Teen Drug Abuse: Teachable Moments and Role-Playing

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 they feel. 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. There are several approaches you can use to get the conversation flowing. One is to take advantage of “teachable moments,” situations in which the subject of teen drug abuse comes up naturally.

How to Use Teachable Moments

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 that they are not alone in their thought process. They like to know that 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); they may be trying to sort things out and look 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 like they aren’t bothered 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 gets alcoholism, 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 on to a job.

Reading the paper, you notice that a local teenager got arrested for drunken 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 they may be surprisingly open to chatting about the 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 magazine 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 (DXM) to help them get over a cold or the 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.

Don’t try to turn every teachable moment into an excuse to deliver the same old lecture. You need to share what you know, but you should also try to have a real conversation and gauge your child’s maturity level.

Another way to open up the dialogue between you and your teen is to use role-playing. This approach can help them work through some of the risky scenarios they might face.

How to Use Role-Playing

Below are four scenarios that many teenagers face every day, in which they’re pressured to use drugs or engage in other dangerous behaviors. Read over these scenarios with your teen and act them out. Try to get into character. How might the conversation really go?

Acting out these roles should be fun. You might enjoy reversing the obvious roles: Let the teenager play the friend while you play the teen.

The point here isn't only to prepare for these particular scenarios. As with teachable moments, this technique can get you and your children talking about an often hard-to-discuss subject: teen drug abuse. Together, you might come up with some interesting solutions.


Medicine cabinet

A friend is at your house and wants you to steal some cough medicine from your medicine cabinet. “Your parents will never notice,” they say. Some things you or your teen might say:

  • “I can’t stand the taste of cough syrup. It's disgusting”
  • “My parents will notice. They told me that they keep an eye on all the drugs in the medicine cabinet.”
  • “Nope. Taking a lot of that will just make you throw up.”

Drunken driver

You're at a party, and the friend who was supposed to give you a ride home is drunk or high on drugs. They insist that they are fine and tell you to get in. You know that getting in the car with them would put your life at risk -- and theirs -- but you don't want to make a big scene. Some things you or your teen could say:

  • “Since I'm sober, just let me drive.”
  • “Let me see if someone else is here who hasn't been drinking and could give us a ride.”
  • “You're too drunk right now. Let's walk for a while and talk. We can figure out how to get home later.”

Free period

During a free period, a guy or girl you like suggests that you go into the woods behind school to get high. You really like this person and don't want to embarrass yourself. But you also don’t want to get high. Some things you or your teen can say:

  • “I really don't like smoking pot. It just makes me really anxious.”
  • “I’ve got a test next period, and I need to keep my head clear.”
  • “I’m exhausted. Let’s go to the convenience store and get some coffee instead.”

Weekend party

A kid at school is having a massive party this Saturday because their parents are out of town. You know that lots of people there will be drinking and getting high. A friend really wants you to go with them. You don't want to go. Some things you or your teen could say:

  • “Sorry, I'm doing this thing with my family this weekend, and there's no way I can get out of it.”
  • “All these parties are the same. Everyone gets so wasted. They're just boring.”
  • “Let's go to the movies instead.”

Whether you’re using role-playing, teachable moments, or another approach, 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 December 19, 2020



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

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, DC.

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

Parents: The Anti-Drug: “Suspect Your Teen is Using Drugs or Drinking?” “Practice Role Play.”

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

County of Santa Clara: Underage Drinking and Driving.”

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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