How to talk to your teen about: Alcohol and drugs

Not all teenagers are getting drunk and high all the time (take a deep breath). Research (Youth 2012 survey) tells us that young people are actually smoking, drinking and doing drugs less now than they did in the past, and that’s good news. However this stuff still exists in schools, at parties, and potentially in a cupboard at your house. So how do we help our kids to grow up with healthy attitudes about drugs and alcohol?

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Why do young people do it?

Think back to the first time you tried alcohol and ask yourself why you tried it. You might come up with all sorts of answers – maybe you thought you would laugh lots, or that you’d be better at dancing, or maybe you thought drinking a shandy with your grandma would make you feel like a grown-up.

What we do know is that there are three main reasons young people are tempted to get involved with drugs and alcohol – friends, fun and feelings. Understanding these and helping your kid develop healthy ways to meet these needs is one of the best things that you can do as a parent.


One of the biggest needs young people have is the need to belong to something. This means that young people will do almost anything to be accepted. They might start talking differently, change the way they dress or have way too many beers at that first party just to fit in. Often what is driving this need to fit in is actually a fear of rejection. Young people need to learn that their friends don’t live with the consequences of their choices, they do.


Teenagers grow up in New Zealand overhearing people tell stories about the crazy antics they got up to on the weekend, and often those stories involve alcohol or drugs. Stories like, “Yeah man, it was crazy we all decided to go swimming in the bath,” or, “We played a game called ‘Who can put the road cone on top of the tree’.”

Those stories may seem like silly teenage antics to you, but they can create an insatiable fear of missing out in young people. In fact, many young people end up believing that you can’t have fun unless you are drunk.


It’s easy to forget that as teenagers grow up physically, they are also developing emotionally. During the teenage years most of us have our first experience of the big feelings that life has to offer. Feelings like love, heartbreak, disappointment, humiliation or low self-worth.

Many young people find themselves experiencing these feelings, and some are too embarrassed to talk to their parents about it. Some end up using drugs or alcohol as a way to run away from these big feelings. Isn’t it interesting that we find it so easy to get help when we are physically hurt, but we find it so much harder to get help when we are hurting emotionally?

How do I help my young person make healthy choices about drugs and alcohol?

Help them belong to good things

Young people are experts at saying they are bored and looking at screens. The apathy they can appear to have about joining a sports team, or a youth group, or auditioning for the school choir is more about their fear of being rejected than their lack of desire to belong to something.

So do whatever is in your power to create opportunities for your kids to belong to positive groups. It will be worth it even if it is hard to get out of bed to take them to sports on Saturday. Even if you might not want to take them to youth group on a Thursday night (I mean you are tired from work, right?), it is worth it, if it means they belong to something positive.

Teach them how to have fun without drugs and alcohol

As your teenager starts talking less and grunting more and eating all of the baked beans, it can be easy to think that they don’t even want to have fun anymore. But your teenager does want to have fun, so continue to give them opportunities to have fun as part of the family. Things like giving you a bad haircut, a scavenger hunt, singing karaoke terribly, pranking their siblings, op-shopping, holidays, fishing, hunting, watching live comedy, going to concerts or festivals.

And while they might fold their arms, roll their eyes and scoff, somewhere on the inside they are learning that life can actually be fun without drugs and alcohol.

Keep the conversation going

If you only have one goal as a parent, make it this – keep the conversation going. One of the first symptoms of any relationship breaking down is a breakdown in communication.

Young people experience so many new emotions in the teen years, and they often only have their teenage tools to understand them with. The point of keeping the conversation going isn’t to tell them what you think. It’s to try and see their world through their eyes. But the crazy thing is, if you do this well, they will want to know what their world looks like through your eyes.

So be prepared to make conversations happen. Go into conversation-friendly situations (when you are in the car, sitting around the table, or you have them trapped in the trolley at the supermarket) armed with good questions to find out who your young person is becoming and how they feel about their world.

If the conversation has broken down, then do something to start it again – go on a date with them, or go away for the weekend. Make yourself vulnerable so that they can be vulnerable, because you are not going to be able to help them navigate their world if you are not actually involved in their world.

Communicate your expectations

Once you have listened well, you will have the opportunity to communicate your expectations. Here’s a tip – work out what your expectations are before you try and explain them. If you are parenting with a spouse or partner, it is also important to talk to your parenting teammate to make sure you both agree on said expectations.

Just remember, if you set your expectations too high, your teenager is more likely to find sneaky ways to do the things you don’t want them to do. Set them too low and you could be putting them in risky situations they are not ready to handle.

But remember, you cannot protect your kid from everything, and you do need to teach them how to navigate the world by themselves, otherwise they will never leave home – and you do not want that.

Help them find creative ways to say no

No one likes saying no, but we all find ourselves in situations where we need to say it. Solution? Brainstorm with your teenager creative ways to say no without losing face.

  • “I’ve already had my share today so I’m full.”
  • “I’m actually an undercover cop and I could arrest you.”
  • “Nah, I’m okay. My mum would kill me anyway.”

Now, don’t take this too far. Don’t get dressed up as a teenage girl and offer your child drugs to see if they will use one of your witty ways of saying no. They will not think that’s cool. Especially if you do it in front of their friends, and if your name is Barry. But do spend 10 minutes coming up with lines they can use to say no, if and when someone offers them drugs or alcohol.

Create an agreement

Young people occasionally learn from the mistakes of others. However at some point in life, most of us learn from making our own mistakes. (No one wants their child to be at parties drinking so much that they get nicknamed ‘Drunky McDrunkface’).

But it is also important that you talk about this scenario with your young person. The worst thing that could happen is them getting a bit too drunk and being so worried they would be in so much trouble if they called you, that they decide it would be better to just not make the call. You want your teen to know that if they are in a dangerous situation, you will do anything to get them out of it.

Create an agreement so they understand that even if they have made a mistake, you will come and pick them up, no questions asked, wherever they are, at whatever time, and you will deal with your disappointment and the consequences later. Having a code word that they can use to enact this agreement is also a good idea. So if they text you and say CODE WORD, you will know that they need help now. (Please note – ‘code word’ is a horrible code word).

Unconditional love

It may seem like young people care more about what their friends think about them than what you think about them, but that isn’t really what research tells us. Young people are desperate to hear again and again and again that you love them no matter what. The Youth 2012 Survey also tells us that 50 percent of young people said that the reason that they didn’t drink alcohol was because they didn’t want to disappoint their parents.

Your kids want to know that you care about their choices. But what they want to know even more is that you will love them even if they make mistakes. Your opinion of their behaviour is interesting to them, but your opinion of them as a person is the most valuable gift you have to offer. So tell your kids what they mean to you as often as you can.

Live a life worth copying

Lastly, all of our parents told us what their opinions about alcohol were, but we learnt way more from watching how they lived than what they told us. So be honest with yourself for a second – do you want your kid to have the same relationship with drugs and alcohol that you do?

If you know that you have unhealthy attitudes or habits related to alcohol, then one of the best gifts that you could give your kids is to get healthier yourself. That is the best lesson you could ever teach your kids about drugs and alcohol.

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

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