Experimenting with substances can be risky for teens. It’s the responsibility of parents and caregivers to educate kids about drugs and alcohol.

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The teenage years can be some of the most fun and formative years of a person’s life. Yet, these years can also be marked by high emotions and social pressures to fit in.

For some kids, this might increase their susceptibility for risky behavior, such as experimenting with substances like drugs and alcohol.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 67% of 12th graders have tried alcohol and almost 20% have taken prescription medication without a prescription. About half of high schoolers have tried marijuana, and 4 out of 10 have smoked cigarettes.

Using substances during the teenage years can affect growth and development, particularly in the brain. Early substance use may also contribute to developing certain conditions in adulthood, according to research, such as:

Parents and caregivers are responsible for the overall well-being of our children. This includes educating kids and teens about the risks of substance use and the possibility of developing substance use disorders.

Substance use can affect teens in a variety of ways, and some signs are more subtle than others.

Although these common signs may raise red flags for substance use, they can also indicate other underlying health issues. Talking with your family doctor or pediatrician to rule out other conditions is often beneficial when these signs are present in kids.

Physical symptoms of substance use in teens may include:

  • sleep disturbances, especially sleeplessness or insomnia followed by sleeping excessively
  • dress or hygiene that seems messier than usual
  • an increase in health-related complaints or sickness

There may also be emotional signs of substance use in teens, such as:

  • mood and personality changes
  • increased or intense irritability
  • poor judgment
  • low self-esteem
  • risky behavior
  • depression
  • less motivated with school, social activities, or hobbies and extracurriculars
  • lack of interest in activities they once enjoyed

Teens may develop social and academic problems when experimenting with substance use, like:

  • breaking rules
  • illegal behavior
  • skipping school
  • failing grades
  • a negative attitude
  • withdrawal from family and friends

Most experts agree that it’s never too early to start talking to kids about substance use. Never assume your child or teen is already aware of the dangers and risks of substance use or that substance use disorders can never impact your family.

Some children may begin experimenting with drugs and alcohol even before they hit their teenage years. Starting the conversation early can make all the difference.

The beginning of elementary school can often be a great starting age for opening up a conversation with kids about drugs and alcohol. Many children at this age are more receptive to information and guidance.

It can be helpful to start by addressing how familiar medications — like cold or allergy medicine — is safe when following the correct timing and dosage directions. Then, explain how these same medications can become harmful if too much is taken or if taken incorrectly.

Reinforcing the seriousness of substance use without scaring your children is often the most effective way to begin teaching them about substances. Reminding them that rules are in place to keep them safe can also be a vital lesson in the conversation around drugs and alcohol.

Talking to your teenage kids about substance use and possible risks can be essential to keeping them on a healthy path into adulthood.

When it’s time to talk to your teen about substance use, it can be helpful to begin the conversation by reaffirming your love for them. Let them know that you are concerned because you love and care about them.

If you have expressed anger and fear about their possible substance use or experimentation, remind them that this is because you love them and that their well-being matters.

It’s critical that you stay calm and actively listen to your child. If they share with you that they have experimented or tried substances already, you may want to discuss the possible reasons behind their choice.

Reassure them that no matter what, they are:

  • valued
  • talented
  • smart
  • important to many people

Reinforcing that rules and laws need to be followed can help remind your teen that underage or illegal substance use could lead to serious legal consequences.

Stressful circumstances or peer pressure may be a factor in your teen’s substance use. Helping your child get involved in new, fun activities could help distance them from any potential substance use triggers.

Consider reaching out to family members for support. School guidance counselors and therapists may also offer additional support and direction on potential substance use programs, if you feel that is necessary for your child and family.

Talking to teens about substance use disorder is an important step in discussing substance use overall. As kids grow up and gain more independence over their decisions, understanding the risks and dangers associated with repeated alcohol and drug use can help them make healthy choices.

Honesty and accuracy can be key in discussing substance use disorders with teens. Explaining that substance use disorder is a mental health condition can be the best place to begin.

You can describe to your child that substance use disorder manifests through a compulsive cycle of:

  • reward
  • motivation
  • memory

Someone with this condition may exhibit:

  • impulsive behavior
  • lack of self-control
  • an increased desire for the substance

People living with substance use disorders may find it increasingly difficult to manage daily life without engaging in substance use.

It’s important for your teen to know that those with substance use disorder may develop a physical dependency on substances like drugs and alcohol. This might cause an increase in substance use over time, which can be dangerous, leading to overdose and even death in some cases.

It may be beneficial to reinforce possible long-term repercussions of substance use disorder, which can increase in severity and have serious health complications.

Discuss how substance use disorder may also have other negative impacts on a person’s life, including:

  • financial strain
  • issues with relationships, including family and friends
  • consequences at work, including job loss

Teens may start using substances for a variety of reasons. Understanding your child’s motivation behind experimenting with drugs or alcohol can be a helpful starting place for finding solutions.

If your teen is using substances, you’re not alone. Help for teen substance use is out there.

Having an open, calm conversation with your teen about substance use is often the best place to start. However, it can be common for some kids at this age to be less inclined to open up to parents and caregivers about tough subjects.

If you notice physical symptoms of substance use in your teen, it may be smart to talk to your family doctor or pediatrician first to rule out other health conditions.

Talking with your child’s school counselor or a youth therapist that specializes in teen issues and substance use can also be an excellent resource for your child.

A therapist may be able to help your child:

  • understand the reasons behind their substance use
  • learn more about the risks and dangers of developing substance use disorders
  • find solutions to managing triggers
  • connect with support groups or recovery programs geared toward teens

Talking to your child honestly and calmly without scaring them could make a big difference in educating children of all ages on substance use. Early conversations can arm kids with the knowledge to make the best choices about substance use as they grow up.

Although talking to your teen about substance use may feel overwhelming and scary at first, you and your family are not alone.

The podcast “What If Your Teen is in Trouble with Drugs?” hosted by psychologist Tim Portinga, PsyD., and the Drugs & Health Blog from the National Institute on Drug Abuse may be helpful resources.

If you recognize signs of substance use in your teen, you may want to talk to your family doctor or pediatrician to rule out other health conditions first. Your pediatrician can also provide information on teen substance use and possible next steps in getting help, like therapist referrals.

Early intervention and treatment can be important in preventing substance use disorders in teens.

School guidance counselors may also be able to provide resources for support. Reaching out to a youth therapist that specializes in teens and substance use can help your teen navigate this issue. Support groups and recovery programs geared toward teens may also be helpful for your child.

If you’re ready to seek support for you or your teen, visit Psych Central’s guide on finding mental health help.