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Talking to Your Teen About Substance Abuse

Father with arm around son

Substance abuse happens everywhere, including on and off military installations. Recent studies indicate that military children have higher rates of drug and alcohol use as well as a higher risk of developing an addiction. There are steps you can take to help reduce your child’s risk for substance abuse.

How can I talk to my teen about substance abuse?

The dangers of teen substance 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:

  • Talk now. It might seem like your pre-teens are too young for a serious talk about substance abuse, but research shows that it’s not uncommon for children to be offered drugs or alcohol before turning 13.
  • Talk often. Make conversations with your child a regular, frequent practice. The more you talk to your child or teen about all topics, the easier it will be to discuss difficult topics on a regular basis.
  • Embrace honesty. Be prepared to answer questions about your experience with drugs and show your own vulnerability. 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.
  • Talk and listen. 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.
  • Avoid scare tactics. Focus on real risks for commonly abused substances. For example, discuss how marijuana can affect their performance on sports teams or put them at risk for legal trouble, or how alcohol abuse can lead to addiction and future health problems.
  • Be mindful of tone and word choice. 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…”
  • Talk one on one. While it’s important for both of the 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.
  • Look for teachable moments. 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.
  • Get real. Brainstorm scenarios in which your teen may be offered drugs or alcohol and work together to come up with some real ways he or she could handle each situation.
  • Stay involved. As with most difficult topics, it’s best to 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 out for?

If you think your teen may be at risk for abusing drugs or alcohol, 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, prescription drug bottles 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?

What should I do if my teen needs help?

Teen substance abuse can be linked to parental use and abuse. If you think you need help or if you’re concerned your teen is abusing substances, don’t hesitate to seek professional help to navigate the path to sobriety. As a member of the military community, you and your family members 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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