Tips for Preventing Teen Substance Abuse

Children are taught about the dangers of smoking and underage drinking from an early age, but many adolescents still engage in drug and alcohol use each year. Although not every teen who engages in such behaviors has a diagnosable addiction, they are still at a large risk for future mental health struggles and developmental delays. The effects of alcohol and drugs on developing minds can have lifelong consequences, and it’s up to educators and teachers to help teens understand and care about the risks.

Teaching Teens About Substance Abuse

The authoritarian, punitive approach most parents and educators take toward substance abuse are ineffective at dissuading teens from underage drinking, smoking and drug use. Rather than merely offering facts, there needs to be an emotional precedent that causes teens to feel invested in their well-being. It can be helpful for teachers to start instructions on substance abuse with a quiz.

Let students assess their knowledge about common drugs and their effects. Present facts, but leave conversation open for questions. A round-table conversation that makes teens’ inquisitiveness feel accepted rather than problematic can encourage greater engagement.

Parents should make their boundaries and rules clear, but they should take communication a step further. Ask teens about their experiences without being overly judgmental. If their friend has been using drugs, for example, ask them what they’ve noticed, what they’re worried about and how it makes them feel.

The stance against substance abuse has to be firm, but it also needs to be inclusive. Rather than talking down to students, educators have to make them feel genuinely cared for. When you are invested in their well-being, they’re more likely to be as well. Early education and awareness can also encourage positive behaviors in the future. Teens who are educated on substance abuse, including how to say no, can be less likely to be peer-pressured in college. You can review a guide on statistics and the warning signs of drug abuse in college students here.

Avoid Overused Scare Tactics

Students are likely to emotionally check-out if they are simply told “drugs will kill you” or “you could be next to die in a drunk driver crash.” While these are real risks worth discussing, present them in a factual and informative manner. Identify what teens care about and what their goals are, and align these goals to the potential risks of using substances. For example, someone who wants to go to college could likely suffer academically if they start drinking or using drugs. They could even lose scholarships or be expelled from campus.

Ask teens to make a list about the pros and cons of drinking and drug use, and allow them to be honest. They may list some advantages in their eyes like increased socialization or feeling good. This is also an opportunity to introduce negative consequences they are likely unaware of. The goal of teen substance abuse education should be useful information and awareness. Rather than simply demonizing all substances under the same umbrella, create a conversation that empowers teens to feel like the choice not to use is genuinely the better option for them and their futures.

Identify Warning Signs

Even parents who did everything in their power to promote positive choices can find out their child is drinking or using drugs. Substance abuse is not always a reflection of bad parenting or education. Some students may start using out of boredom, curiosity or peer pressure. Mental health problems can also place a teen at a higher risk of substance abuse and self-harm. Both teachers and parents must be able to recognize the sometimes-subtle signs of teen substance abuse. These include:

  • A sudden drop in academic performance or school attendance.
  • Increased secrecy about friends and personal activities.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
  • Changing friend groups.
  • Physical changes including weight loss, red eyes, dark circles, shaking and nosebleeds.
  • Increased sleepiness in class or at home.
  • Personality changes that include increased sadness, depressed mood, anxiety and/or aggression.

Many of the early warning signs teens exhibit are written off as a “mood swing” or “just a phase.” Unfortunately, parents and educators who take this approach miss out on crucial moments for intervention that could alter the course of a child’s life. Keeping teens safe is more than just talking to them about risks and consequences. An active role in supporting their well-being can foster a sense of self-appreciation. When they know how much others care about them, they begin to believe more in themselves and take better actions to protect their health.


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