Talking About Drugs with High Schoolers

A Critical Time for Conversation

By the time teens enter high school, they have likely had many opportuni­ties to try drugs, alcohol, and/or tobacco. Even if they have resisted the temptation, they’ve probably seen their peers do it—sometimes to excess and perhaps even with serious conse­quences. In fact, they may know fellow classmates with addiction issues. You can’t choose your children’s friends— although parents have been trying for years! But you can encourage them to develop friendships with kids who do not smoke, drink, or do drugs.

How To Talk With Your High Schooler (Ages 15-18)


What they’re thinking.

Teens this age typically understand how substance use can affect unborn children, how combining drugs can be deadly, and how easy it is to go from casual use to abuse to addiction. Enforce these concepts when talking with your teenager. During the last few years of high school, teens are thinking about what their future holds, so this is a great time to keep reminding them that substance use can ruin their chances of getting into college, being accepted by the military, or being hired for certain jobs. Also, remind them that keeping the community drug free will make it a nicer place to raise a family if they decide to put down roots there.


Debating what’s legal.

An im­portant issue to discuss with your teenager (and with your preteen in middle school) is the debate over medical marijuana. Make sure your child knows that “smoked marijuana” has not withstood the rigors of science—it is not medi­cine and it is not safe. Marijuana is harmful and it is illegal.


Granting independence—with love.

Children this age want independence, but you need to set limits. Set curfews and other expec­tations for your child’s behavior, establish appropriate consequences for breaking rules, and consistently follow through with enforcement. Finally, tell children often that you care about them and that they are important to you. Show them you mean it by regularly spending one-on-one time with them. Developing this strong bond will make your child more likely to come to you with questions or concerns about drugs, alcohol, or other sensitive issues—encourage that openness. Remember, even as children are pushing for indepen­dence, they need someone they love and respect to be involved. They need YOU!


Know what’s trendy.

Talk with your teen about what you learn here and elsewhere about the dangers of abusing prescription drugs. Non-medical use of prescription medications to get high is rising dramatically. A Pill Identification Database is a good way to help you identify some prescription drugs, but other medications become trendy at times, and other drugs may be specific to your community that aren’t shown. Routinely ask your teen which prescription drugs are an issue at school, in friends’ homes, and at parties.


Drinking or drug use while driving.

As teens begin to drive and become even more independent, establish clear rules about drinking or using drugs while driving. Ask for their input; then develop a written agreement that spells out expectations for behavior and specific consequences for breaking the rules. For example, you may want to limit the hours your teen can drive and grant (or deny) permission to transport younger siblings. Whether or not your city or state restricts the number of passengers in your teen’s car, you can do so as part of your written agreement. You and your young driver should sign the agreement to give it more credibility, then keep it in a public area of the home to serve as a constant reminder of what is expected. Here are a few other examples you might include.

  • I will not drink alcohol and drive.
  • I will drive only from ____ a.m. until ____ p.m.
  • I will not stay at a party where alcohol is served or drugs are present.
  • I will not ride in a car with a driver who has been drinking or using drugs.


The “at home” party.

Some parents mistakenly believe “My teens and their friends are safer drinking at home because they aren’t out driving while intoxicated.” Even if state law permits teens to drink at home at certain ages under a parent’s supervision, it doesn’t mean you should let them. Doing so may be setting a dangerous example—essentially signaling you approve of what may be illegal consumption of alcohol in other settings. And if you give your teen permission to host a party in your home, never supply alcohol to your child’s friends. Not only is it illegal, but you may well be held liable for anything that happens to the minors and any damage they cause— including what happens when they leave the premises. Make sure two responsible adults are present to monitor the festivities in your home.


Continue to praise and encourage teenagers for the things they do well and the positive choices they make.

Knowing you are proud of them can motivate them to maintain a drug-free lifestyle and to serve as a positive role model for younger siblings.

Parenting doesn’t stop when a child goes to college. Find out if there is a program during freshman orientation that educates students about campus policies, and health and wellness or prevention programs related to alcohol and other drug use. If so, attend with your child, or at least be familiar with the name of the person who is responsible for campus counseling or prevention programs. Learn about the college’s standards of conduct. Federal regulations require any institution of higher education receiv­ing federal funding (most of them do)to have a drug prevention program that prohibits, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students on cam­pus property or while participating in its activities. Colleges must enforce these standards or risk serious consequences, including loss of federal student financial assistance. Ask about and under­stand the college’s parental notification policy for standards of conduct viola­tions.

Make sure your child understands the penalties for underage drinking, public drunkenness, illicit drug use, using a fake ID, driving under the influ­ence of drugs or alcohol, assault, and other alcohol-related offenses. Make certain your child understands how alcohol and other illicit drug use and abuse can be associated with date rape, violence, and academic failure, as well as have consequences after graduation.

This is also an important time to stress the importance of the responsible consumption of alcohol for when your college-age children are of legal drink­ing age, and if they choose to drink.

Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Department of Education, Growing Up Drug Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention, Washington, D.C. 2012.

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