Teen Drug Abuse: Teachable Moments

Some parents think that having a single ''drug talk'' with their kids to warn about the risks of teen drug abuse is all they have to do. But one conversation won't fulfill your parental duty.

Your son or daughter is constantly changing, and so are the social pressures he or she experiences. From your teen's perspective, something you said a few months ago about teen drug abuse - or years ago - might seem like ancient history now.

So instead of a single conversation, you need to have an ongoing dialogue. One good way to do this is to take advantage of ''teachable moments'' - situations in which the subject of teen drug abuse comes up naturally. Use these opportunities to illustrate the risks of abuse and to check in with your teen. Here are a few examples.

Your child asks you about your own past drug use.

This may be a question you've been dreading for a long time. If you did use drugs, you might be tempted to lie and say you didn't. Experts say that's a bad idea. All it takes is your teen finding a forgotten college photo in the attic, or having a conversation with a loose-lipped aunt, and you look like a liar and a hypocrite. Teens like to know they are not alone in their thought process. They like to know you are not a perfect parent, and your previous experience may increase your ability to empathize and understand them, which can open the doors of communication for a curious teen.

Instead of evading the question, answer honestly but without getting bogged down in the details. There's no need to say exactly what you did or when you did it. Focus on why your own teen drug abuse, in retrospect, wasn't such a great idea. Remember, your kid isn't only asking to make you squirm (although that may be part of it); he or she may be trying to sort things out and is looking for guidance.

  • I did smoke pot in high school, but it just made me feel anxious and freaked out.
  • Back then, I felt like I had to do drugs to fit in with other kids. Now, I see that a lot of that pressure was in my head -- I don’t think anyone would have cared if I said no. I regret that I was weak and didn’t speak up for myself.
  • When I was high, I did some things that scare me now. I could really have gotten hurt, or hurt someone else. I was lucky.


Your brother drinks too much at a party and causes a scene.

Some kids seem unbothered by seeing adults drunk, while others are alarmed. Either way, you should talk about it. While you may feel unhappy that your child witnessed something ugly, it could be valuable. For teenagers, it can be hard to connect the apparently light-hearted drinking they see at parties with some of the serious, long-term consequences. You know differently.

  • I’m really sorry you had to see that. Your uncle will be, too. Alcohol makes people lose control and do things that they’ll regret when they sober up.
  • Your uncle started drinking in high school and it just got worse from there. Not everybody who drinks becomes an alcoholic, but your uncle’s addiction has devastated his life.
  • Alcohol has made life really hard for your uncle. He had so much potential, but his addiction made it hard for him to finish school and hold onto a decent job.

Reading the paper, you notice that a local teenager got arrested for drunk driving or driving under the influence of drugs.

When it comes to who's abusing substances, your teen may be reluctant to talk about friends. But your teenager may be surprisingly open to chatting about the teen drug abuse of more distant acquaintances and peers. It's a way for both of you to connect. You can talk about the risks and consequences of teen drug abuse without turning a weekday breakfast into an interrogation.

  • Do you know anything about the school this guy goes to? Is there a lot of drug use there?
  • Now that this kid has a DUI, he won’t be able to drive for months at least.
  • He’s really lucky he didn’t get in an accident and hurt himself or someone else. That could really ruin a person’s life.

Your daughter’s reading a cover story about a former child star checking into rehab.

For teens, it can be unsettling to see someone they once idolized - or maybe still do - go through a very public struggle with drugs. Help them better understand the context of what's happened. You can draw the connection between seemingly innocent experimentation and addiction.

  • Celebrities get surrounded by people who pretend to be friends but don’t really care about them. They get drawn into a really unhealthy lifestyle.
  • When she started using drugs, she probably thought it was fun, and that she could control it. But like a lot of people, she couldn’t.
  • It’s sad that even people this young can develop addiction problems. Even with all her advantages and money, she’ll be struggling with this for the rest of her life.


Your son has the flu, so you pick up some cough medicine to help ease his symptoms.

While millions of Americans use cough medicines with dextromethorphan (abbreviated as DXM) to help them get over a cold or flu, some teens are abusing these products to get high. Parents need to stress the risks and make it clear that they're paying attention to what's in the medicine cabinet.

  • Did you know some people drink bottles of this stuff or take a whole pack of pills trying to get high? And if they’re caught driving after taking dextromethorphan, it’s a DUI.
  • Some people think that just because something is sold in a drugstore, it’s safe at any dose. But even cough medicine can be really dangerous if you take too much.
  • While I always want to be prepared in case anyone gets sick, I do keep an eye on how much cough medicine is in each bottle or package.

These are just a few ways to approach these situations. You'll come up with other ideas. But here's some advice: don't turn every teachable moment into an excuse to deliver the same old lecture. While you need to share what you know, you should also try to have a real conversation and gauge your child’s maturity level. If you show that you're open and receptive, you'll be surprised at the things your teen is willing to share. Your son or daughter may not be the only one learning something.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on October 23, 2018



Virginia Cox, senior vice president, communications & strategic initiatives, Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), Washington, D.C.

Hallie Deaktor, director of public affairs, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, New York City.

Barb Kochanowski PhD, vice president, regulatory affairs, Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), Washington, D.C.

Deborah Levine, MD, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center.

Parents: The Anti-Drug web site: ''Suspect Your Teen is Using Drugs or Drinking?''

Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s Time to Talk web site: ''Five Teachable Moments,'' and ''Answering the Question: Did You Do Drugs?'' 

© 2018 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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