A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

How to talk to your teen about drugs and drinking

Parent talking to stressed teen - Teen substance abuse, Part 1

The language you use when talking to your teen about substance abuse can make a huge difference.

Few feelings are more frightening for parents than the suspicion your child may have a substance abuse issue. Despite the emotions parents feel when they learn their child is using drugs or drinking, it’s critical they approach their teens in the right way.

How parents react to their teens in this situation could make all the difference, but first, let’s talk about signs of potential teen substance abuse.

Signs your teen may be using drugs or drinking

Laure Ann Blanchard is a substance abuse counselor and mental health therapist for Family Health Center-Marshfield Alcohol Drug Recovery Center, which is a member of Marshfield Clinic Health System. She said there are a few red flags or strong signs your child may be using drugs or drinking:

  • He/she is withdrawing more than usual from family activities.
  • He/she has declining grades in school.
  • You notice a change in his/her friend group.
  • He/she is withdrawing from school activities (academics, sports, etc.).
  • He/she has started missing school.
  • His/her close friends tell you your child is changing.

I also think it’s important with teens to monitor their technology and social media use,” Blanchard said. “If adolescents are struggling in our new age of technology, they’re going to turn to social media and talk about it there.”

Blanchard warned that some signs of teen substance abuse also may simply be signs of anxiety or depression, and you don’t want to assume your child is using drugs or drinking solely based on a few symptoms. Teens and all people who abuse substances may be masking emotional distress caused by depression, anxiety or past trauma.

Start the conversation with your teen

“One thing parents can do is be open-minded and try to create opportunities for your teen to come forward,” Blanchard said. “You don’t want to come off as judging your child or his/her friends. That will trigger your child to be defensive. In the world of addiction, judging and stereotyping stop people from getting treatment.”

Paula Hensel, a nurse practitioner at Family Health Center-Marshfield Alcohol Drug Recovery Center, said to avoid punishing or threatening language.

“If I find out you are doing this, you’ll be in huge trouble,” is not the kind of language that helps your teen come forward or feel comfortable in this situation, Hensel said. Try bringing up the topic in a gentler way.

“You can ask something like ‘hey, you haven’t seen your old friends in a while. Is there anything going on that changed that you want to talk about?’” said Dr. Celestino Balinghasay, a psychiatrist at Family Health Center-Marshfield Alcohol Drug Recovery Center. “Tell them you are noticing these changes without putting them on the spot. This shows them you are aware of their behavior change, but still allows them to come forward on their own terms.”

If you are concerned your child may be struggling with a substance abuse issue, talk to their pediatrician or contact Family Health Center Alcohol and Drug Recovery Services at 1-844-288-8324.

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