Talking to Teens about Alcohol and Other Drugs

A shorter version of this blog was published at Essential Kids. 

Before the digital world came flooding through our schools and homes, adults were the bringers of important information especially about sex, drugs and alcohol.

Today this information is at a teen’s fingertips and to be honest I often meet teens who know more about the damaging effects of excessive drug or alcohol use than their parents. There are many fabulous websites that have been created to help teens learn what’s what – and what’s not.

So have parents become obsolete in the education of their children in the area of alcohol and other drugs?

Absolutely not.

From an early age our children absorb messages about all sorts of important information from what they observe us doing and saying. Modelling matters. So it will be difficult to warn your teen about binge drinking when they have witnessed you doing it throughout their childhood (ouch but true).

An ongoing conversation

There is never one conversation about sex, alcohol, drugs and porn. There are many, many small conversations explaining the risks and dangers.

Sharing some of the information that is available online – before puberty arrives – is really sensible. The National Drugs Campaign website, developed by the Australian Government, provides ample resources and useful information. Once adolescence has started our children are biologically wired to question what we have to say as they are growing egocentrically to work out how the world works without parental input. This ‘push back’ is frustrating however normal. So please get in early.

Today’s teens are drinking less and later, although the minority who are using alcohol to excess are possibly doing it worse than ever. The levels of illegal drug use among teens is also much lower than we might perceive if we get our facts from media. Be careful not to exaggerate the facts – give them factual and evidence-based information that can be found in the Illegal Drugs – Student Booklet prepared by Positive Choices. This also helps bust the myth that everyone is doing it and it’s ‘normal’.

They do need to know the developing brain is highly susceptible to damage especially the hippocampus or memory centres in the brain.

Once again before the teen years, it may be good to make the point that drinking or drug use is not a great combination with doing well academically.

Other parts of the brain are impacted including the cerebellum and of course it can delay the myelination process, which also delays the maturation of the pre frontal cortex.

Choices and consequences

So when teens consume alcohol or other drugs they are more likely to make poorer choices and be vulnerable to risk. In the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey of Year 10, 11 and 12 students in Australia 19.8% of males and 28.3% of females had had unwanted sex, and being under the influence of alcohol and drugs was a major contributing factor.

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The excess of dendrites that occurs in early adolescence also increases the chances for teens becoming addicted more easily – so doing everything you can to delay any consumption of alcohol and exposure to other drugs until after 16 will be well worth it!

I recommend locking any alcohol at home in a cupboard even if you trust your teen. Why? The adolescent biological drive and hunger to belong with your peers is more powerful than their love and respect for you – saying no to their social group could mean being excluded and rejected. If the cupboard is locked they are not forced into that difficult choice.

Research shows that the earlier adolescents use alcohol or other drugs, the more chances there are they will have problems with binge drinking and future health and addiction problems later in life. In Australia, the provision of alcohol to teenagers is now seen as a cultural problem and this shifting social norm has been of huge benefit to every parent.

What are they thinking?

One of the reasons many teens want to use mind-altering drugs and alcohol is because it makes them feel more socially acceptable. It can minimalise those crushing feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and worthlessness that can coincide with brain pruning especially under 15.

Teens do not have a mature pre-frontal cortex and so making sound, reasoned decisions can be difficult especially when around friends. Many teens manage the stress they experience by using alcohol and other drugs as it can temporarily create the feel-good endorphins.

Teens also have a tendency when making decisions to exaggerate the good (i.e. the rewards) and positives and to diminish the possible risks or negatives and they have a tendency to think ‘that won’t happen to me!’

No amount of reasoning, logic or lecturing from well-meaning parents can change that tendency.

So adolescents especially teens under 16 need strong parental guidance and expectations. They will break boundaries – that is also a part of claiming their autonomy and there needs to be some serious conversations about consequences if they do it more than once.

Everyone deserves a second chance. Monitoring them is about loving and guidance not policing and controlling.

Another interesting thing about teens is they are more invested in watching out for their friends than for themselves. This is an important thing to remember when having conversations about alcohol and other drugs.

Keeping their friends close and welcoming them in your home is a huge protective factor on the adolescent journey. (P.S. They are always nicer when they have friends around!)

Teens don’t want to die or hurt themselves. They simply want to have fun and enjoy life. Making poor choices sadly can mean these things can happen. Affirm often that you will love them no matter what happens on this bumpy ride to adulthood – even when they muck up.

Encourage them to find a lighthouse – a safe adult ally who isn’t their parent – in their life who can also be a positive light in their lives.

Sometimes when a teen has really mucked up badly it is easier to ask for help from a lighthouse before asking their parents. Remember rather than staying focused on how they mucked up – focus more on how to recover from the muck up and to avoid it happening again. Please forgive easily.

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My top tips in talking to your kids about alcohol and other drugs

  1. Be the caring parent who sets clear boundaries and expectations.
  2. Start with small conversations based on real stories in the media, linking trauma and accidents to drugs; or stories of people who become sick or die after taking drugs.
  3. Explain to your kids that after car crashes the police test for alcohol and drugs because it often contributes to crashes.
  4. Use films and movies as conversation starters.
  5. Print fact sheets to use as a guide when having these conversations. Find a range of parent resources on the Positive Choices
  6. Encourage your teens to always watch out for their friends.
  7. Teach your teens about what’s happening in their brain during adolescence and explain its fragility and vulnerability to alcohol and other drugs.
  8. Talking ‘with’ your teen rather than ‘at’ them will improve communication. NB: Avoid nagging, lecturing and sounding like a know-it-all.
  9. Practice caring communication.
  10. Give them life skills that mean they can save a life – CPR, knowing how to spot the signs of an adverse reaction to drugs. And what to do if someone starts violently vomiting or passes out. Alcoholic comas can kill too.
  11. Use the “what if…” technique when exploring tough subjects. This respects that they do know lots of stuff and then you only have to add the occasional suggestion.
  12. Let them know that there has never been more support out there if they are struggling with alcohol or other drugs – and that you are happy to help them seek help. For free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drugs, the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline is available – 1800 250 015. The hotline will automatically divert you to the Alcohol and Drug Information Service in your state or territory. These services offer support, information, counselling and referral to other services.

Finally, keep telling your teens that one day their brain will finally finish maturing and they will be able to manage choices so much better. Your job is to help them get to 25 alive and well – and with all their bits in tact – while they meet the challenges of life in this huge time of transformation.

This article has been written in collaboration with The Department of Health. For more drug and alcohol information, visit drughelp.gov.au