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  • Writer's picturePanorama Psychology

A Parent's Guide to Teen Substance Use: A Relational Approach

As parents, navigating the challenges of raising teenagers can be daunting. One of the most significant concerns is the risk of substance use. This guide aims to provide you with essential information, practical advice, and supportive strategies to address and prevent teen substance use.

Understanding the Risks

Why Teens Use Substances

Teens may experiment with substances for various reasons, including:

  • Curiosity: The desire to try something new and exciting.

  • Peer Pressure: The influence of friends who use substances.

  • Stress and Emotional Struggles: Using substances to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression.

  • Rebellion: Acting out against parental or societal norms.

  • Performance Enhancement: Using substances to improve academic or athletic performance.

Understanding the reasons behind substance use is crucial for understanding and supporting teens in the right ways.

Common Substances

Common substances teens might use include:

  • Alcohol: Easily accessible and often perceived as less harmful. Sadly, alcohol abuse is normalized in our culture, including in adolescence in early adulthood. Alcohol relieves anxiety and social awkwardness in the moment, but increases anxiety and depression significantly over time.

  • Marijuana: Increasingly normalized, particularly in regions where it’s legal (like Colorado). Marijuana has been labeled as a "medicine" by some; however, regular marijuana use is associated with increased anxiety and depression. Extreme caution should be taken for teens using high-THC marijuana (sometimes called "dabs"), especially if there is a family history of mental illness or psychosis.

  • Tobacco and E-cigarettes: Fortunately, cigarettes are less common than ever. Unfortunately, vaping has now become particularly popular among teens. It is important for teens to understand that vaping carries many of the same physical health, mental health, and addictive risks as cigarettes.

  • Prescription Drugs: Misused for their perceived safety and effects. We recommend prescription drugs be monitored or locked if they are present in the home.

  • Illicit Drugs: Such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines, though less common in teens, are still a significant risk.

Recognizing the Signs

It’s crucial to recognize the signs of substance use early. Look out for:

  • Behavioral Changes: Sudden shifts in mood, increased secrecy, or changes in social circles.

  • Physical Symptoms: Bloodshot eyes, unusual smells, or lack of coordination.

  • Academic Issues: Decline in grades, missing school, or loss of interest in activities.

  • Health Problems: Frequent illness, unexplained injuries, or significant changes in weight or sleep patterns.

Communicating Effectively

Starting the Conversation

You will notice that the three keys to starting a conversation (below) are focused on fostering a positive relational experience for your teen. We recommend approaching these conversations with curiosity, concern, and openness, rather than judgment. Remember, having an open line of communication about substance use with an adult is one of the strongest protective factors for more severe issues.

  1. Choose the Right Moment: Find a calm and private time to talk without distractions.

  2. Be Open and Non-judgmental: Approach the conversation with empathy and without immediate criticism.

  3. Listen Actively: Allow your teen to share their perspective and feelings.

Key Points to Address

  • Express Concern, Not Anger: Focus on your concern for their well-being rather than punitive measures.

  • Provide Information: Share facts about the risks and consequences of substance use.

  • Set Clear Expectations: Define your family’s stance on substance use and the reasons behind it.

Prevention Strategies

Building a Strong Relationship

We believe that strong parent-teen relationships are the strongest factor in maintaining healthy relationships with substances. We understand that we cannot protect our children forever from the realities of the world, including the wide availability and temptation to use drugs/alcohol. With this understanding in mind, we can provide a supportive foundation of knowledge and skills so that our teens can make the best decisions for themselves.

  • Spend Quality Time: Engage in activities together to strengthen your bond.

  • Be Involved: Show interest in their lives, friends, and activities.

  • Encourage Open Communication: Foster an environment where your teen feels comfortable discussing their issues.

  • Trust Them: Let your teen know that you trust them and will be here for them if they make mistakes.

Establishing Rules and Consequences

There is a reason that this section is lower down in this guide. It can be tempting to approach teen substance use from the start in a punitive manner; we know that doesn't work and instead just teaches teens to be less open with their parents. For rules and consequences to work, there must be a solid relational foundation of trust and support.

  • Set Clear Boundaries: Define acceptable and unacceptable behaviors regarding substance use.

  • Consistent Consequences: Ensure that rules are enforced consistently and fairly.

  • Emphasize Safety: Having a rule that sets a strict curfew with no exceptions may not be the best idea for a teen experimenting with substance use (it may encourage drug or reckless driving). Instead, set clear rules around driving sober, riding with sober drivers, calling the parents for a ride (with no questions asked), or setting up an uber account.

Educating and Empowering

  • Teach Decision-Making Skills: Help your teen develop critical thinking and decision-making skills. Model these skills for them in your own life, and talk through important decisions with them.

  • Encourage Healthy Coping Mechanisms: Promote activities that reduce stress, such as sports, hobbies, and creative pursuits. We emphasize expression rather than suppression when it comes to coping.

Seeking Professional Help

When to Consider Professional Help

The question of when to consider professional help is a tough one. On one hand, some teenage substance use experimentation is very normal. On the other hand, even a teen engaging in normal substance exploration may benefit from having a professional to talk through these issues with. When in doubt, you can contact us to determine if meeting with an adolescent therapist or other professional is appropriate. We recommend professional support if there are:

  • Persistent Behavioral Changes: If your teen’s behavior significantly changes and doesn’t improve.

  • Health Risks: If you notice physical health problems related to substance use.

  • Academic and Social Decline: If your teen’s academic performance and social relationships deteriorate.

Types of Professional Support

  • Counseling and Therapy: Professional counseling can provide your teen with decision-making, coping strategies, and emotional support.

  • Substance Use Programs: Specialized programs can offer education, support, and treatment for more severe substance use issues.

  • Support Groups: Groups for teens and parents can provide a community of understanding and shared experiences.


Addressing teen substance use is a challenging but vital part of parenting. By staying informed, maintaining open communication, and providing a supportive environment, you can help your teen navigate these crucial years safely. Remember, you are not alone—seek support when needed, and work together as a family to overcome these challenges.

For more help, SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. 1-800-662-HELP (4357)


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