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Do You Wonder About Your Teen’s Drug Use?

If you think your child is drinking or taking drugs, you're probably right. Experts share why substance abuse is more dangerous for teens than adults, tips to keep your children drug free, signs of substance abuse in teens, and how to talk to your child about substance abuse.

teens drinking

Donna Mae DePola, president and CEO of The Resource Training Center, which supports individuals who have a history of substance abuse, has been helping those with addictions for more than a decade. In that time, she has seen many teenagers in need of help. Often before they begin using drugs, they are children with A-averages in school. Then they find a drug to try, usually marijuana, which they assume is insignificant. Within a year or so, the downward spiral begins. They meet more people who smoke and are introduced to harder drugs.

According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, adolescence is the critical period both for starting to smoke, drink, or use other drugs and for experiencing more harmful consequences as a result. The teen brain is designed to take risks, including experimenting with these substances and, because it is still developing, it is more vulnerable to their harmful effects.

“I had a client who started smoking pot once in a while at 14,” says DePola, whose Resource Training Center now has outposts in Brooklyn and Manhattan. “Before she was 15, she started snorting heroin, and three months later she was shooting heroin. She is now 35 and has been clean for four months. Over the years, I sent her to 30 detox facilities or rehab clinics.”

Unlike older adults, teens who smoke, drink, or use other drugs greatly increase their risk of addiction. One in 8 high school students have a substance use disorder involving nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs. Nine out of 10 people who meet the criteria for substance use disorders began smoking, drinking, or using other drugs before they turned 18. For those who started using any of these substances before age 18, 1 in 4 are addicted, compared with 1 in 25 who first started to smoke, drink, or use other drugs at age 21 or older.

Parents’ Ambivalent but Necessary Role

“Baby boomer parents often downplay the potential risks given their own experiences with pot when they were younger,” says Jeffrey L. Reynolds, Ph.D., executive director for the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. “But we now know much more about how the drug impacts adolescent brain development and how today’s pot is far more potent.”

Now more than ever before parents are key to keeping their kids drug free, says Mark Edison, Ph.D., an addiction psychologist in Manhattan. But it’s not enough to simply set a good example. Instead parents need to start talking to their children about drinking and drugs whenever their children start asking about the substances. If they don’t ask, parents should start talking to their children around age 10. And, even though the conversations may be hard, parents should go slow and answer all of their children’s questions.

This may be, Edison says, the first step in developing the strong parent-adolescent relationship that will help children avoid drugs and alcohol later. Parents should also monitor their children’s behavior, set clear expectations for behavior, and make after-school activities available. Getting involved in school and community activities is a great way for parents to see what their children are exposed to as well.

Spotting the Signs

“If children do start using drugs or drinking problematically, you can expect to see changes in mood and behavior that persist over a few weeks,” Edison says. 

Parents may notice a decline in grades, lack of interest in things your child used to be interested in, changing groups of friends, low energy, unpredictable episodes of anger or irritability, and finding alcohol or drugs among your child’s belongings. Also, because prescription drug abuse is high in New York state, DePola cautions that parents should look for missing prescriptions from their medicine cabinets.

Reality? If you think your children are using drugs or drinking, they probably are, Edison says. However, he cautions that parents should not panic at the first sign of drug use. Instead, they should try to figure out what’s overwhelming or overly challenging in their child’s life and devise a plan to improve it.

“Start by saying, ‘We think this is tough for you, so here’s what we plan to do to fix it,’” Edison says. “Parents should gently note some of the problematic behaviors they’ve observed, saying that they think these are the result of the child’s suffering, which should get their child talking. Parents should add that they know their child is smart, so they know she is trying things to improve her life—that they wouldn’t be surprised if she were drinking or smoking marijuana.”

By pausing throughout this conversation and giving their children a lot of time to talk, parents should develop a better understanding of why their children are using drugs and alcohol and how they can help them. If children ask about their parents’ drinking or drug use, parents can give a brief but honest answer, letting their children know that they tried drugs or alcohol at a young age, but that they wished they hadn’t or say that they waited to try them until they were older—whichever is most accurate.

And, Edison says, by realizing that children may be in situations where drugs or alcohol are prevalent, parents can help their children determine appropriate responses. Parents should tell their children: We don’t want you to drink or use drugs, but if you ever run into trouble with drinking and drugs, you can call us and we will come to get you immediately, no questions asked. All we care about is your health and safety.


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