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How To Talk To Teens About A Parent’s Substance Use

Teen Health

How To Talk To Teens About A Parent’s Substance Use

Father talking with his son

How To Talk To Teens About A Parent’s Substance Use

Talking to teens about family substance use is difficult, whether a parent’s or sibling’s. Without the full understanding of what is happening to a loved one, however, we can’t further the process of healthy communication and healthy living. Family dysfunction can only thrive in silence.

By utilizing these guidelines, you can help your teen to understand and cope with the substance use disorder that is harming the family.

Step One: What To Talk About

Open up the subject by giving some basic information to cover the following subjects:

What is addiction

It doesn’t happen overnight. Explain the stages and disease process that occurs with increased use and how substances and alcohol affect brain function. Explaining basic addiction facts and how behavior changes, helps you to educate yourself. Talk with teens about family substance use as if it were cancer or any other progressive disease in an educated, non-judgmental manner. Education is the power to see that addictions are quite common, that you are not alone, and that you can help both the user and the rest of the family.

What are the consequences of addictions

Looking at common consequences helps to frame this information as a part of the addiction picture. This helps teens understand that consequences need to be provided for addictive behaviors, and that consequences are not punishment. Talking about consequences, like traffic accidents, falls, overdoses, arrests, getting fired, losing friends, and financial difficulties help to focus the substance users on their behavior and what must change.

What recovery opportunities are available

By looking at the hope of recovery for family substance use, adolescents can have a sense that much can be done to help the loved one who’s ready for treatment, or already in treatment. Discuss with them 12-step meetings, sponsors, other support groups, or individual or group counseling, intensive outpatient counseling, or inpatient treatment programs for the addict. Let them know that they can be a part of their own recovery through individual counseling, 12-step meetings, support groups, or family therapy that can occur with or without the addict present.

What specific information can be shared about partner’s or child’s addiction

Acknowledge what the kids have seen and experienced with family substance use (such as a parent coming home from work drunk, a sister getting expelled for getting caught smoking pot on her lunch hour). Do not keep these events secret because that maintains family dysfunction and in reality, your teen already has seen the behaviors and may know more than you do (especially about a sibling). However, there are some behaviors that may be inappropriate to talk about – healthy boundaries takes precedence over telling all. If you wonder about this, talk to a therapist about these boundaries.

Step Two: When to talk about family substance use

Talk when you are calm, when there is a quiet time with no distractions. During a fight or the aftermath of a fight is not a good time to rationally discuss the issues facing the family. Don’t lash out with information, for example, while  you’re threatening the loved one, or the loved one is screaming back. Times of high drama are not ideal for family meetings. Also, be open any time the teen might want to discuss this, and perhaps set up times for safe talk.

Step Three: How to have the conversation

First of all be calm and listen. While this is a very difficult and painful subject, it needs to be addressed in a quiet and non-judgmental  way. The whole family needs to feels safe exploring it. After the subject is raised, then you listen…listen…and listen some more. As always, the focus on inappropriate behaviors  caused by substance use disorder that the partner or adolescent is demonstrating, not the person. This also includes a focus on how they family can aid in the recovery of the substance user (if appropriate) as well as recovery for the family itself.

Addictions are difficult but you can be a positive example for your teenager/s regarding empowering, healthy ways to help them cope as well as how to help your entire family to deal with difficult situations. Remember that taking action is a powerful way to help your teen to go beyond the struggles into embracing recovery.

If your teens need help coping with a parent’s Substance Use Disorder, check out Al-anon family groups for teen support.

If you need help for someone’s addiction, visit Recovery Guidance for a free and safe resource to locate addiction and mental health professionals near you.



Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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