Parents and other family members have an enormous effect on the emotional health of teenagers. The teenage years are normally challenging even when kids are raised in well-adjusted, communicative families that foster honesty and a healthy self-esteem. Teenagers naturally struggle with issues of self-identity and rebellion, burgeoning sexuality, fluctuating hormones, and evolving brain function. The more educated parents are about what is happening to their teenagers, the easier it will be to handle any problems that may arise, particularly drug and alcohol abuse.

For many kids, drug and alcohol use is a fact of life in their teen years. It is one of the ways they express their individuality, daring, curiosity, and rebellion. The most effective and most important skill parents can have to help their teenagers steer clear of drug and alcohol abuse is COMMUNICATION. In fact, lack of communication skills is the number one reason why teenagers initially turn to drugs and alcohol. If your family has difficulty communicating, your teenager is at risk! Do whatever you can to improve communication between family members, and do it as soon as you can. Consider individual and/or family counseling; see your priest, minister, rabbi, etc.; sign up for a seminar; read books – just figure out what will work best for your family’s particular situation and then take action!

There are things you can do to help keep your teenagers off drugs. These tips are meant as broad, general advice:

Let your teenagers know that you love them. While it may be obvious to you that you love your kids, your teenager needs to hear it frequently. This age group often struggles with a lack of confidence and the anxiety that naturally arises when your inner self is constantly changing. You need to hug your kids and tell them you love them all time. Let them know that you respect them as individuals and that your love is unconditional.

Teach, don’t criticize. Instead of getting angry or judgmental with your teenager, try describing options and alternative ways of doing things.

Learn how to communicate in a productive way. It doesn’t work in the long-term to simply “lay down the law” because, without explanation, teenagers tend to naturally rebel. Learn how to explain why you want them to do certain things and not do other things. In other words, learn how to have dialogues with your teenagers where respect is shown on both sides. Listen to them and don’t interrupt. It’s the most effective way to really get to know your teenagers. Knowing how to listen creates the necessary trust that will allow your teen to come to you when they need advice.

Talk about drugs and alcohol. This may seem obvious, but it is often hard for parents because they think of this conversation as a one-time event that must make a huge impact. It should be an on-going conversation and the conversation should be frequent. Use incidents that happen at your teen’s school or with their friends to begin a discussion, and bring up the subject of substance abuse at times when conversation naturally occurs, such as at the dinner table or in the car. Remember – listening to what your teenagers are saying to you is just as important as what you have to communicate to them. The more give-and-take there is in any conversation, the more effective it will be.

Learn about the most current drugs. The drugs that are popular and easily available change all the time. Sometimes the drugs may be “club drugs” or “designer drugs” (and these change all the time), and sometimes teens may be getting high on products they find around the house (glue, paint thinner, etc.) Educate yourself about the different drugs and learn to spot the signs of use. But keep in mind that teenagers often experience mood swings and moodiness that has nothing to do with drug use, so it’s helpful to learn to spot the physical symptoms. If you suspect your teenager is using drugs or is drinking, don’t approach the problem as an attack. Ask your teen to sit down and talk to you, and instead of expressing your anger or panic, let them know you are worried about them. Ask them to tell you what’s going on instead of making threats or demands.

Be involved in your teenager’s life. Interest and involvement with your teenager on a daily basis creates a bond that makes honesty in communication much easier. The better you know your teenager, the easier it will be to talk about difficult issues and to spot signs of any problems. It is also important that you supervise your teen’s activities; try to get to know their friends and find out where they go to hang out. Remember to be the parent, though, and not your teenager’s friends. Kids need boundaries to feel safe and to learn what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.

Let your teenagers know that you love them and are looking out for their safety. Do whatever you can to communicate with your children – it may be the key to raising a drug-free teenager.