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A Guide to Talking to your Teens about Substance Use

​Adolescence can be a difficult time period-for both teens and their parents! Teens are starting to define their identities and may experiement with drugs and alcohol. Even if you do not think that your child is experiementing, it is important to start having conversations about drugs and alcohol early and often. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ( 

  • Alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco are substances most commonly used by adolescents
  • By 12th grade, about two-thirds of students have tried alcohol
  • About half of 9th through 12th grade students reported ever having used marijuana
  • About 4 in 10 9th through 12th grade students reported having tried cigarettes
  • Among 12th graders, close to 2 in 10 reported using prescription medicine without a prescription 
  • 2.1 million middle and high school students were e-cigarette users in 2017 (

Electronic cigarettes, also commonly referred to as e-cigs, e-hookah pens, vapes, vape pens, Juuls and mods (customizable, more powerful vaporizers), are battery-operated, electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) used to inhale an aerosol, which contains e-juice also known as e-liquid. JUULs, a popular vape device, comes in fun flavors, looks like a flash drive. and can be charged in a USB port. Most of the e-cigarettes come with nicotine; however, your teen might tell you that theirs is nicotine-free. While there are nicotine free options, that does not mean that the e-cigarette is safe. According to the FDA, inhalation of diacetyl and acetyl propionyl, a flavoring agent found in some, not all, e-cigarettes, is known to be associated with respiratory disease (

Vape pens, or dab pens, are also used to inhale marijuana, opiates, synthetic substances like flakka (an amphetamine-like drug similar to bath salts), and designer forms of “synthetic  weed” such as K2 and Spice. This method is more discreet (often looking like an actual pen) and sometimes does not emit a smell (

Here are some tips to talking with your teens about substances:

  • Discuss potential problem situations – along with possible solutions — well ahead of time. This gives your teen the foresight to handle a wide variety of difficulties. Make sure you are having a conversation and not lecturing!
  • Generate a list of clear expectations and consequences — again, in advance. This puts everyone on the same page and lessens the chance of miscommunication.
  • Contact other parents to find out whether there is a party at their home and whether they will be there. Encourage them to contact you at any time with the same questions.
  • Encourage your child to contact you if they are in a situation where they, or their ride, cannot drive safely due to being under the influence-no questions asked! Also, be sure teens have access to Uber or Lyft and have other resources programmed into their cell phones. Agree upon a catch phrase or word that can be used on the phone, signaling that your teen wants you to come and pick up.
  • Give your teen an “out” by allowing him/her to blame you for not entering into various unhealthy risky behaviors. This helps him/her save face.
  • Stay up and talk to your teen upon his/her return from a night out. This will increase communication and prevent him/her coming home under the influence without your knowledge. Your teen may be more willing to talk about the evening's events at that time, so take advantage of the opportunity and strengthen your relationship.
  • Know about all medicines in your own home. Prescription and over-the-counter medications are frequently misused and abused, although there continues to be a misperception that these are not harmful. Teens can easily check medicine cabinets and take what they find. Get rid of medications you no longer require and put others in a less accessible place.
  • Here is a short list of common slang words for substances. Visit this website for a more comprehensive list:
    • Trees = weed = marijuana
    • Spice or K2 = synthetic marijuana
    • A 40 = 40 ounces of beer = alcohol
    • 420 = smoking marijuana
    • Special K = Ketamine
    • X = XTC = Ecstasy
    • Blow = coke = cocaine
    • Dabs = concentrated marijuana extract in the form of a smokable oil. Dabs are 90% THC
  • Question your teen who claims to be “keeping something” for a friend. Chances are good it belongs to your teen.
  • Work to maintain that easy communication among families from elementary school days. This connection need not be lost during high school years; it just takes more of an effort.
  • Note the positives and strengths of your teen. Compliments can still make a difference.
  • Be the parent, not the friend. This is not only okay — it’s crucial. You need to set limits and rules; your child is counting on you!