A Parent’s Role in Substance Use Prevention: Tips for Talking to Youth of All Ages (YD1912, April 2019)

Youth are less likely to use addictive substances if their parents talk early and often about the risks, establish clear rules and consequences, and regularly monitor their activities. Active involvement and support of caring adults are both critical in the prevention of youth substance abuse. Tips for how to start the conversation, integrate positive communication, and respond to children at every age are provided in this publication.

Meagan Scott, Ph.D., Assistant Professor/4-H Youth Development Specialist

Chloe Krinke, M.Ed., LAPC, NCC, NDSU Center for 4-H Graduate Assistant

Availability: Web only

Involvement and support of parents, guardians and other caregivers are critical in preventing youth substance abuse. Conversations are one of the most effective tools adults can use to connect with youth. Youth of parents who talk to their kids about the dangers of substances early and often are 50 percent less likely to use drugs than those who do not receive these critical messages at home (NCADD, 2015).

Tips for how to start the conversation and respond to children at every age are provided in this publication to help guide your discussion.

How Do I Know if My Child is Using?

Signs to watch for:

  • Declining school performance
  • Abrupt changes in friends
  • Abnormal health issues or sleeping habits
  • Deteriorating relationships with family
  • Less openness and honesty

Brain development is not complete until about age 25

Early to late adolescence is a critical risk period for youth to begin using drugs (SAMHSA, 2015). Essential parts of a teenager’s brain are forming, affecting the ability to make logical decisions. Teens are more likely to take risks, and impulsive behaviors may involve drug use. Developing brains are more prone to damage. As a result, teens become addicted more quickly with greater consequences. Side effects may include irreversible brain changes, increasing the risk of accidents, homicides, suicides, and serious physical and mental health conditions (Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, 2018). Talk to teens about how substance use impacts their brain health and overall wellness.

9 out of 10 people with substance problems started using by age 18. (Center on Addiction, 2018)

Every year substance use is delayed during adolescent brain development, the risk of addiction and substance abuse decreases 4 to 5 percent. (SAMHSA, 2015)


Youth who begin using addictive substances (tobacco, alcohol, illegal, over-the-counter or prescription drugs) before age 15 are nearly seven times more likely to develop a substance problem, compared with those who delay first use until age 21 or older. (Center on Addiction, 2018)

Why Do Youth Use Drugs?

A child may be more or less likely to try drugs due to certain circumstances. Below are risk factors that may increase vulnerability to use drugs and protective factors that reduce those risks.

Risk Factors

Protective Factors

Lack of parental supervision

Parental support and strong family bonds

Poor attachment with caregivers

Presence of mentors or adult role models

Academic problems

School and community engagement

Undiagnosed mental health problems

Coping and problem-solving skills

Substance-using parents, siblings or friends

Healthy peer groups

Peer rejection

High self-esteem

Child abuse/neglect

Stable home environment

Keep in mind: Many youth with risk factors do not use drugs, and a risk factor for one person may not be for another.

Start Here : How do I talk with youth about drugs?

Get in the right frame of mind

Start Here Table

Try active listening

Ask open-ended questions. Ask questions to elicit more than just a “yes” or “no” response. Tell me more about

Be positive. Find positives in a situation, no matter how difficult it may seem. Thank you for your honesty. I really appreciate it.

Let youth know you hear them. Reflect back what you are hearing verbatim or just the sentiment. I’m hearing you feel overwhelmed and believe drinking alcohol relaxes you. Is that right?

Sum up and ask questions. Show you’re listening the entire time and ask for their input. Did I get everything? Do you have anything more to add?

Ask permission. Ask if it is OK for you to speak with them about their concerns and to offer some feedback. Are you OK with me asking you this? Do you mind if I give you some advice?

Offer empathy and compassion. Demonstrate understanding. I hear that you feel smoking pot helps your anxiety. I’m sorry you’re feeling anxious; I know that’s a really difficult feeling. Can we think of some other activities that can help you relax?

Communication: What do I talk about?     Let’s Talk

Conversation Starters

It’s never too early to start the conversation. Discussions about alcohol and other drugs are ongoing conversations that begin early on and continue throughout the teenage years and young adulthood. As youth grow, your conversations may change, but they always will be centered on keeping them happy, healthy and safe.

The following discussion topics may help youth open up and talk about their knowledge and exposure to drugs. As a parent, you try to protect your children, but research shows most kids are exposed to substances at an early age through social media, the Internet, TV or friends.

Perceptions and Understanding

  • Do you know what vaping/binge drinking/overdosing is? What do you know about it?
  • What do you know about why someone your age is more likely to get addicted to drugs?
  • When you hear or see messages about drugs, how do you decide which are myths and which are facts?

Friends and Peers

  • What would you do if you saw friends taking prescription pills that aren’t theirs? What if you saw them drunk or high?
  • If you were with kids who were vaping, drinking or using drugs, how would you feel? How would you handle it?
  • Besides family members, who do you feel most comfortable talking to about substances? Why?

Words to Avoid

Visit Parents Lead for more communication tips.

There’s an app for that! Use the “Talk. They Hear You” app by SAMHSA as an online role-play tool to practice and build skills.

What to Say: How do I respond?

There is no script available for talking about substances. However, these samples can guide you with ways to integrate prevention messages and positive parenting.

Your Child Says

Talking to Youth About Substances at Every Age

Talking to Youth Table

Parent Drug Guide

I feel worried when you come home past curfew and go straight to your room. Because I love you and want to keep you safe, I need you to follow our rules about communication and not doing drugs.

I Statements 

Sustance Use Fast Facts

Youth are less likely to use substances if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules. Those who are not monitored by their parents regularly are four times more likely to use drugs. (Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, 2018)

46 percent of children live in a household where someone age 18 or older is smoking, drinking excessively, misusing prescriptions or using illegal drugs. (Center on Addiction, 2018)

75 percent of all high school students have used addictive substances; two in five reported past-year use of vaping. (Center on Addiction, 2018; NIDA, 2018)

One in five 12th graders vaped nicotine in the past month. (NIDA, 2018)

The drug overdose death rate has more than doubled during the past decade among people aged 12 to 25. (TFAH, 2017)

Bottom Line: Adults Play a Key Role

You are the most important and powerful influence in your child’s life. A majority of substance-free adolescents credit their parents for their decision not to use illegal substances. Even if you’re not a parent, you still can play a significant role in a youth’s life. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, mentors, volunteers, teachers and coaches all can help guide youth toward healthy choices at every stage of life. Caring adults can take action by having frequent conversations with the youth in their lives about the dangers of substance use. Let youth know YOU are a resource.

Every parent has the power to prevent addiction

Research shows that teens are less likely to drink, smoke, or use drugs when they feel their parents are actively involved in their lives. (NIDA, 2019)

Suspect Substance Abuse?

You never can be too safe or intervene too early. Talk to youth as soon as your instinct tells you something is wrong or you spot signs of drug use.

Express your concern and willingness to help, make observations, ask questions and listen to their answers.

Get professional help. A family doctor or addiction specialist can screen for signs of drug abuse and other related health conditions.

Call SAMHSA’s National Helpline (1-800-662-4357) for referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.

Be sure youth know that loved ones will stand by them and offer support.

Medical Emergencies: Call 911

North Dakota is a Good Samaritan state and you won’t be prosecuted for ingestion or possession if you seek help.

Reviewed by: Macine Lukach, Extension Agent; Amelia Doll, Extension Agent; Caroline Homan, Extension Agent; Kari Helgoe, Extension Agent; Todd Lewis, Ph.D., LPC, NCC; Liz Larson, Extension Parent Educator; Amy Tichy, Extension Parent Educator

4H Logo

Creative Commons License
Feel free to use and share this content, but please do so under the conditions of our Creative Commons license and our Rules for Use. Thanks.