Preventing Teen Substance Use Disorders

June 21, 2005 at 3:20 pm  •  Posted in Healthy Parenting by  •  0 Comments

By Sara Schwab, MSW, LICSW

What Can Parents Do?
How to Talk to Teens About Substances
Warning Signs of Substance Abuse



While the teenage years can be an especially trying time for many youth, generally, teens pull through this time and grow into happy, healthy adults. However, some teens develop a number of problems during their teen years that they then must contend with throughout their adulthood. One such problem is substance abuse disorders. Research shows that many adults with a substance abuse disorder developed their patterns of use during their teenage years.

Many teens will experiment with some form of substance such as alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, etc. However, not all teens who experiment with drugs become addicted. Indeed, most do not. However, for those who do become addicted, they face a long, challenging road ahead. Therefore, preventing teens from using and abusing substances is crucial.

What Can Parents Do?

So what can parents do to help prevent substance use disorders? First and foremost talk to your kids about substances. According to the youth substance abuse prevention Web site, a key predictor of whether or not teens decide to use substances is knowing that their parents will be disappointed in them if they do. Unfortunately, many parents avoid talking with their teens because they do not know what to say.

Fortunately, the Internet, your local library, and social workers who have a background in working with substance use disorders may be able help you learn how to initiate a conversation and can teach you what to say to your teen. If you are unsure of how to bring up the topic, you can use television advertisements and discussions from school as ways to introduce the subject.

How to Talk to Teens About Substances

When talking to your kids, remember to ask them questions and encourage them to ask questions. Concentrate on really listening to your teen. While it will be hard, remember to act calmly if your teen tells you something shocking. Usually kids know when they have made a mistake and by talking with them in a nonjudgmental manner, you can help them learn from their mistakes, just as you have learned from your mistakes. Ask more questions and use “reflecting” statements in which you paraphrase what your teen has told you and make sure you understand what they have said and how they feel. Remember to remain calm. If you react harshly to shocking information, your teen will be much less likely to confide in you in the future.

Another thing you can do is encourage positive habits such as eating well and exercising. Provide your teen with opportunities to get involved in healthy hobbies such as playing music, sports, or academics. And set up regular times to talk with your teen, both when things are going smoothly and when they are not, in order to get both of you in the habit of open discussion. All of these things will reduce the likelihood of your teen using substances.

Warning Signs of Substance Abuse

Unfortunately, prevention is not always enough. Parents need to monitor their teens and be aware of possible indicators of substance use. The following is a list of signs and symptoms which are POSSIBLE signs of a substance use problem although they also signal a variety of other problems.

  • Change in health, grooming
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Drop in school performance/attendance
  • Legal problems
  • Items or money missing from home
  • Decrease interested in socialization, family, etc
  • Not bringing home friends, new friends
  • Risky sexual behaviors
  • Increased requests for money, or poor reasons for money spent
  • Unexplained Injuries
  • Illness, shakiness, or tremors
  • Swollen hands or feet
  • Depression, poor concentration
  • Susceptibility to illness, or fatigue
  • Irritability, agitation, paranoia
  • Impaired short-term memory

If your teen shows some of these signs, you should take him or her to see a professional such as a social worker. A social worker with experience in dealing with adolescent substance abuse issues can help by working with your teen and family to get treatment and to put a plan in place to help reduce the likeliness of continued use. Look for social workers with experience using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Motivational Enhancement Therapy as these are shown to be particularly helpful in treating substance use disorders.

Again, there are things that you can do, starting now, to help your teenager. Remember, the most important thing you can do is talk openly with your kids about substances, make sure they know that you disapprove of them using substances, and that you are willing to listen and to help.

NOTE: Some information in this Tip Sheet was found on and Please visit these sites as they provide information on a number of important topics including how to talk with you teens about substances.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Social Workers or its members.

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