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    Having Tough Conversations

    Making sure your teen stays healthy includes protecting them from alcohol and other substances. Why is this so important? Let’s break it down.

    Teen’s brains are still developing and continue to do so until their mid-20s or later. This development is especially important for thinking skills like good judgment, decision-making, impulse control, memory and more. Substance use during this time period can negatively interfere with this development.

    The less your child is exposed to substances throughout their teenage and young adult years, the better it is for their brain’s healthy development. It’s like nurturing a young plant into a strong tree; you want to protect it from any harm that might impact its growth. Prevention and early intervention can keep them safe.

    The overall trend shows that teenage substance use is on the decline. Still, teens might feel peer pressure, get curious, or want to rebel when it comes to substances. Additionally, big companies are trying to get teens hooked on vaping, drinking and more. They use famous people, social media stars, cool packaging, exciting flavors and free samples to tempt teens.

    It’s vital to act if you’re worried about your teen using substances. In this guide, you’ll find answers to questions caregivers like you have about talking to your loved one and keeping them safe.


    The first time I found out my son was using drugs, I was shocked because he and I were really close. I was worried and looked at it as a chance to start a conversation. Or maybe to keep going with the conversation ‘cause we had talked about it before.

    David Sheff

    Author, father of three

    What should I do before talking to my child?

    Here are some steps to get you started before talking to your teen about substance use:

    1. Observe Changes: Keep an eye out for any shifts in your child’s behavior, appearance, habits, health or school performance. For a complete list of warning signs, you can visit this link.
    2. Take Notes: Make mental or written notes of instances when your child breaks rules or does something worrisome. For instance, if they often come home well past their curfew, jot down the dates.
    3. Search for Signs: Some parents debate whether it’s right to snoop through their children’s belongings. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this, but if you feel the need to gather proof before your conversation, here are some places to check: dresser drawers, desk drawers, backpacks, car glove compartments, closets, hidden spots in bedrooms, under mattresses or beds, small boxes, books or bookcases, makeup cases and over-the-counter medicine bottles. Also, make sure to note if there is less alcohol in bottles you may have in the home or fewer pills in prescription medications. (It helps to keep any substances and medications locked up).

    Remember, you don’t need hard evidence to start the conversation. Trusting your instincts when something seems amiss is a good enough reason.  You know your child better than anyone else in the world, so if you think they have changed in some way, they probably have. It never hurts to just come out and ask your child about their experience with or opinion about a certain substance. You can begin the conversation with a line like, “I see quite a few kids vaping and there’s a lot about it in the news. What are your thoughts about it?”

    If you’re almost positive that your teen is using substances, looking for signs and symptoms of use before having a conversation can make it easier for you to start it. You don’t need hard evidence (like a joint or empty beer bottles), but specific observations and details (“Last Friday night, you smelled like smoke and your eyes were red”) will be difficult for your child to explain away.

    Get on the same page as your child's other parent or caregiver

    Get on the same page with your spouse/partner. If your child’s other parent or caregiver does not share the same beliefs and values that you do when it comes to substances, you will certainly hear about it from your child. “Getting on the same page” doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing – it means presenting a united front.

    Remember: This is a stressful situation for both you and your partner, and you will need one another’s support. 

    • Remind each other that nobody is to blame.
    • Come to an agreement on the position you’ll take.
    • Even if you disagree, commit to presenting a united front.
    • Pledge not to undermine or talk poorly about each other.
    • Remember to come from a place of love when talking to your child.

    Prepare to talk about addiction if it runs in your family. If there is a history of addiction in your family, whether it is to alcohol, other substances, gambling, sex, etc., your child is much more likely than other kids to have a problem that could lead to addiction. Understand this serious risk and think about how you are going to explain this to your child in a way that clearly conveys the concern.

    It can be especially hard for you to get clear messages about substances across to your teen if you and your child’s other parent aren’t together. When you are not in a relationship, you may not agree on how to parent. Your ex-partner may not enforce the rules you’ve set, so the best thing you can do is teach your child to see the importance of your rules, even when they are with their other parent.

    If you’re a single parent or caregiver, the most important thing you can do is to build a support network as it can be very hard for you to handle your child’s substance use problem on your own. Even if you want to be the only adult involved in the actual conversation(s), you can get support from friends and family before and after.

    Set Goals

    Set a goal for each conversation.  Chances are, your first discussion will not resolve all problems – and that’s okay. But if you set a goal (even a small one) before you start talking, you will know where you want your conversation to lead. These can include: wanting your child to spend time with healthier peers after school, stop binge drinking at parties, obey curfew and/or get a substance use evaluation from a therapist or other addiction professional.

    Prepare yourself for your teen’s reaction. Many teens aren’t happy when approached about their substance use and yours probably won’t be either. That’s to be expected. What you might not expect is to be called a liar, a fake or a snoop. Think about how you will handle these accusations if they come up. The chart below may help.

    Intervention strategies: Sample dialogues

    If your child says: You can:
    “You went through my stuff? You’re a snoop!”
    • Defend your choice to look through your teen’s things by expressing your concern for their health and safety.
    • Say, “I’m sorry you feel that I broke your trust. But as a parent, my job is to keep you safe and healthy, and therefore I have to step in when I believe you’re doing something unsafe.”
    “You smoke/drink! You’re such a hypocrite!”
    • Focus on the issue at hand – you don’t want YOUR TEEN using substances.
    • Say you wish you had never started smoking because it’s so hard to stop.
    • Explain that it is legal for adults to drink, and it is illegal for people under 21 to drink because their brains aren’t equipped to handle alcohol yet.
    • If you are in recovery, say, “I love you too much to let you have the same problems I had and to experience that pain.”
    “I’ve never done drugs! You’re wrong!”
    • Remain calm.
    • Stay focused on your goal for the conversation.
    • Say, “I see a lot of warning signs and love you way too much to let anything happen to you. I need you to tell me what’s going on so I can figure out how to help you. I have no intention of getting mad or punishing you.”

    Do's and don'ts for a good conversation

    The best way to ensure that your attempts at intervening actually get your desired outcome is to make sure that you have a conversation, not a confrontation. And it likely means a series of conversations over time, not just one. Here are some tips:


    • Remember that this is about your child’s heath and well-being — not bad behavior and punishments.
    • Come from a place of love and concern, not anger.
    • Keep a cool head and speak calmly instead of yelling.
    • Be direct. Saying, “You smelled like alcohol when you came back from Ashley’s party” is better than saying, “I know something fishy went on at Ashley’s party.”
    • Withhold judgment so that your teen feels they can tell you the truth.
    • Listen carefully to what your teen has to say without interrupting them.
    • Grant your child “immunity.” Promise your child that if they tell you the truth, there will be no immediate consequences, such as grounding.
    • Check out their claims. If your teen is sticking to their story, say, “That’s fine, but I’m going to call [insert appropriate name] just to make sure that’s what really happened.”
    • If they say they are trying substances, ask why. The “why” can help you understand where your child may need help to address peer pressure, curiosity, boredom, anxiety, etc.
    • Talk about your own memories and mistakes so that you and your teen can relate to each other.
    • Share your expectations that you don’t want your teen using substances.


    • Have a conversation if your teen is under the influence, on the way out the door to school or getting ready for bed. Pick a time to have the conversation when both of you are available and calm.
    • Get defensive when your teen makes a remark that feels like a personal attack — use it as a discussion point.
    • Just take what your child says at face value – listen to your child’s tone of voice, and pay attention to their facial expressions, body language and difficulty finding the right words.
    • Answer the phone or door — give your teen your undivided attention.

    Following these tips should guide you and your child through a challenging discussion, but if things get too heated or emotional, there is nothing wrong with stopping the conversation. If you think both parties just need to regroup, you can say, “We’re not going to get anywhere if we both keep yelling. Let’s take a break and then try again.”

    Start talking AND listening

    You’ve collected your thoughts and steeled your nerves, but how do you actually start talking? And more importantly, get your teen to talk too?

    • Express how much you care. Explain that the reason you’re talking and asking questions is because you want them to be healthy, safe and happy.
    • Let your child know you value their honesty and are willing to listen without judgment.
    • Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that require more than a one-word answer like “yes” or “no” — “What did you do at the party?” or “What got in the way of your meeting your curfew?”
    • Let them know you’re listening. Reflect back what you’re hearing by rephrasing and asking for input — “Did I get everything? — or with nonverbal cues like nodding and smiling.
    • Offer empathy and caring. Demonstrate understanding and show your child you get it.
    • Clearly state any evidence you’ve found, e.g., “Your grades have dropped, and I found empty beer cans in your room.”
    • Give lots of praise and positive feedback, e.g., “I know you’re a very caring person and that your friends mean a lot to you.” Teens and young adults need to know you can still see beyond the things they’ve done wrong.
    • Reassure that you can always be counted on for support and that your child can confide in you whenever needed.
    • Physical connection is important. Put a hand on your child’s shoulder or give a hug when it feels right.
    • Listen. Sometimes they just need to get things off their chest.
    • Be aware that your child could be hiding their true feelings out of fear, concerns about letting you down, embarrassment, or something else.
    • Listen between the words. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions and your child’s difficulty in finding the right words to use.
    • Thank your child for talking with you even if the conversation didn’t go exactly as planned.  Your gratitude will make your child feel good and highlight how important these conversations are to you.

    What should I do if I get a flat-out denial?

    It can be difficult to get past a flat-out denial of substance use. Some kids can’t bear to take responsibility for their behavior and want to look good at all costs. Here are some suggestions as to what to do if this happens:

    • Focus on the behavior and why it worries you. Don’t make it sound like you think your child is a bad person because they tried substances. This is a health and safety issue.
    • Emphasize the value of truth-telling. Explain that people trust you more when you are honest.
    • Think about how you could verify any questionable claims — for example, if your child says they spent the day at a friend’s house, tell them you may need to call the friend’s parents to check on the story.
    • If you have objective proof that your child is lying, bring it up — but try not to make it a triumph. It’s not about proving they lied to you, it’s about keeping your child safe.
    • Try to find out why they lied instead of going straight to reprimanding them for it. Keep talking and let your child know that you will get to the truth and do what it takes to keep them safe.
    • Consider granting immunity. Some young people get caught in a web of lies and can’t get out. You can sometimes help by offering a chance to clear the record. Allow an opportunity to tell the truth free from any immediate consequences.
    • In the future, acknowledge and reward their honesty.

    How do I make sure that my child actually changes their behavior?

    It’s important to follow through on anything you said you would do during the course of the conversation(s). If you don’t, your teen may think you’re really not all that concerned about their behaviors.  That’s why you need to share your expectations and rules so your child knows you’re serious about them not using substances.

    Monitor your teen and communicate with them regularly about their whereabouts, friends, activities, social media and more. Monitoring is a lot of work, but it can keep your child safe. Here are some ways to stay connected with your teen:

    • Be around your child. Spend time with your child and find ways to “drop in” when their friends are around. Offering food is usually a good way in.
    • Ask questions before they leave. Be sure to find out where your teen is going, who will be there and what they’ll be doing.
    • Check in. Text, call or Facetime them while they are out to say hello and remind them that you expect them to follow the rules you’ve established.
    • Ask questions when your teen gets home. Be sure to check out their appearance and speech. Ask them how they spent their time.
    • Reach out to other parents in your community. This way you can all keep an eye on one another’s kids.

    What if I realize that my child needs outside help?

    If your child’s substance use progresses, you may decide they need more help and guidance than you personally can give. This may be scary to think about, but “outside help” doesn’t necessarily mean rehab. There are many people in your community who can serve as great resources for you and your teen – you just need to know who you can ask for support. Some caregivers have turned to school counselors, professional counselors, their pediatrician, sports coach, a close family friend, a teacher or clergy.  Think about who might be able to best help your child.

    However, if treatment is needed, the first step is to get an evaluation by a healthcare professional. Learn more about where to start with our resources on treatment and recovery.