Dr. Sam Himelstein

Dr. Sam Himelstein

Co-Founder and CEO, Family Spring, Inc.

3 Tips for Talking to Teens Who Use Drugs

Many parents feel overwhelmed when they discover that their teen is using drugs, and it can be challenging to figure out how to respond.  

The following tips will help you understand what’s happening from your teen’s point of view, which will help you decide what type of intervention might be appropriate.

1) Assume That There’s More to It Than Simply Drug Use

There’s likely much more going on than your kid simply wanting to use drugs to be rebellious or make their parents angry. Many young people use drugs to cope with serious issues in their lives, especially if they struggle with anxiety or have experienced trauma. If you think of it as a form of self-medicating, you can have more empathy with their experience rather than just assuming they’re trying to push your buttons.

Of course I don’t think we should encourage youth to do drugs. I’m just trying to explain what could be going on from their point of view. They’re much more likely to follow our advice if they believe that we understand them, rather than just telling them “Don’t do drugs.”

2) Focus on Your Relationship More Than the Behavior

When they suspect their kids are using drugs, most parents feel a combination of anxiety, fear, anger, and frustration. In fact, the anger and frustration are likely masking fear and anxiety—but the kids usually don’t realize that. If your kid doesn’t feel comfortably confiding in you, they’re unlikely to tell you the truth about what drugs they might be using and why. 

Coming down hard on them in an authoritarian way could actually make it less likely your kid will change their behavior. You can empathize with their challenges and validate their experience without condoning drug use.

3) Pause Before Reacting

It’s common for adults to feel a strong emotional reaction during tense conversations with teens. When that happens to me, I use a mindfulness practice I call “TAP.”

TAP stands for Take a Breath, Acknowledge. Proceed.

Here’s how it can work when you’re talking to your kid about their drug use.

T = ‘Take a breath.’ 

This gives you a brief moment to center yourself so you can respond more skillfully.

A = ‘Acknowledge.’

How do you feel? Is your heart racing with anxiety because you’re so worried about your kid being harmed by their drug use? Do you feel ashamed of your kid’s drug use because you think it reflects badly on your parenting skills? Are you angry because your kid isn’t following the rules you’ve set down about not using drugs?

P = Proceed. Take whatever action seems most appropriate in the circumstances.

It isn’t always obvious how to ‘proceed’ in order to get the result you want. (As in, What can I do so my kid stops using drugs?

On the other hand, there’s almost always something you can do differently in order to de-escalate the tension. A shift in your body language and tone of voice can dramatically decrease tensions and lead to a much more productive conversation.

There are many reasons for teen substance abuse, and several different options for addiction treatment. The better you understand your teen’s needs and challenges, and the more you can provide empathy and support, the better their chances of a successful outcome. 


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