Substance Use Problems: How to Help Your Teen


Use of alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, and other drugs in adolescents is a major concern for parents. Preteens and teens are starting to use harmful and illegal substances at younger ages. Drinking, smoking, and drug use can affect your child's general health. They can also affect physical growth, emotional development, and school performance. You can recognize and respond to substance use by:

  • Knowing the signs of substance use.
  • Discussing substance use with your teen.
  • Getting the right treatment if your teen has an alcohol or drug use problem.

How to recognize and deal with teen substance misuse

Try the following techniques.

Is your teen using alcohol or drugs?

If you think your teen may be using substances, look for warning signs. They include:

  • Signs that suggest substance use. Watch for a decline in personal appearance. And look for other evidence of substance use, such as discarded chemical-soaked rags or drug paraphernalia.
  • Changes in peer relationships. Your teen's friends have the greatest effect on whether he or she is using substances.
  • Changes in home behaviour that are more severe than expected from teenagers, such as aggression or withdrawal.
  • School problems that show a loss of interest or lack of involvement.

Has he or she experimented?

If you think that your teen has begun to experiment with alcohol or other substances:

  • Ask about use. Find out what substances he or she has tried. Talk about what effects the substances had and how he or she feels about substance use. Listen closely to what your teen liked about using the substance and why. Your teen will be more likely to be open and truthful with you if the two of you have a close relationship. Ask your teen about peers who provided drugs and peers with whom your teen used drugs.
  • Share concerns. Talk about your concerns, not only about drug and alcohol misuse but about other problems that may be going on. For example, are there issues with school performance?
  • Review expectations. Talk with your teen about the family rules concerning substance use. Discuss the consequences of breaking the rules. If you don't want your teen to use any substances (including cigarettes and alcohol), make that clear. If you don't have a written plan for dealing with this issue, write down a plan with your teen.
  • Ask that he or she stop. Ask your teen to stop, especially if there is a strong family history of substance misuse or dependence. If your teen stops now, he or she probably will not develop a substance use problem.
  • Provide drug education. This is an important time to provide more drug information. You or your doctor may provide this. Talk about the immediate effects and consequences of using alcohol, inhalants, cigarettes, and/or other drugs. Don't talk only about long-term health problems.

Is it "getting out of hand"?

Your teen may be having problems in school, at home, with relationships, or with the law related to substance use. These difficulties point to a substance use problem. If you think your teen is using any substance regularly or daily—such as alcohol, cigarettes, inhalants, or other drugs—don't ignore it. This use is serious. It should not be denied or minimized. Frequent or regular use of a substance can quickly lead to physical or psychological dependence. Or your teen may already be dependent on the substance.

To help your teen:

  • Investigate. Look for evidence of your teen's use. Review the information on ways to identify use. (For more information, see the Is Your Child Using Alcohol or Drugs? section of the topic Alcohol and Drug Use in Young People.) If you suspect a specific drug, get other information about that drug and its effects.
  • Choose a time. Wait until he or she is not high (intoxicated) to confront your teen about using a substance. Talking to someone who is high on drugs or alcohol usually does not work. And it may make the situation worse.
  • Ask about use. Find out what substances are being used. Ask how often, in what setting, and where your teen is getting them. Your teen may be very reluctant to give you all this information.
  • Have an evaluation. Talk with a doctor about an evaluation of your teen's substance use. Your teen may need treatment. Early treatment may prevent future alcohol and drug use problems.
  • Get support. You may find it helpful to join a support group for family members of people with alcohol use problems, such as Al-Anon. There are Al-Anon meetings specifically for parents. These meetings include discussions about family effects from alcohol and other substance use. Substance misuse is a family disease. All family members are affected by it, and they need some form of help to change the ways they react to the person who misuses substances.


Current as ofMay 7, 2018

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: Patrice Burgess, MD, FAAFP - Family Medicine
Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica, MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Christine R. Maldonado, PhD - Behavioral Health

Is it an emergency?

If you or someone in your care has chest pains, difficulty breathing, or severe bleeding, it could be a life-threatening emergency. Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number immediately.
If you are concerned about a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control now at 1-800-567-8911.

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