Talking to Teens About Drugs and Alcohol

September 15, 2011 | No comments | For Parents of Teens

What is the best way to talk to my teen about tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs?

Some of the most common concerns for parents of adolescents are tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. The pressure to experiment with these substances can come from friends and peers. If you suspect your child is using these substances, open a discussion about the dangers involved with using tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Here are some key points you should try to emphasize:

Smoking and tobacco
Smoking can turn into a lifelong addiction that can be extremely hard to break. Discuss with your adolescent some of the more undesirable effects of smoking, including bad breath, stained teeth, wrinkles, a long-term cough, and decreased athletic performance. Long-term use can also lead to serious health problems like emphysema and cancer.

Chew or snuff can also lead to nicotine addiction and causes the same health problems as smoking cigarettes. In addition, mouth wounds or sores can form and may not heal easily. Smokeless tobacco can also lead to cancer.

If you suspect your teen is smoking or using smokeless tobacco, talk to your pediatrician. Schedule a visit with her doctor when you and your daughter can discuss the risks associated with smoking and the best ways to quit before it becomes a lifelong habit.

If you smoke. . .quit

If you or someone else in the household smokes, now is a good time to quit. Watching a parent struggle through the process of quitting can be a powerful message for a teen who is thinking about starting. It also shows that you care about your health, as well as your teen’s.

Alcohol is the most socially accepted drug in our society, and also one of the most abused and destructive. Even small amounts of alcohol can impair judgment, provoke risky and violent behavior, and slow down reaction time. An intoxicated teen (or anyone else) behind the wheel of a car makes it a lethal weapon. Alcohol-related car crashes are the leading cause of death for young adults, aged 15 to 24 years.

Though it’s illegal for people younger than 21 to drink, we all know that most teens are not strangers to alcohol. Many of them are introduced to alcohol during childhood. If you choose to use alcohol in your home, be aware of the example you set for your teen. The following suggestions may help:

  • Having a drink should never be shown as a way to cope with problems.
  • Don’t drink in unsafe conditions — for example, driving the car, mowing the lawn, and using the stove.
  • Don’t encourage your teen to drink or to join you in having a drink.
  • Never make jokes about getting drunk; make sure that your children understand that it is neither funny nor acceptable.
  • Show your children that there are many ways to have fun without alcohol. Happy occasions and special events don’t have to include drinking.

Your child may be interested in using drugs other than tobacco and alcohol, including marijuana and cocaine, to fit in or as a way to deal with peer pressure. Try to help your adolescent build her self-confidence or self-esteem. Ask her also about any concerns and problems she is facing and help her learn how to deal with strong emotions and cope with stress in ways that are healthy. For instance, encourage her to participate in leisure and outside activities with teens who don’t drink and use drugs.

Marijuana (Cannabis)
Many people today learn about drugs while they are very young and might be tempted to try them. Teens say that marijuana is easy to get, and it tends to be the first illegal drug they try. Marijuana use is often portrayed as harmless, but the truth is that marijuana is an addictive drug that can cause serious risks and consequences.

As a parent, you are your child’s first and best protection against drug use. The following is information from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) about marijuana and how to help your child say “No” to drug use. (Child refers to child or teen in this publication.)

Marijuana use affects health and well-being

Marijuana users have a hard time thinking clearly, concentrating, remembering things, and solving problems. Frequent marijuana use often causes grades to drop. Users often lose interest in school and may quit.

Driving and physical activity
Marijuana impairs judgment, complex motor skills, and the ability to judge speed and time. Those who drive or take other risks after smoking marijuana are much more likely to be injured or killed.

Sexual health
Teens who smoke marijuana are more likely to take sexual risks and have unwanted or unprotected sex.

Long-term health
Teens’ bodies and brains are still growing and maturing, so marijuana use at this age can lead to a wide range of serious health problems, including heart and lung damage, cancer, mental health problems, and addiction. Depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia occur more often in marijuana users.

How is marijuana used?
Dried marijuana plant material is usually rolled with tobacco into cigarette joints or cigar blunts and smoked. Some users mix it in food or brew a tea. Other drugs like PCP or crack cocaine can also be added to the joint, increasing the dangers from use.

Marijuana is an addictive drug
Just like with alcohol, nicotine, and other illicit drug use, children who smoke marijuana can lose control over their use and become addicted. Many people overlook marijuana addiction because its withdrawal symptoms are not prominent or may not be present at all. However, withdrawal is only one symptom of addiction.

Teens who are addicted to marijuana likely smoke several times a week or more. Although most believe they are in control and can quit at any time, most can’t. Those using marijuana heavily often perform poorly in school or sports, lose interest in hobbies, and develop interpersonal problems with family and friends. Teens continuing to use marijuana into adulthood tend to have lower job achievement and less stable families than their siblings who don’t use drugs. As with alcohol, the younger a person is when starting marijuana use, the more likely she will become addicted.

Signs of marijuana use
Recognizing the signs of drug use is the first step in getting help for your child, but some signs are vague. Consider marijuana or other drug use if your child

  • Spends less time with family and friends and more time alone or away from home
  • Often seems moody or irritable Begins to skip classes, often shows up late for school, or has a drop in grade
  • Buys things like CDs and T-shirts with pro-marijuana messages or symbol
  • Loses interest in hobbies
  • Comes home high (talkative, giggly, red or glassy eyes) or goes straight to his room
  • Smells of marijuana
  • Possesses drugs or drug paraphernalia

What you can do
Take these steps to help prevent your child from becoming interested in using marijuana or other drugs.

  • Set high expectations and clear limits. Instill strong values. Let your child know that you expect her not to use drugs. Teach her healthy values that are important to your family and to use these values when deciding what is right and wrong.
  • Talk with your child about the dangers of drug use, including marijuana. Young people who do not know the facts may try drugs just to see what they are like. Start talking with your child at an early age about the dangers of drug use. Encourage him to ask questions and tell you about his concerns. Be sure to really listen. Do not lecture or do all the talking. Ask what he thinks about drug use and its risks.
  • Use teachable moments. Discuss car accidents and other tragedies that are caused by drug use and are in the news or your child’s life.
  • Help your child handle peer pressure. Peers and others can strongly influence young people to try drugs. As a parent, your influence can be even stronger in helping your child learn to be confident, make healthy choices, and resist unhealthy peer pressure. Tell her that it is OK to say “No!” to risky behaviors and mean what she says. Help her find and spend time enjoying positive interests that build self-esteem.
  • Help your child deal with emotions. Especially during the teen years, many young people face strong emotions for the first time. Teens sometimes get depressed or anxious and might consider drug use to try to escape these feelings and forget problems. Explain that everyone has these feelings at times, so it is important for each person to learn how to express his feelings, cope with them, and face stressors in healthy ways that can help prevent or resolve problems.
  • Set a good example. Avoid using tobacco and illicit drugs. Minimize alcohol use, and always avoid drinking and driving. Be a good role model in the ways you express, control, and relieve stress, pain, or tension. Actions do speak louder than words!
  • Get a professional evaluation. If you think your child is using drugs, tell your child’s doctor your exact concerns. Your child’s doctor can help.