Talking to Your Kids About Substance Use

substance use talk

It’s a tough world out there for kids — and don’t let anyone tell you differently. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, many kids start to think positively about alcohol between ages 9 and 13. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Service states that by the 12th grade, about half of all adolescents have misused an illicit drug at least once.

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids lists eight reasons why children and teens are led to alcohol and drugs:

  • Other people
  • Popular media
  • Escape and self-medication
  • Boredom
  • Rebellion
  • Instant gratification
  • Lack of confidence
  • Misinformation

That’s a lot of influence. Yet study after study confirms something else: parents have more impact on their child’s decision to try, or use, alcohol and/or drugs than any other source. Teens themselves report their parents, not their peers, are their biggest role models. What’s more, parents know their kids best. They understand how each child responds to different forms of feedback and can effectively coach them as individuals.

Without question, as a parent you are in the best position to prevent your child’s potential substance use. So what steps should you take?

Don’t have “the talk” — have “the talks”

Saving up for one big conversation about substance use isn’t just awkward — it’s generally ineffective. Think of your effort not as a lecture, but as a conversation that extends over time.

It’s not too early to start talking about substance use issues with your child by the age of 9 or 10. Certainly by age 12 or 13, the give and take should be established. You should be listening as much as you talk, because your child is likely feeling pressure and has concerns.

Surprisingly, the message you convey isn’t as important as breaking the ice and letting your kids know you’re a safe resource for their questions. You may find that once your child opens up, the conversation will go in unanticipated directions — so be ready to adapt.

Before you initiate a conversation, prepare one or two points for your kids to take away. Anything more than that can become overwhelming. If you encounter resistance, don’t become unnecessarily suspicious. You can always respond with, “I understand. I’d like to try again at a later time. I’m always open to talking.”

Make sure your child knows you plan to bring up the subject from time to time. Kids can’t fully process everything at once and parents don’t always get it right the first time, so it might take three or even four tries before they’re ready for deep conversation.

Sometimes verbalizing a “no substance use” policy isn’t enough

At-home drug testing should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Change is a part of adolescence, but if you see sudden changes in your child or teen’s personality, behavior, grades or energy, or if there is a loss of interest in activities or hobbies that once brought pleasure, it may be time to consider alternatives.

(Note: testing is highly preferable to other countermeasures that can harm your relationship, such as searching the bedroom or belongings for drugs, or checking a smartphone for improper texts or photos. Nothing undermines trust like an invasion of privacy.)

The goal for any parental drug effort should be prevention — but if total abstinence isn’t likely to occur, parents need to be prepared and equipped for early intervention. If the suspicion is high for substance use, it’s reasonable to explain why you’re going to begin at-home testing. Emphasize that testing is part of your plan to help your child, not to catch or punish them. Discuss your plan should the results come back positive and explain that the appropriate next steps would be an appointment with your family physician or a counselor. Don’t rule out that anxiety, depression or other mental health issues may be involved as an explanation for their changes in behavior or academic performance.

Testing is a means to conversation, not intimidation

It’s impossible to test someone secretly. Moreover, you should never force consent. The point of testing should be to help your child understand the consequences of drug use: escalation or addiction.

Among the various methods, hair testing has advantages. It is generally the most accurate and informative test — while urine testing will typically reveal use in the past 2 to 3 days, only hair tests can detect use as far as the previous 90 days. It also cannot be tampered with, because a small lock of hair must be taken directly from the head for sampling (hairs from brushes or clothing are not sufficient for testing and their identity cannot be confirmed).

Depending on the lab and the process used, hair testing can reveal up to seven illicit drugs (amphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana/THC, methamphetamines, opiates and PCP) and five prescription drugs (Vicodin, Lorcet/Lortab, Oxycontin, Percocet and Dilaudid).

It’s important to remember that as the parent, you are the adult in the room. If you are confrontational or accusatory, your child will shut down and become defensive. Express your concerns and monitor the response. If the conversation is not progressing positively, you need to bring it back to a state where information is being exchanged. Delay the talk for a few days if necessary.

Finally, stay on the subject. It’s easy to let the conversation slide into other areas of your child’s life, like friends or grades. It’s important for them to know this conversation is focused on one area of their life. The goal should be to communicate your love and care — and your certainty that a drug-free childhood is essential to a strong, safe and happy life.


About the author

Rajy Abulhosn MD

Dr. Rajy Abulhosn MD, MRO is a certified physician and Medical Director at Confirm BioSciences. Dr. Rajy has a passion for helping people achieve health, wellness and balance. He is a graduate of the University of Washington School of Medicine.