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Talking to Your Military Teen About Substance Use

Father talks to son

With the challenges of long family separations and permanent change of station moves, military youth and teens may be more vulnerable to drug and alcohol use. Certain common challenges like a need for social acceptance at a new school may prompt teens to act before considering consequences. Luckily, there are steps you can take to help reduce your child’s risk for a substance use problem.

How can I talk to my teen about substance use?

The dangers of teen alcohol and drug use include impaired driving, future health problems and increased susceptibility to addiction. Here are a few tips to help you discuss drug use with your teen:

It might seem like your pre-teens are too young for a serious talk about substance use, but research shows that it’s not uncommon for children to be offered drugs or alcohol before turning 13.

Make conversations with your child a regular, frequent practice. The more you talk about all topics, the easier it will be to discuss difficult topics.

Be prepared to answer questions about your experience with drugs. Sharing your own experiences or being open about any family history can make the conversation more relatable and allow your teen to learn from the past.

A two-way conversation may likely resonate better with your teen. It’s important your child feels comfortable sharing his or her opinions, concerns or questions with you. Also, try discussing serious topics during side-by-side activities, like folding laundry, preparing dinner or driving. These activities take the focus off the teen and place it on the topic at hand.

Focus on real risks for commonly misused substances. For example, discuss how marijuana can affect their performance on sports teams or put them at risk for legal trouble. Teens may not be aware of the heightened risks of irreversible damage to organs through steroid use. Have an honest discussion about healthy choices for long-term growth and development.

Focus on positive word choices so your teen is less defensive. Use “I” statements to express how certain situations or topics make you feel as a parent versus phrasing sentences involving your teen as “you” statements. For example, begin a sentence with “I’m concerned…” instead of “you should never…” or “you always…”

While it’s important for both child’s parents to be on the same page and to be part of the conversations about difficult topics, your teen may feel less threatened talking to one parent at a time.

From music lyrics to television or movie characters to news reports, opportunities abound to discuss tough topics and situations and how others did or did not handle the challenges they faced.

Brainstorm scenarios in which your teen may be offered drugs and work together to come up with some real ways he or she could handle each situation.

When possible, revisit the topic of drug and alcohol use. Get to know your son or daughter’s friends and their friends’ parents. Stay involved in their social activities.

What warning signs should I look for?

If you think your teen may be at risk for drug or alcohol use, keep an eye out for these warning signs:

  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • New friends and different places to hang out
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Withdrawal from or hostility toward family members
  • Unfamiliar smells in the home, car or on the teen’s possessions
  • Unexplained need for money and secrecy about where it goes
  • Alcohol bottles, over-the-counter or prescription drug bottles, household items such as vanilla or other flavorings, or drug paraphernalia in the teen’s room
  • Changes in physical appearance or personality
  • Sudden changes in school performance

Where can I find more resources?

Image of Checklist

Brush up on your facts.

Check out the National Institute of Health’s MedlinePlus website for helpful information about specific drugs and underage drinking.

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Be ready to have the talk.

Be sure to download the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism publication on talking to your child about alcohol and explore with your teen the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s website.

What should I do if my teen needs help?

If you think your teen has a substance use problem, you may want to seek professional help to navigate the path to sobriety. As a member of the military community, your teen can receive the necessary inpatient or outpatient treatment through TRICARE. Your primary care manager can provide an appropriate referral.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the Military Crisis Line at 988, then press 1, or access online chat by texting 838255.

Put your military community’s resources to work for you and your family. You aren’t in this alone.

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