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Parents

Learn about how parents can help their children resist using drugs and alcohol.

Young people today are almost certain to be exposed to drugs and alcohol, whether they’re watching popular media, observing adults, or socializing with their peers. According to DoSomething.org, by the time adolescents enter eighth grade, 28 percent have consumed alcohol, and 16.5 percent have used marijuana. Drug and alcohol use can be especially dangerous for kids and young adults, resulting in immediate and long-term health consequences.

Fortunately, parents can play a significant role in helping their children steer clear of drugs and alcohol and adopt healthy behaviors. And by learning the signs and symptoms of a substance use problem, you can tell when it may be time to intervene.

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Common challenges

It’s difficult to know why young people start using drugs or alcohol, and the reasons vary by age and circumstances. Sometimes, substance use begins in response to life’s stressors — the difficulty of school, family tensions, a desire to fit in socially, or big transitions like starting college. Some young people may just be curious.

Effective strategies for discouraging substance use

Each relationship between a parent and child is unique, but most families can benefit from simple strategies to help young people resist drugs and develop healthy habits.

Talking about drugs and alcohol

Because most kids have little knowledge about the effects and toxicity of drugs and alcohol, first-time use can be especially dangerous. And because it’s hard for parents to pinpoint when their child might be exposed to drugs or alcohol, it’s important to make sure children understand the risks of substance use — and especially the acute dangers of drug overdose and binge drinking — from an early age.

According to Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, teens who consistently hear about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use drugs than those who do not have those conversations. Talking with your kids about drugs and alcohol can be difficult, and you may not know where to begin. Here are some tips to start the conversation, tailoring the conversation to your child’s age:

  • For younger children and pre-teens, find teachable moments to introduce the topic to your child. Look for poor behavior on TV or in current events, such as steroid use by a professional athlete, and point out the dangers of drug use and drinking in terms your child will understand.
  • Teenagers need boundaries as pressures and temptations increase. Make your expectations about drug and alcohol use clear by establishing family rules and laying out consequences for breaking them.
  • Talk to college students about the risks of drug use and drinking, such as trouble with the law, violence, and academic failure as well as health issues. Reach out often to children living away at school, and remind them that they can come to you when they need help for themselves or a friend.

Be open and honest, and really listen to what your kids have to say. Stay connected through regular conversations about their life and friends and any stress they may be experiencing.

Being aware of friend groups and location

Knowing who your child’s friends are and where they are spending time can alert you to potential risks for drug and alcohol problems. Friends are one of the biggest influencers in determining whether young people decide to try or misuse drugs or alcohol. Learn about the parents of your children’s friends as well, and find out about the environment and level of supervision in their homes. Confirming plans with your children and other parents can help you keep them out of potentially unsafe situations.

Setting the example

Parents play a central role in helping their children establish healthy habits, and one of the most effective ways is setting a good example, especially when it comes to consuming alcohol use and dealing with stress. In fact, young people are at greater risk for substance use problems when their family members have experienced addiction, or they don’t have the guidance of a parent or other adult.

Avoid modeling risky behavior, such as using illegal drugs or binge drinking, and try not to make it seem like fun and alcohol go hand in hand. If you keep alcohol or prescription drugs in the house, be sure to make it clear that they are off-limits to your children and their friends.

Commonly misused substances

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Prescription drugs or “study drugs”
  • Tobacco

Know the signs

It can be difficult to know when your children are using drugs or alcohol. Signs may vary, but they include

  • Possessing drugs or alcohol
  • Getting in trouble at school or with law enforcement
  • Receiving declining grades or frequently skipping class
  • Making unexpected changes in a friend group
  • Losing interest in hobbies, activities, or sports
  • Experiencing decaying relationships with friends and family members or rebelling against rules
  • Showing mood swings or rapid behavior changes
  • Developing physical problems, such as poor coordination, bloodshot eyes, or slurred speech
  • Showing mental problems, including memory lapses or an inability to concentrate

Support for parents

You don’t have to deal with your child’s drug or alcohol problems alone. There are many counseling centers, specialists in adolescent substance use disorders, and other behavioral health resources available to support you and your children. If you suspect a problem, speak with a medical professional and determine which type of treatment will work best for your child and your family. If your child is in college, you can also contact the university's student affairs or counseling staff.  Researching the substance can also help you understand the effects and possible treatment options. 

Remember, if your child has used or has an ongoing problem with alcohol or drugs, it does not mean you failed as a parent. Support your child in any way you can and have honest conversations about what led to the problem to help your child avoid repeating it.

Resources for parents

HealthyChildren.org

A comprehensive resource on drugs, alcohol, steroids, inhalants, and hallucinogens, created by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Underage Drinking Prevention

Talking to kids about substance misuse can be difficult. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides helpful tips and guidance about talking with children ages 9–15.

What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs

The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers guidance on how to recognize drug misuse in adolescents and young adults, and what to do if you discover it.

The JED Foundation – Set to Go

The JED Foundation's Set to Go program helps parents guide their children through the transition from high school to college.

College Drinking – Changing the Culture

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism helps parents have impactful conversations with college-aged children about alcohol misuse. 

Operation Prevention

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Discovery Education have teamed up to educate students about the impacts of opioids and kick-start lifesaving conversations in the home and classroom. Operation Prevention also provides helpful resources for parents, including tips on warning signs and how to begin a discussion with kids about the dangers of opioid misuse. ​

Get support by finding local resources and support centers.