The Power of Prevention: Talking With Your Teen About Alcohol and Drugs

Talking with your teen about alcohol and drug addiction , Conversation about drugs and alcohol, Teen Program at The Pines, Teens & Adolescent Residential Treatment Center, youth substance use disorder

Few of us want to have “the talk.” Whether the topic is sex, consent, birth control, drug and alcohol use, or other sensitive topics, it’s challenging for many adults to sit down with the teens they love and address any one of these issues. Yet we know it must be done—especially when talking with your teen about alcohol and drug addiction is proven to be one strong component of prevention.  

Prevention Provides Protection against Addiction

Researchers at the University of Washington (UW) note that in teenagers “there is a time lag between the activation of brain systems that excite our emotions and impulses and the maturation of brain systems that allow us to check these feelings and urgings—it’s like driving a car with a sensitive gas pedal and bad brakes.” Additionally, UW experts indicate when an individual’s capacity for self-regulation isn’t “strong enough to rein in arousal, problems are more likely to result—problems such as depression, substance abuse, obesity, aggression, and other risky and reckless behavior.” Since we were once teenagers, it’s easy to identify with all of this. 

However, the UW studies also state that “family-based programs throughout childhood and adolescence have been shown to reduce substance use in adolescence. Universal parenting programs focus on parenting skills during childhood and adolescence, including aspects such as establishing clear standards for behavior, family management skills, strategies for dealing with anger, and creating prosocial opportunities for children.” 

The Partnership to End Addiction (PEA) explains that every child may have numerous risk factors that could potentially lead to substance use disorder (SUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD). They include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Adverse childhood experiences, which includes different types of abuse, trauma, domestic and community violence, and others 
  • Behavioral issues, such as sensation-seeking or impulsivity
  • Biology, as approximately 40–60 percent of addiction causation is genetic
  • Emotional and mental health stability, not only their own, but also people in their household 
  • Environmental factors, such as peers and community

Fortunately, there are also protective factors of equal measure. “These are characteristics or circumstances that can serve as buffers against negative outcomes,” PEA notes. “The good news is that there is a great deal parents can do to strengthen protective factors and minimize or guard against the risk factors in their child’s life.” 

They include providing mental health resources early on, engaging various methods for improving communication, resilience and connectedness, modeling healthy behavior, and other techniques. The organization explains more about how to evaluate risk factors and provide protective solutions and resources in this detailed playbook for parents of teens.

Why It Might Be Hard to Talk With Your Teen about Drugs and Alcohol

Without question, there are sometimes barriers to having a heart-to-heart with your child about alcohol and drug use. Have you already encountered some of the following?

Communication gap

Generational differences in communication styles and technology usage often complicate the ability for effective dialogue.


Conversations about drugs and alcohol can feel uncomfortable and awkward for both teenagers and parents. Additionally, adolescents are navigating a complex stage of development that often involves uncertainty about their identity and self-image.

Fear of punishment or judgment

Teenagers might worry about facing punishment from parents or other authority figures if they admit to experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Fear of disappointing their parents can also make them hesitant to discuss the topic openly.

Emotional sensitivity

A teen’s emotions can be intense and unpredictable. Conversations about sensitive topics like drugs and alcohol might trigger strong emotional reactions, making communication challenging.


Adolescence is a time of asserting independence and testing boundaries. Discussing delicate topics might trigger resistance, as teenagers might view these conversations as attempts to control or limit their choices.

Lack of experience

Many teenagers don’t understand the negative consequences of drugs and alcohol because they haven’t experienced them, they don’t use substances yet, or they feel invincible.  Consequently, they might not fully grasp the potential risks and may perceive your warnings as exaggerated. 

Peer pressure

Teenagers are often influenced by their peers and want to fit in. Discussing drugs and alcohol with your teen can be difficult when they are more concerned about being judged or labeled as “uncool” by their peers.

Steps for Beginning a Conversation about Substance use

To overcome these challenges, it’s important to approach conversations with empathy, open-mindedness, and a non-judgmental attitude. Establish a foundation of trust and create a safe space for open communication to help your child feel more comfortable discussing these topics. It might be helpful to discuss other topics first to create better rapport. 

 Here are more tips from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

  • Use real-life examples by sharing accurate information and focusing on the potential consequences—both positive and negative. These practices develop more meaningful and productive discussions.
  • Calmly explain the reasons why you disapprove of underage alcohol and drug misuse, using facts to counter any misinformation they might find elsewhere. Make it clear how much you care about your teen’s health, overall wellness, and success, and how you’ll partner with them to achieve these goals. 
  • Roleplay with them about what to do when faced with a difficult decision about alcohol and drugs. Practice how to simply say “no thanks” or “I’m not interested” without explanation. 
  • Encourage more open conversations about friends, plans, and interests to assure your teen how much you care. 

You don’t have to have all aspects of “the talk” all at once, but do plan to check in frequently. 

How Willingway Can Help

For more than 50 years, Willingway has focused on the needs of families to achieve better health. Our inpatient addiction rehabilitation center in Georgia provides comprehensive education and treatment for individuals and their families, including teens ages 14–18. Call us today to learn more.