The 8th grader’s second choice was inhalants (also commonly called “huffing”), whereas the 12th grader’s second choice was Adderall, a drug commonly prescribed for individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

From there, some other drugs admittedly used by kids in these age ranges include:

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If the teen doesn’t have ready access to these types of substances, they can sometimes get creative. In fact, a few of the trends that have surfaced in recent years when it comes to substance abuse involve eating gummy bears soaked in alcohol, inserting tampons soaked in alcohol (for quick absorption into the bloodstream without having the odor of alcohol on their breath), and even filling an apple with marijuana and smoking it.

As you can see, some of these drugs are drugs in a traditional sense, or substances that they get on the streets. However, others are available right in your home, which can make this issue even scarier as a parent intent on steering their child down the right path.

College-Aged Youth and Binge Drinking

Once your children graduate from high school and leave home, often by way of attending a college or university, it can be extra challenging because now they’re out there on their own where you have little to no control over what they have access to or what they do. One of the biggest issues with young adults in this age range is alcohol consumption.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that four out of every five college kids drink alcohol while away at school, and one out of two engage in binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels to 0.08 g/dL.” For women, this is roughly four drinks in a two-hour time frame. For men, it equates to about five.

The NIAAA further reports that drinking of college-aged youth is responsible for:

  • 150,000 alcohol-related health issues
  • 690,000 physical assaults
  • 600,000 other types of injuries
  • 97,000 sexual assaults
  • 1,825 deaths per year
  • 25 percent of reported academic issues
  • 1.5 percent of suicide attempts
  • 31 percent of reported suicidal behaviors

Whether you’re dealing with teens or kids in college, identifying the risk factors for substance abuse potential is a great first defense.

Youth Substance Abuse Risk Factors

Certain factors predispose the younger generation to abuse substances like alcohol and drugs. Admittedly, a lot of these are beyond your control. While you can’t do anything about those particular ones, just knowing that they exist helps you understand where your child stands when it comes to his or her specific risk of becoming a substance abuser.

These risk factors include:

  • Genetics

There is a strong genetic component when it comes to substance abuse. Some studies have found that identical twins, which are twins sharing 100 percent of the same genes, have a higher rate of substance abuse in one of the twins if the other twin is an abuser than when compared to fraternal twins, which are twins sharing 50 percent of the same genes. Additionally, a teen with either a parent or sibling who abuses alcohol is at four times a greater risk of developing the same issue.

  • Race and Ethnicity

A 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that people reporting two or more races have the highest risk of drug use at 17.4 percent. This was followed by Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders having a 14 percent risk and American Indians or Alaska Natives with a 12.3 percent risk. Next were blacks at 10.5 percent, whites at 9.5 percent, Hispanics at 8.8 percent, and Asians were the lowest at 3.1 percent.

  • Gender

That same national survey found that drug use among male youths is higher than it is for females for a number of drugs—marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens, just to name a few. On the other hand, young females tended to use more non-medical psycho-therapeutic drugs than males in the same age range.

  • Sexual Orientation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people tend to have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than those attracted to the opposite sex. They hypothesize that some of this higher use may come from the stress associated with discrimination and intolerance by some members of the population toward these individuals in particular.

  • Existence of Mental Disorders

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that drug use and mental illnesses often go hand in hand. Either the drug use leads to a mental disorder by affecting the brain, the mental disorder leads to drug use (as in self-medicating), or both occur at the same time due to certain biological conditions or after experiencing some type of trauma or stress.

  • Behaviors of Family And Friends

The Foundation For a Drug-Free World states that, when surveyed, 55 percent of the teens indicated that they began using drugs due to wanting to be “cool” around their friends. Family members who regularly use drugs or alcohol can have a similar effect as it teaches the youth that this type of behavior is acceptable.

Signs of Teen Substance Abuse

Of course, just because risk factors exist, that doesn’t mean that your teen will abuse a substance or substances. However, sometimes parents have a difficult time recognizing when an addiction or problem exists.

One study conducted by C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan found that only 10 percent of the parents believed their kids were drinking and 5 percent thought their children smoked marijuana. Yet, when the teens themselves were asked, 52 percent admitted to alcohol use and 28 percent reported using marijuana.

Some signs to look for to help determine if your child has a substance abuse problem are as followed:

  • Poor grades in school
  • No longer interested in things that used to excite him or her
  • Laughing for no apparent reason
  • Constantly tired
  • Bad personal hygiene
  • Reduced interest in personal appearance
  • Insatiable appetite at times
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Avoids making eye contact with you
  • Smells like smoke
  • Fails to meet curfew
  • Exhibits behavior that suggests he or she has something to hide

In addition to knowing these warning signs, if your child has ingested too much of a particular drug, then immediate medical attention may be the key to saving his or her life. In that case, some signs of a possible overdose are:

  • They are semi-conscious or completely unconscious (“passed out”).
  • Their skin is pale or bluish in color.
  • They are cold and clammy to the touch.
  • Their breathing is slowed, or they appear to stop breathing for extended periods of time.
  • If the overdose is alcohol-related, you should be able to smell it on their breath and/or emanating from their skin.

Again, in these circumstances, time is of the essence as the sooner you get them medical care, the greater their chance of recovery. So if you find your child with these types of signs, call 911 immediately. Don’t let them “just sleep it off.”

While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, turn your child on his or her side to avoid choking on their vomit, should they begin to throw up. Stay with him or her so you can continue to update dispatch as to any change of condition.

How to Talk to Your Kids About Substance Abuse

Talking to your children about substance abuse should start long before you suspect that there’s a problem. If you reach them early enough, you may even prevent drug or alcohol use altogether.

Additionally, this should not be a one-time conversation. By talking with them repeatedly, you’re able to keep an open line of communication about this extremely important issue. Plus, they’ll be more likely to actually hear and listen to what you have to say if you repeat it over and over and over again.

And when you talk to them, discuss not only drugs and alcohol but also other substances that this age group uses most that are right in your home. As mentioned previously, this includes aerosol substances (used for inhaling or huffing), prescription medications for conditions such as ADHD or anxiety, and sleeping aids that may be sitting in your medicine cabinet.

Finally, be honest with your children. They can tell if what you’re telling them isn’t true, which isn’t going to enhance your communication. Not that they need to know every minute detail of what an addiction is or what it does when they’re too young to understand, but don’t try to lie or mislead them either.

Here are some tips to help you get the conversation started based on your child’s age:

Children Under 10 Years of Age

While you may be tempted to not talk to your child about substance abuse at this early age, remember that kids as young as those in the 8th grade have been documented as using some type of substance in an effort to feel its effects. The sooner you can talk to them then, the greater your chance of reaching them before they begin any sort of use on their own.

To best reach, a child in this age range put substance abuse and addiction into a context that they understand. One way to do this may be to explain how it feels to want something very bad, like when you take them into a store and they want a toy or a piece of candy. Share with them that this is how someone addicted to drugs or alcohol feels, which makes it really hard to make good choices sometimes.

If someone in your family has an addiction, use him or her as an example. Explain how they are sick and that it is their addiction that is making them that way.

Kids Aged 10 to 14

When talking to kids in this age group, commonly referred to as “tweens,” try not to lecture them. This will only cause them to tune you out, like they do when you’re telling them for the twentieth time to do their homework or clean their rooms.

Instead, be transparent about different substances and their effects. For instance, share how alcohol can harm their developing brains; how it is responsible for one out of every three car accidents and two out of every three drownings; and how it gives them poor judgment when it comes to decisions related to important topics like sex and doing things they wouldn’t normally do.

If they seem interested and want to know more details, be open with them. Give them the information they ask for, so they can thoroughly understand what substance abuse does and how it impacts not only the person who has it, but also the family unit, friends, and even the community.

Teens 14 to 18 Years of Age

Because youth in this age range often have had at least one experience with a substance, either themselves or by witnessing a friend or family member, that makes it easier to open the dialogue. You simply bring up that particular situation and talk frankly about it.

Another option is to start with, “Your mother/father and I were talking about (insert substance here), and…” Whatever way you choose to start your discussion, remember to keep it real. If your teen senses that you’re trying to sugar-coat the topic or holding something back, it’s going to be harder to get him or her to open up to you or trust that what you’re saying is true.

Additionally, don’t forget to ask about their friends. Kids in this age range are typically starting high school and are very socially connected. Given that peer pressure is a clear and present risk factor when it comes to substance use and abuse, it helps to know who they’re hanging out with and how they may view the world as a result. Spend some time with them if you can to get to know them better, formulating some opinions on your own.

Remember To Listen

Above all, when your child starts talking, no matter what their age, this is the time for you to listen—without interruption. If you cut them off to tell them they’re wrong or to share your own story, they’re not as likely to talk to you again because they:

  1. don’t want to be lectured, or
  2. don’t feel like they’re being heard.

Validate their feelings and restate what they’ve said back to them, so they know that you understand. You may not always like what you hear, but if you keep the lines of communication open, you’ve got a better chance at helping them deal with the minor issues before they have a chance to turn into major ones.

In this instance, when they’ve said something that has caught you off guard or taken you by surprise, take a moment to breathe deeply and clear your head. This enables you to respond in a more positive manner.

Talking About Others’ Substance Abuse

Remember that kids tend to engage in a lot of self-blame and are always finding ways to make almost any issue their fault. Therefore, when sharing the realities of substance abuse within your family or by a close personal friend, you want to do it in a way that can help them see that none of these types of issues are caused by them.

This is also a great opportunity for you to help them realize that each person is responsible for his or her own actions. Use this as a lesson and encourage them to make positive choices that give them a brighter outcome so that they don’t face addiction issues themselves.

Again, be honest about your family’s history of substance abuse, including any struggles you yourself have faced. Share your thoughts and feelings about drugs and alcohol so your youngster knows exactly where you stand.

Effective communication is key, no matter what their age. When you have that, then you have a fighting chance when it comes to teen substance abuse.

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health - Parents say, "Other teens drink and use marijuana, but my kids don't"

Foundation for a Drug-Free World - WHAT DEALERS WILL TELL YOU

NIDA - Common Comorbidities with Substance Use Disorders

NIDA - Monitoring the Future Survey: High School and Youth Trends

NIAAA - Drinking Levels Defined

NIAAA - College Drinking

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Gay and Bisexual Men's Health

National Survey on Drug Use and Health - Summary of National Findings

Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D., and Arpana Agrawal, Ph.D. - The Genetics of Alcohol and Other Drug Dependence

Office of Adolescent Health - Substance Use and Adolescent Development

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