Robert A. Regal, Ph.D       

How to talk to your Adolescent about Drugs and Alcohol    

The Challenge Parents Face

One of the most challenging dilemmas faced by parents today is how to deal with the prospect, and for some, the knowledge, of drug and alcohol use by their adolescent child.  Concerns over this issue are well-founded.  Adolescent alcohol and drug usage have been climbing since the 1990s, and recent survey statistics reveal that 40% of 8th graders, 66% of 10th graders and 75% of 12th graders admit to occasional drinking.  Furthermore, 11% of 8th graders, 22% of 10th graders and 29% of 12th graders admit to engaging in heavy episodic drinking. (The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1999)  Statistics confirming the dangers of adolescent drug and alcohol use merely confirm the obvious.  The dilemma parents face is how to effectively speak to their children about this issue.  Advice “from experts” ranges from being strictly prohibitive and clear about the dangers of drug and alcohol use, to recommending a cautiously accepting attitude that stresses the need for open communication and safety.  However, the experts do agree that this is not a topic that parents should avoid.  

Often, the choice of how to approach this topic is complicated by the personal histories of the parents themselves.  “Do as I say, not as I did” is a very hard value to sell without a personal history that dramatically demonstrates the necessity of this rule.  Parents who drank and did drugs in their youth, and may now drink “socially,” are likely to appear hypocritical to teenagers if they now trumpet the dangers of behaviors they themselves engaged in when they were their children’s age.  Many parents simply choose to lie; however, the risk of lying is obvious, for if the truth is discovered, as it often is, all credibility is lost and credibility is one of the cornerstones of an effective parent/child relationship.

The capacity to fully control your son or daughter’s behavior begins to erode in early adolescence, if not sooner.  This is actually a healthy aspect of a child’s development.  They are struggling to emerge into the individuals they are to become.  Communication is critical – on this there is no debate.  The capacity to develop and maintain an effective and honest parent/child dialogue on drugs, alcohol, relationships, sex, school, and so on, is unquestionably the best way to reduce the risk of harm to your teenager.  This does not mean that you become your child’s best friend.  It means that you responsibly and lovingly remain the parent to your child.  Your history does not need to be an open book.  It should also not be fictionalized for your child’s consumption. Life has taught you important lessons that can help you understand, empathize, and guide your children.  If you engaged in behavior that you clearly do not want your children to replicate, my advice is to be honest… to a point.  You can use your experience to speak to them with understanding regarding their pressures, curiosity, and youth.  Your history can make you far more credible; however, you also must be careful to avoid coming off as a phony, i.e.,  “Do as I say, not as I did.”  Help your children understand the very real dangers by presenting them realistically.  Let them understand that their safety is paramount and help them learn ways to remain safe.  If complete abstinence from drug and alcohol use is unrealistic in your community, maintaining a healthy dialogue with your teenager is your single most valuable tool.  Threats and punitive consequences will have only marginal impact on your teenagers’ choices.  This means that, as your child’s independence increases, your need to communicate effectively becomes ever more critical.

Communicating with your Adolescent--Some do’s and don’ts:  

Adolescents often turn to their friends for advice and council.  This is normal, but it can also be perilous depending upon the friends they choose.  Although there are no simple prescriptions to follow – no one-size-fits-all way to gain your child’s confidence - there are basic guidelines that can maximize your chances for communicative success. 

1.  Be prepared to listen, not lecture.  Adolescents are no different than adults in that effective communication requires that each participant feel that what they say and what they think is important to the listener.  Parents are all too often ready to interject their own opinions into discussions with their children before they have listened - really listened.  For many parents, this will be a very difficult task to embrace, for most parents think they listen, but often their children will disagree.  Ask them - in the end it is the only way to know, and on this issue, their opinion is the only one that matters.

2.   Give them a role in decision-making.  Do not relinquish your role as a parent, but avoid being an autocrat.  As your child grows through adolescence, their need to feel respected for their individuality grows exponentially.  There are few decisions that your adolescent will face that you will feel more qualified to make, however the more you impose your solutions, the less they will seek your advice.  Although some choices may not be open for debate and compromise, some must be, and in time, more will be under your adolescents’ control.  It is critical that parents recognize that this inevitable shift from dependency to independence occurs primarily in the pre- to post-adolescent period. To maximize effective communicative capacity, parents need to gradually increase decision-making authority to their children.  Know your child and know when to say no, but keep in mind that your capacity to control is fleeting.  Your goal should be to develop effective communications so that when your control becomes limited, their appreciation for how to maturely exercise it is well established. 

3.   Recognize the decreasing value of punishment.  The purpose of punishing a child for misbehavior is to reduce the chance of their doing it again under similar circumstances.  However, when punishment no longer achieves this end, it becomes counter-productive. I am in no way advocating the abolition of necessary limits. Adolescents need to understand that their behavior has to conform to acceptable standards.  When your adolescent child “breaks the rules,” carefully consider consequences that are meaningful and are going to help change future behavior.  To impose punitive consequences that have yielded no results in the past only serves to worsen communication and feed resentment.  “Meaningful consequences” are achievable when parents talk to their children about what is expected of them and what is not.  Adolescents need to be engaged in this conversation and parents need to modify their expectations whenever it is reasonable to do so.  When parents and children discuss these issues, consequences for failed behavior should be discussed and mutually agreed upon as well.  Often, adolescents will suggest consequences that are more severe than their parents would have chosen.   It is important to note that discussing and agreeing upon reasonable limits and consequences is a powerful and positive step forward in the evolution of the communication between you and your child. 

4.   Don’t try to be your child’s best friend.  Your role as a parent is vital and it is appropriately different from being your child’s “best friend.”  Adolescents need to grow apart from the identities that have been stamped upon them in childhood.  This is, in a nutshell, the purpose of adolescence.  Parents who become their child’s best friend either lose their adult personas when attempting to identify with their children’s peer group or become so enmeshed with their child that they impair their child’s ability to develop his or her own identity.  Your ability to represent adult values is part of the job responsibilities of parenthood, and your ability to shepherd your child from dependence to independence is another of the job requirements.  When you become his or her best friend, you lose your capacity to fulfill one of the critical missions of parenthood.  The parent who identifies with their adolescents’ peers can no longer be an effective adult model.  The child who identifies with his or her parent as their best friend is deprived of the ability to find and form their own identity.  Effective communication with your adolescent requires that everyone’s role in the family be respected.  As your children grow, the dynamics of your relationships will change to accommodate their maturing roles.  However, your role as a parent is and always needs to be different from that of a friend.  

5.   Find the time/make the time to talk.  You need to be present in order to communicate.  In this busy world of working moms and dads, kids often have little face-to-face time with their parents.  Getting to know your child means spending time with them - sharing activities, eating meals, hanging out at home.  The comfort and the confidence of a familiar relationship is an essential element for effective communications.  Don’t allow yourself to be an alien figure in your child’s life.  The more involved and available you are, the more likely he or she will turn to you as a source of support and council.  Adolescents are notorious for being private.  Parents will often note that their alienation is not the result of their non-presence; it is the result of their child’s retreat into the world of their friends, their music, their room.  While this is clearly true, it does not follow that your presence is not needed.  Being available and being a part of your child’s day permits you to have time to share, fleeting as it may seem.  These points of connection are essential.

Critical Talking Points:

1.   Peer Pressure:  Any discussion regarding drug or alcohol use needs to include the influence of peer pressure.  In many communities, acceptance into “high status” groups requires drug and alcohol use.  It is often viewed as a mark of independence from parental control and as a sign of a teenager’s willingness to accept risk.  Refusal to engage in this behavior sets your child apart from the club formed by those who do -- and that club is often the overwhelming majority of your teenagers’ peer group.   Abstinence carries with it a very high price.  Parents need to fully appreciate how powerful peer pressure is and be willing to discuss this from a perspective that reflects this understanding.  
Part of this discussion should include the different groups that make up your child’s grade (peer group) and values and interests that each group represents.  Understand that there should be a discussion, and not a directive regarding which group he or she should join.  When a conversation becomes a command, communication ends.  If your adolescent admires groups that do not engage in risky behavior, the discussion will flow easily.  When the group your child admires includes some (or many) who routinely engage in risky behavior, then the conversation is clearly more difficult and critical.  Try to help your child appreciate the risks of too closely associating with the riskier members of the group.  Help your child understand how he or she can be a part of a group, but not necessarily required to partake of all of the things that some of the members may be engaged in.  Emphasize that maturity involves making reasoned and independent decisions.  Being cool is never the same as being mindless.

2.  Safety:  When talking to your adolescent about drug or alcohol use, safety concerns need to be addressed whether or not he or she engages in this behavior.

Never get into a car if a driver has used ANY drugs or alcohol. 
  The greatest risk of disability and death for teenagers is the result of automobile
accidents caused by young intoxicated drivers.  It is important to stress to your child  that impaired driving skills occur at minimal levels of consumption.  Their friend may  appear to be sober and insist that he or she is fine, but alcohol or drug use at any  level impairs response time and judgment.  The irreversible effects of  these  preventable “accidents” are devastating at all levels.

If your child is with someone who appears to be very sick, they should call
                  and get help.   

                                             Signs of alcohol poisoning include

                            -Mental confusion, stupor, unable to arouse the person
                         -No response to pinching the skin
                         -Vomiting while sleeping
                        -Slowed breathing (less than 8 breaths per minute)
                        -Irregular breathing (10 or more seconds between breaths)

         If at all in doubt – call 911 and stay with the victim and prevent him/her 
                  from choking on their vomit.  This can prevent a death.

If you know or suspect that your adolescent is using drugs or alcohol, 
                  discuss the need for them to know when enough is enough. 
                  Talk about the dangers of binging.  Make sure that your child knows that “getting     blitzed” is not only physically perilous, but it also severely impairs their capacity to judge and reason.  Help them understand that the consequences of  impaired judgment can oftentimes be fatal.  Every community has its own tragic stories to tell about teens and substance abuse. National statistics are helpful, but stories from your own and neighboring communities will have a far greater impact.   If you don’t know these stories, do some research.   This is also a time to share stories from your own life experience.  Don’t embellish, just be honest.   The more personal the story, the more powerful its impact. 

3.  Self-Image:  The image that your adolescent has of him or herself is often the driving force behind the decisions they make.  Helping them talk about the way they see themselves can provide critical insights into the directions they are likely to take.  Their likes, dislikes, fears and fantasies are all a part of what makes them choose to do what they do.  The better your child feels about him or herself, the more capable he or she will be to make healthy and safe decisions.  It is important to help your child find aspects of their being that they feel proud of.  Not every child can be the most beautiful or the most handsome kid in their grade.  Similarly, not every child can be a stand-out scholar or athlete.  It should also be noted that not every scholar, athlete or beauty is free from drug and alcohol usage. Self-confident children are not necessarily the school stand-outs.  They are young people who are capable of feeling good about who they are.  Self-confident kids engage in life in ways that are consistent with the values they hold for themselves. To this end:  1) help your adolescent identify what his/her values are and; 2) support him/her in doing those things that reflect those values.   This is the best way to help your child develop a strong and positive self-image. 

To Contact Dr. Regal:  Call 914-347-4797 or e-mail