How to talk to your teenager about drugs
Speaking to your teen about drugs can feel scary. However, it doesn’t need to be one ‘big talk’. In fact, the sooner you start talking regularly with them about drugs, the more comfortable it will be for both of you.
Scientific studies show that your parenting style and how you speak to your teen can affect their decision about whether or not to try drugs. If you and your teen have difficulty talking, here are some tips for effective communication.
Make ‘the talk’ an ongoing conversation
As a first step, start some conversations with your teen about drugs in general. Bring up events in the news. Ask them if they have any questions about them. Listen to what they have to say, without making judgements. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The use of scare tactics can backfire and make your teen less likely to believe or trust you.
- Be honest about the real risks.
- Where possible, avoid directly accusing them of doing drugs.
- Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something. Look it up and learn together.
How you could start
Use the news:
- ‘Have you read about the pill-testing debate going on? What do you think?’
- ‘Apparently, 87 percent of Australians now support medicinal cannabis. Do you think it should be legal?’
- ‘Do you have questions about anything you’ve come across in the news lately about drugs?’
- ‘Drug use has apparently halved in the last 20 years. Do you think that’s true?’
Test some hypothetical situations:
- ‘If someone offered you something, what would you say?’
- ‘Have you seen anyone get into trouble when you’re at a party? Do you have any questions?’
- ‘Please know that whatever happens, if you’re in trouble, you can call us.’
What you could say
How you listen to your teen is almost more important than what you say to them. Dr Ramesh Manocha’s parenting book Growing Happy, Healthy Young Minds suggests some really constructive ways to respond during your talks. In the chapter they co-authored, Associate Professor Nicola Newton, Dr Katrina Champion, Dr Lexine Stapinksi and Siobhan Lawler suggest:
1. If they say: ‘Someone at the party had some and I thought I’d try it’
- Ask if they knew what they were taking, and discuss the effects of the drug.
- Ask if they felt pressured, and if they did – discuss some clever ways to say no.
2. If they say: ‘I just always wanted to try it’
- Thank them for being honest, and ask what appealed to them about it.
- Ask if it was what they expected, and tell them about the risks.
3. If they say: ‘I don’t want to talk about it’
- Ask them if you can help them find someone to talk to.
- Let them know they can talk to someone else outside of the family if they want.
4. If they say: ‘It made me feel really good’
- Ask them how they’ve been feeling in general. This is a good time to offer help or to learn more about what is going on in their life.
- Talk about some healthy ways to feel good.
5. If they say: ‘It made me feel like all my problems went away’
- Let them know that you’re there for them if they want to talk about anything.
- Suggest that you’d like to help them work through any problems (if they’re up for it).
- Ask them if it felt like the problems came back after the drug wore off.
- Explain that often what makes drugs feel good can end up making things worse over time.
Your parenting style and ‘the talk’ about drugs
Talking with your teen about what’s okay with you and what isn’t is the next step. Working together with them to define the house rules can be a great exercise. If you can give them a sense of ownership, and explain why there are rules, this can really help.
Some questions to ask yourself as a parent:
- Have I explained my expectations?
- What are the rules, and what will happen if they’re broken?
- Have I explained that the reason the rules are in place is because we love them?
- Have I explained the risks? This includes things like:
- increased risk of mental illness
- potential criminal record
- the risks of taking untested street drugs from strangers.
- the negative post-high effects, which can include:
- frustration, anger and reduced energy levels
- impaired ability to concentrate
- sleep disturbances and mood swings.
Authoritarian vs. authoritative parenting style
There is no perfect thing that parents can say to guarantee their child won’t do drugs. However, research has shown that parents who use strategies based on the authoritative parenting style can help their teens make good decisions. The authoritative parenting style boils down to:
- You balance strictness with unconditional love (firm, but warm).
- You set boundaries, and explain why they’re in place.
- You guide your child to think about the impact they have on others.
- You agree on the rules, and on what happens when they’re broken.
- You let your child know that you care for them and are involved in their life.
Leading scientists have discovered that the authoritative style is way more effective than the stricter authoritarian parenting style in preventing risky behaviour. The authoritarian parenting style boils down to:
- You don’t explain why rules and boundaries are in place.
- You don’t involve your child in making decisions that affect them.
- You punish them by withholding affection.
- You teach them that obedience is the most important thing.
- You teach them not to question things.
How to handle tricky moments
If your child shuts down or storms off, don’t push it. You definitely want to keep things relaxed (where possible). If they start getting defensive, give them a moment to settle down, or try again another day.
When the conversation gets heated and goes on too long, it can mess with getting your message across. They may not be able to step outside of how they feel and process what you’re saying. If you can find a way to stay calm, they’ll also learn how to stay calm in these situations.
It's also really important afterwards to touch base and say, ‘Hey, I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'm sorry I yelled at you. This is why. This is what happened. This is how I experienced it. How are you, and are we okay?’
If you think your teenager has a problem with drugs
If your teenager is being secretive or behaving strangely, you may suspect a drug problem. Check out our article on teen drug addiction for some tools and strategies to help you work through this with your child.