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Time to Talk

by Patrick Bailey

He started out using alcohol as a teenager. Some years later, he turned to opioids following a “severe workplace injury.” Opioid dependence led to heroin addiction, which led to issues at work and periods of homelessness. Brian Bishop overdosed last year. He left behind a mother who loves him deeply and who still wonders why addiction ripped apart the life of her son and her family.


Teen drug abuse is a major problem. When should you talk to your teens about drugs, and how can you help your teen if he or she is already addicted?


Drug and Alcohol Abuse Among Teens

Youth between the ages of 11 and 21 commonly experiment with drugs and alcohol. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that approximately 2 million juveniles–between the ages of 12 and 17–were using illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogens. In addition, over 2 million adolescents consumed alcohol, and over 1 million had a history of binge drinking.


Why do teens turn to drugs and alcohol? The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has identified at least five reasons:


  • Peer pressure: Your teen’s peer group may be using drugs, and your teen thinks that doing the same will help him or her “fit in.”

  • To get high: Most people use an illicit substance for the high or intense sense of euphoria that it gives them. Teens may use for the same end result.

  • Self-medicating: Teens dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder may use drugs to ease the pain that these disorders cause. For example, Dr. Amir Levine has observed that many adolescents dealing with anxiety disorders may self-medicate with marijuana rather than seek out standard medical therapy for anxiety.

  • To excel in school: Teens may turn to drugs like stimulants to “enhance or improve their performance” in a competitive academic environment.

  • To see what drug use is like: The adolescent brain has difficulty understanding that actions in the present can have far-reaching consequences. Teens also tend to think that they are invincible and that bad things happen only to others. Put these two aspects of adolescent thinking together, and you have the perfect setup for drug experimentation.


You may be thinking that you and your teens live in a good community. Your kids attend the best schools. They are surrounded by supportive family and friends. There is no way that they could ever come in contact with let alone abuse illicit substances. Unfortunately–no matter where you live, no matter what schools your children attend, and no matter how respectful your teen’s friends seem–kids have easy access to drugs. Adolescents can find opioids in the medicine cabinet in your home or the home of a friend or family member. Inhalants like spray paint and hair spray are also easily accessible. Club drugs like K2 and kratom can be purchased with a simple Internet search. Teens are speaking out about how easy it is to get illegal drugs like heroin from their peers. As 17-year-old Brigit Manz explained, “It’s everywhere. It’s right down the street. You can do it in 45 minutes. You can go down to your neighbor’s, you make four to five phone calls, and he knows this girl who knows this guy who knows her cousin who knows her brother that has [the drugs].”


The Best Time to Talk to Your Teen

Believe it or not, the best time to talk to your teen is before he or she becomes a teenager. Research performed by NIDA has found that substance abuse by adolescents and young adults can actually be prevented before a child reaches the age of 8. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids offers suggestions on how to have the talk about drugs with children as young as two years old.


If your child is already a teenager, however, it’s not too late! There will be pivotal points during your child’s teenage years when discussing drug use will be especially meaningful such as just before they start high school or when they start making new friends. You can still make an impact on your teen’s choice to abuse or abstain from drugs:


  • Make it clear that drug use is not tolerated in your home, and set consequences for drug use. Teens are less likely to abuse drugs “if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules.”

  • Discuss the negative effects that drug abuse has in the short-term. For example, when discussing tobacco abuse, focus on the fact that cigarettes stain teeth, make it difficult to play sports because of how they affect breathing, and make it less likely that people will want to spend time with you. Tell your teen about the American Cancer Society survey that found that “eight in ten boys and seven in ten girls aged twelve to seventeen said they wouldn’t date someone who smoked.”

  • Talk about addiction. Very few people experiment with drugs thinking that they will get addicted, and teens need to know that the risk for addiction is very real.


What to Do if Your Teen is Addicted

Even when parents do all that they can to protect their children, young people can still develop an addiction. Here is what you can do if you suspect or know that your teen is battling drug addiction:


  • See a doctor: A pediatrician or addiction medicine physician can screen your teen for drug abuse and determine whether he or she would benefit from treatment.

  • Get treatment for your teen: There are various options for rehab for young people. Your doctor may recommend that your teen enroll in an outpatient clinic, or your doctor may suggest that you seek help at an inpatient drug rehab for teenagers. There are specialists who can help you determine what rehab is best for your teen and how you can pay for rehab.


As a parent, you have one of the hardest jobs in the world. If your teen is battling addiction, please reach out for help.

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