Here’s the good news:

Most teens don’t use substances like drugs and alcohol. For example, in Colorado, 4 out of 5 high schoolers make the decision not to use marijuana and over 9 in 10 choose not to use other illegal substances. Yet, as parents and caregivers we often worry about them making the right choice.

The research suggests that teens are less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors when they feel comfortable going to their parents with their questions and worries, and when they know their parents will be there to listen – and not judge.

Even though the best thing you can do is to just be there for them when they need you, it can still feel a little uncomfortable or worse, scary.

But don’t worry. You’ve already completed one of the hardest steps. You’re taking time out of your busy day to be here to learn how to be there for them. (Go you!)

While you can’t always control where or how the conversation happens, the first thing you can do is be ready to have it.

Here are some suggestions to help you feel more prepared to have the conversation:

Build your confidence by getting the facts

Knowing what your teen knows about different substances can help you listen and engage with them. Explore these resources for a crash course on the substances that can take teens off track: 

Review these tips for how to be a good listener. 

Start having the conversation with your teen early

The sooner you show them that you’re open to talking about drugs and alcohol, the sooner they will come to you if anything comes up. (And they will come to you eventually!)

Keep the conversation positive 

Help your teen see all the possibilities in front of them and encourage them to make choices that help them achieve their goals. Ask them questions like, “How might using that substance affect accomplishing your goals?”

Suggest that they can be a role model too. Peers, younger students and siblings look up to them and the choices they make.

Set clear house rules

Clear expectations for behavior are important. Make family, school and sports team rules straightforward and stick to them. Let teens know what will happen if they don’t follow the rules regarding drug and alcohol use. Consequences affect many parts of life and many people we care about.

Make use of the key moments to start the conversation

When drugs or alcohol appear on a TV show or come up in a broader conversation, use it to ask your teen how they feel about it and really listen to their answer. You can let them guide your discussion. 

If you’ve used alcohol, tobacco or marijuana yourself, be sure to know how you’ll answer questions about your own use. It’s up to you to decide how much you share with your teen, though. If you choose to talk about your experiences, remember that the conversation is about your teen and you’re trying to help your teen make healthy choices. Remind them that your brain is fully developed as an adult and so not impacted in the same way as theirs, which is growing rapidly.

Don’t limit it to just the first talk. Your teen is changing all the time, and continuing the conversation can help them keep making good decisions.

You’re still one of the biggest influences in your teen’s life. Be proud of yourself for taking the first important step toward showing your teen that you’re there for them. It makes a huge impact on preventing teen substance use.