Addressing Substance Use: Set Limits & Monitor Behavior

    Rules provide a concrete way to let your child understand what’s expected of him or her and to learn self-control. Don’t just assume they “know” you don’t want them to drink or do drugs. Teens and young adults don’t deal well with gray areas, so when they’re offered alcohol or drugs, you don’t want any confusion in their minds.

    Establish Rules & Consequences

    Rules are a signal to your child that you care about them and his or her safety. And consequences are way of helping — not hurting — them. A firm consequence, such as getting grounded or having to give up a fun privilege, is a reminder of what not to do in the future.

    When you lay out rules and consequences, be very clear – make sure your child understands the limits you’ve set before there’s opportunity to do something wrong. One great way to do this is to actually write out your expectations for one another (being home before curfew, getting a ride home from a party if things get out of hand), and to jointly sign off on them.


    Monitoring your child’s behavior is about keeping a closer eye and communicating regularly about their whereabouts, friends and more.

    • Find subtle ways to “drop in” while his or her friends are at your house.
    • Ask questions before they leave the house. Find out where they’re going, who will be there and what they’ll be doing.
    • Check in while they’re out. Call to say hello and include a reminder of your expectations for each other.
    • Ask questions (without interrogating) to gauge their sobriety and truthfulness when they get home. Make eye contact, notice any smells in their hair or on clothing.
    • Reach out to other parents in an effort to jointly keep an eye each other’s kids.

    Keep Track & Take Notes

    When drug use is suspected, and even once it’s confirmed, it’s useful to keep records of everything that concerns you over time – the date, time, where it occurred, what was found, and changes over time. Your child may try to convince you that things didn’t happen the way you remember, or that the things you found are not what you think they are. In the event it becomes necessary to seek outside help, your notes will provide invaluable information.

    • When did drug use begin?
    • How did it start? / How did they get it?
    • Did it progress to other substances?
    • Who are your child’s friends? And their parents?
    • Who is in your child’s online social network?
    • Who are frequent contacts on their phone? If you cannot look on their phone, look at the monthly bill and note unfamiliar numbers.
    • Note occasions when they come home late and who they’re hanging out with.
    • Track the number of prescription pills in your home.
    • Anything suspicious found in their room or among their belongings?
    • Any drug–related terms or slang in text messages or other communications?

    Need more help setting limits?

    Our online skill-building course for parents and caregivers will help you adopt simple techniques that are proven to help change challenging behaviors.

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    Last Updated

    September 2020