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How to Help Your Teenager Avoid Alcohol and Drugs

Adolescents who experiment with alcohol and drugs put their health and safety at risk. Parents can help prevent adolescent alcohol/drug abuse by talking to their sons and daughters about the consequences of using harmful substances and the importance of making healthy choices.

Various factors can contribute to adolescent alcohol/drug abuse, from insecurity to a desire for social acceptance. Adolescents often feel indestructible and might not consider the consequences of their actions, leading them to take dangerous risks like abusing alcohol and legal/illegal drugs.

Common risk factors for adolescent alcohol/drug abuse include:
  • academic failure
  • alcohol and drug availability
  • belief that alcohol/drug abuse is OK 
  • early aggressive or impulsive behavior 
  • family history of substance abuse 
  • feelings of social rejection 
  • history of traumatic events (e.g., experiencing a car accident, being a victim of abuse)
  • lack of nurturing by mom or dad
  • low self-esteem
  • mental or behavioral health condition (e.g., depression, anxiety, ADHD) 
  • poor social coping skills
  • relationships with peers who drink alcohol or use drugs

Negative consequences of adolescent alcohol/drug abuse might include:
  • Sexual activity. Adolescents who abuse alcohol and drugs are more likely to have poor judgment, which can result in unplanned and unsafe sex.
  • Serious health problems. Abuse of prescription or over-the-counter medications can cause respiratory distress and seizures. Chronic use of inhalants can harm the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. Ecstasy can cause liver damage and heart failure. High doses of or chronic use of methamphetamine can cause psychotic behavior.
  • Impaired driving. Driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs impairs a driver's motor skills, reaction time and judgment, thus putting the driver, her passengers, and others on the road at risk.
  • Drug dependence. Adolescents who abuse alcohol and drugs are at increased risk of serious dependency later in life. 
  • Concentration problems. Some drugs (e.g., marijuana) affect an adolescent's memory, motivation, and ability to learn.

It may seem difficult to talk to your adolescent about alcohol/drug abuse. Start by choosing a comfortable time and setting when you're unlikely to be interrupted. If you're nervous about discussing the topic, share your feelings with your adolescent. You might also consider sharing the responsibility with another nurturing adult in your adolescent's life.

Here are some tips for talking with your adolescent about alcohol and drugs:
  • Discuss ways to resist peer pressure. Brainstorm with your adolescent about how to turn down offers to drink alcohol or use drugs.
  • Discuss reasons not to abuse alcohol or drugs. Avoid scare tactics. Emphasize how alcohol/drug use can affect things important to your adolescent (e.g., sports, driving, health, appearance, etc.). Explain that even an adolescent can develop an alcohol or drug problem.
  • Consider media messages. Some television programs, movies, websites or songs glamorize or trivialize alcohol/drug use. Talk about what your adolescent has seen or heard. 
  • Be ready to discuss your own alcohol or drug use. Think ahead about how you'll respond if your adolescent asks about your own alcohol or drug use. If you chose not to use alcohol or drugs, explain why. If you did drink alcohol or use drugs, share what the experience taught you.
  • Ask your adolescent's views. Avoid long, boring lectures. Instead, listen to your adolescent's opinions and questions about alcohol/drug use. Observe your adolescent's nonverbal responses to see how he or she feels about the topic. Encourage your adolescent to talk by making statements instead of asking questions. For example, saying, "I'm interested in your opinion" might work better than "What do you think?"

Don't be afraid that talking about alcohol/drug abuse will plant ideas in your adolescent's head. Conversations about alcohol and drugs won't tempt your adolescent to try these chemicals. Instead, talking about it lets your adolescent know your views and understand what you expect of him or her.

In addition to talking to your adolescent, consider other strategies to prevent adolescent alcohol/drug abuse:
  • Set a good example. Don't abuse substances yourself.
  • Provide support. Offer praise and encouragement when your adolescent succeeds, whether at school or at home. A strong bond between you and your adolescent might help prevent him from abusing alcohol and drugs. 
  • Know your adolescent's peers. If your adolescent's friends abuse alcohol or drugs, she might feel pressure to experiment, too. Get to know your adolescent's friends and their moms and dads.
  • Know your adolescent's activities. Pay attention to your adolescent's whereabouts. Find out what adult-supervised activities he is interested in and encourage him to get involved.
  • Keep an eye on prescription drugs. Take an inventory of all prescription and over-the-counter medications in your home and keep them out of easily accessible places (e.g., the medicine cabinet). If your adolescent needs to take prescription medication during school hours, it should be dispensed by the school nurse.
  • Establish rules and consequences. Make it clear that you won't tolerate alcohol or drug abuse. Rules might include leaving a party where alcohol drinking and drug use occurs and not riding in a car with a driver who's been using any substances. Agree on the consequences of breaking the rules ahead of time — and enforce them consistently.

Be aware of possible red flags, such as:
  • An unusual chemical or medicine smell on your adolescent or in her room
  • Drug paraphernalia in your adolescent's room
  • Hostile or uncooperative attitude
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or family activities
  • Medicine containers, despite a lack of illness
  • Secrecy about actions or possessions
  • Stealing money or an unexplained need for money
  • Sudden or extreme change in friends, eating habits, sleeping patterns, physical appearance, coordination or school performance

If you suspect that your adolescent is abusing alcohol or drugs, talk to him. Avoid accusations. Instead, ask your adolescent what's going on in his life and encourage him to be honest. If your adolescent admits to abusing drugs, let him know that you're disappointed. Enforce the consequences you've established and explain to your adolescent ways that he can help regain your lost trust (e.g., being home by curfew, improving grades, etc.). 

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