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. 

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

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:



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?

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:

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:

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.