As a parent, you may be uncertain about how to protect your child from the harms of alcohol and other drugs. Parenting a teenager is challenging no doubt and it can be hard to know when and how to communicate about substances, and to make decisions about rules and consequences.
By talking with your teenager, you can help them manage the risks. The following tips might make it easier:
The Alcohol and Drug Foundation state that you can begin discussing alcohol and other drugs with children as young as eight years old, but you can make that decision at your own discretion. It is recommended you start having a chat with them at least before they are entering high school, where young people are more likely to be exposed to alcohol and drugs either by their peers or students in older years. If your child is already well into their teenage years and you have never really discussed drugs and alcohol, it is not too late to start the conversation with them.
Talking about alcohol and other drugs can be an ongoing conversation, which will evolve depending on the young person’s age or development. Establishing an environment in which young people feel safe and confident to discuss alcohol and other drugs with parents or carers is an important protective factor against substance misuse.
Research shows that young people view their parents as credible sources of information and are affected by parental beliefs and behaviour. Starting this conversation means parents can create an understanding that when it comes to alcohol and other drugs, no question is too silly and no topic is off limits.
Be Informed and Prepared
It’s a good idea to get prepared and informed about the facts before any talks, and how you will approach the chat. There are a lot of myths about alcohol and other drugs. Use evidence-based sources such as from the Alcohol & Drug Foundation website https://adf.org.au/ to inform yourself and provide them with the most accurate information.
You may be surprised at the details your teenager already knows. Teenagers can hear things from schoolyard conversations with friends, TV & video, things overheard among adults and online. These things may not be factual. Before you get too far in your conversation, ask them what they know about drugs or alcohol. If they provide you with short answers try and extend the conversation by asking if they know about side effects for certain drugs and the effects they have on the brain, emotions, and body. Try and let them educate you on what they know. Try to listen without judgement and practise a two-way conversation. This will keep them engaged and prevent it from seeming like a lecture.
Communicate the Risks
Look for opportunities and teachable moments to communicate the risks. Communicating the risks is key during a conversation. As they enter high school, make new friends and get invited to social gatherings, they may hear the ‘fun’ side of the story eg. “it makes you feel good” and “everybody’s doing it”. Try not to come off too extreme or over- exaggerate any facts, paint an honest picture of all you know to be true. However, there are many risks for young people, especially for their developing brain
Consider beginning by asking a question like “Tell me, what do you know about marijuana?”. Teenagers who feel like their point of view is valued may be more willing to engage in conversations. In response to what your child says, use nonjudgmental statements to make sure they feel listened to, then follow up with a question. For example: “So you’ve heard that marijuana is pretty safe because it is natural. Do you think that is correct?”. Deliver the message with a calm and curious tone and practise firmness when required and giving facts. Example, “Actually marijuana has many risks such as …”
Quick tip, Text the effects are a drug information service via SMS. It provides information about the effects of drugs in a confidential and accessible way, any location, any time. Simply text the name of the drug you want to know about and within a couple of seconds you will get a text reply with all facts and side effects of that drug. Give it a go, and maybe you could do it together with your teenager? https://adf.org.au/resources/text-the-effects/ 0439 tell me (0439 835 563).
Be Clear in your Beliefs
Clarify your own personal view of alcohol and other drugs and ask your child what their beliefs are. Be mindful that your views might be different to your child’s so try to keep an open mind here and approach the question in a curious conversational manner. Find out about their views on alcohol and other drugs. Talk about what they would do in different situations.
Set Rules and Consequences
Every parent and carer’s rules will be unique to their own family. Let your child know your rules around drugs and alcohol, and the consequences for breaking them. Help them develop ways of managing situations where their friends are using alcohol or other drugs, and they don’t want to be embarrassed or feel left out by not taking part.
Explore the Reasons if you Find out they are Using Alcohol or Other Drugs
Teenagers may use substances for the same reasons that adults do so: to help manage anxiety, relieve stress, distract from unpleasant emotions, or connect socially with peers. Being curious about those reasons can help them feel less judged. It may also give you a window into your teenager’s underlying struggles, help them develop insight into their own behaviour, and point to problems that may need professional support. It can however, be challenging for a parent to have this kind of a conversation with a child, and some young people have limited understanding as to why they use substances. There are also external support services who can help in this case, as below.
Know when to Intervene
Engaging with young people on the topic of substance use can be a delicate dance. We want to encourage openness and honesty, and we also want them to get clear messages that help to keep them safe. There are services for help for young people who use substances recurrently and/or who have a problem associated with substance use. Some of these services are at the end of this article. Some signs your teenager could be using drugs or alcohol are:
- Increased appetite or alternatively, a sudden lack of appetite
- A change in friend group, especially if they’re not spending time with people they used to be close to
- Complaints from teachers about behaviour in class
- Lower grades
- Going out at night or disappearing for long periods of time
- Locking doors
- Bloodshot eyes
- Careless personal hygiene or dishevelled appearance
- Drug equipment in their room
Help Seeking in an Emergency
Regardless of different values and beliefs you and your teenager may have, there is an opportunity here to upskill your young person on what to do in an emergency or crisis involving drugs and alcohol. Create an emergency response plan with your teenager, emphasise the importance of calling 000 for an ambulance or 112 from most mobiles.
Within NSW law, ambulance officers are not required to call the police to overdoses, drug incidents and alcohol intoxication. However, they will need to make contact with the teenager’s parent/s if the young person needs to be taken to hospital. Make sure you pass on this information to your teenager. Reassure them they will NOT get in trouble for calling emergency services and this is the most important step to enact in a crisis. Let them know that calling emergency services can prevent serious injuries and possible deaths. Encourage them to make the call for themselves or their peers, remind them to never leave an intoxicated person alone nor should they ever leave a party alone if they themselves are intoxicated.
- It is OK to ask directly about alcohol and drug use; but don’t make assumptions that they are using drugs.
- Be prepared for a negative reaction. A negative reaction does not mean the conservation was not helpful– it may take some time to process what has been said. Stay calm and reasonable. Do not let it turn into an argument.
- Let them know you care about them and remind them of their good qualities. Young people will be more likely to listen and take advice on board if they feel valued and respected.
- Take advantage of “teachable moments” to discuss drug use with your teenager. Teachable moments can happen while driving in the car, at the dinner table while discussing a situation at school or a current event in the news.
If you or your teenager needs support relating to alcohol and other drugs usage, you can read more about our services here or dial 2Connect Youth & Community on 9556 1769. READY provides practical and emotional support (case management and counselling) regarding alcohol and other drugs use and their harms to youth and families for young people and families in Bayside, Georges River and Sutherland in Sydney. For other locations, contact Alcohol Drug Information Services 1800 250 015