Talking to Adolescents about Substance Use Back »

The majority (73%) of adolescents report using drugs or alcohol at least once by the time they reach 12th grade. The most commonly used substances include alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. Although most adolescents will experiment with drugs or alcohol, only a minority will develop a serious addiction. Yet, even limited exposure to drugs and alcohol is concerning as substance use among adolescents is related to poor academic performance, impaired memory and critical thinking skills, and depression.

Consistent and open parent-child communication is one of the most influential strategies for preventing and/or reducing substance use among adolescents; however, many parents are hesitant to discuss drugs and alcohol with their teens. The following list describes tips for structuring effective discussions with adolescents:

  • Start Early: Begin discussing drugs and alcohol with children at an early age (5-6 years old), and continue the conversation into the adolescent years. Youth who initiate substance use at a young age are more likely to develop a lifelong addiction and participate in other risk behaviors.
  • Avoid Lecturing: The most successful communication involves a dialogue with both parents and teens expressing their thoughts, feelings, and concerns.
  • Practice Active Listening: Just listening to adolescents is not enough. Instead, parents must give feedback during the conversation in the form of nodding, maintaining eye contact, asking questions, and summarizing what the adolescent said.
  • Minimize Distractions: When talking to teens, turn off the television, put away cell phones, and find a private place to talk. Limiting the distractions signals the importance of the discussion.
  • Clearly Express Disapproval and Rules: Parent disapproval of adolescent substance use is an effective deterrent. However, parents must state messages of disapproval clearly while also indicating the consequences that the adolescent should expect if rules are broken.

Beginning a conversation with adolescents about substance use can be intimidating. However, open and honest discussions about drugs and alcohol can protect against early initiation and long-term adverse effects of drug addiction.

For more information on communicating with your kids about substance abuse, visit The Partnership at


  • Eaton, D. K., Kann, L., Kinchen, S., Shanklin, S., Ross, J., & Wechsler, H. (2010). Youth risk behavior  surveillance – United States, 2009. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 59(SS-5), 1-142.
  • King, K. A., & Vidourek, R. A. (2011). Enhancing parent-child communication about drug use: Strategies  for professionals working with parents and guardians. The Prevention Researcher, 18, 12-15.
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