Substance Use Prevention Strategies for Parents

While there is no perfect plan or strategy to prevent or intervene in substance use by youth, a combination of simple, tried-and-true methods can help parents succeed in keeping their kids healthy, safe, and thriving. The following can be helpful especially when applied early, consistently, and in combination. The more pieces you can put in place in your plan, the more proverbial bricks you use to build that foundation, the stronger it will be. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it certainly helps to be multi-faceted.

Prevention Strategies

Start The Conversation Early

The average age of first use of alcohol or drugs in the United States is 13 years old. That’s the average, which means there are indeed kids younger than 13 who have started to drink or use. In order to truly be preventative, rather than reactive, we need to begin having conversations with our kids prior to those ages.

One of the best ways to gauge your child’s level of awareness and understanding of substance use is to ask them questions. You may be surprised at what even younger children have already heard about drugs and alcohol, whether from peers at school, siblings, cousins, social media, or pop culture in general. And often the things they are being told are untrue and even dangerous. It’s crucial that we counteract that with truthful, helpful, age-appropriate information about why alcohol and drugs are particularly dangerous to kids.

Take the time to calmly and patiently explain to them why drugs and alcohol aren’t safe for kids. Don’t exaggerate the dangers. The truth is sufficient, and if a child finds out an adult gave them false information, they will be far less likely to believe them in the future. Let them ask questions. If you don’t know specifics of a substance they’re asking about, offer to look up information together. It’s alright to say, “I’m not sure. Why don’t we look that up?”

Connect and Communicate Regularly

Be intentional about setting aside time to connect, talk with your kids, and listen to your kids on a consistent basis. Communication and connection are two of the most powerful tools we have in prevention, and they’re something that every parent is capable of. It’s simply a matter of making a point to make time with your kids a priority. Make sure everyone’s devices (phones, tablets, etc.) are put away, including yours so that you can have uninterrupted time together. It helps to have this time not only planned in advance (and everyone informed ahead of time), but scheduled on consistent days at consistent times.

Regular family dinners are one of the best ways to truly connect and communicate as a family. Numerous studies have been done on the importance of regular family dinners, and the results have been impressive. The outcomes have shown lower rates of a variety of unsafe and unhealthy behaviors by kids and teens. Breaking bread together has been a successful form of connection for thousands of years, but has begun to fall by the wayside as families become busier and more distracted by technology.

If dinner doesn’t work, other meal times can be an opportunity to connect. Beyond that, family game nights, exercising together, working on projects together, going for walks outside, and other activities can lend themselves well to connecting and communicating. What’s most important is that it is done in an environment and in a way that lends itself to everyone being comfortable having open dialogue. Many families have managed to get very creative with the times and methods in which they connect.


When your kids speak, listen. Genuinely, actively listen. Don’t listen just to reply, correct, or debate. Don’t listen to wait for a pause to say what you have to say. Don’t focus on what you’re going to say next. Truly listen to what they are saying and recognize the thoughts and feelings behind it. If they feel we aren’t really listening, it sends the message that we don’t take them seriously, we won’t validate their thoughts and feelings, and it will make them feel as if talking with us is a waste of time. If they do recognize that we are genuinely listening, they will become far more likely to come to us if they are struggling with something, need advice, or just need someone to hear what they have to say.

Body language goes a long way in conveying that we are truly listening. Maintain eye contact when appropriate, but allow them to break it. Be conscious of your posture and tone of voice. According to multiple studies, much of the message we convey to others is in our nonverbal communication. The way we sit, the gestures we make in response, and the look on our face can help indicate that we are truly focused on this moment with our child.

Even if we don’t end up agreeing with our child, the fact that they recognize we are listening and taking them seriously can be powerful and helpful in encouraging ongoing dialogue with them. Whereas one of the worst possible scenarios is when a child shuts down communication entirely. That can be challenging and concerning. Laying the groundwork of healthy communication with them can help avoid situations like that.

Be Empathetic

Empathy allows us to be aware of, sensitive to, and vicariously feel the emotions and thoughts of others. Just as actively listening to your child is crucial, demonstrating empathy is equally important if we want them to feel comfortable having candid conversations with us. Empathy involves acknowledging the feelings and thoughts of someone else without judgement, and with understanding. It shows that we will treat them with dignity, care, and respect.

When a child reveals to us that a situation is painful, stressful, or troubling to them, that is their reality. Whether we agree or not, whether we feel the same about the situation or not, that is where they’re at. In order to meet them where they’re at and foster healthy, open communication, it’s helpful to use empathetic statements. Empathetic statements show that we understand what they’re thinking and feeling. Examples of empathetic statements include phrases like, “I can tell this is very stressful for you,” or “I recognize why this is a painful experience for you.” The more they feel that we are recognizing, acknowledging, and validating their personal experience without judgment, the more likely they will be to open up to us.

This excerpt from a BrenĂ© Brown TED talk is an excellent summary of what empathy is and isn’t.

Be Clear About Family Rules, Values, Guidelines, and Accountability

When polled, many kids have revealed that their parents have never talked to them about drugs and alcohol, or what the family rules, guidelines, and consequences are surrounding drug and alcohol use. A simple conversation can clear up a lot of confusion and misunderstanding. The more clearly we can communicate with our kids, the more we set them up for success.

Clear parental disapproval of drug and alcohol use by kids actually reduces the likelihood that a child will drink or use. It doesn’t eliminate the possibility entirely, but it can be a very simple and effective item to add into your prevention plan. Whatever your views on drugs and alcohol are, whatever the family rules are, whatever the consequences or correction may involve, communicate those things clearly to your kids early on. Repeat them if need be. Sometimes, the childhood or adolescent brain needs a message to be repeated multiple times (a concept known in mental and behavioral health as “dosage”) in order for it to sink in.

Ideally, present the rules and prevention framework to your child in the form of a written document. Let them contribute to the document. Let them offer input on the family plan, and if you agree with ideas they’ve suggested, incorporate them. Edit and customize it as a family. Get input, contributions, and buy-in from everyone. The more you can involve your kids in the creation of the family agreement, the more they’re likely to participate as they’ll feel part of the process, rather than having everything dictated to them. Even the youngest kids are capable of coming up with ideas, guidelines, rules, and suggestions that can be incredibly beneficial to a family agreement and prevention plan.

Let Your Kids Know They Can ALWAYS Come to You with Questions or Concerns

If our kids are hurting, confused, scared, or struggling in any way, we want them to feel comfortable coming to us. A good way to help them understand they can come to us at any time is by routinely incorporating the active listening and empathy mentioned above. Our actions, more than our words, will let our kids know that they truly can come to us at any time and we will listen with empathy, and without judgment. That said, it’s important to say it too: “I want you to know that you can come to me at any time, with anything, and I will listen. No matter what it is, I will not love you any less, and I will work to help you find a solution.”

If our child does come to us needing a listening ear, advice, or support, it’s important that we take time to connect with them as quickly as possible. Our child should be priority. Some situations may dictate that we need to delay the conversation, but barring something absolutely essential, we should not delay. Delaying can result in their willingness to talk with us about the situation fading rapidly, them trying to fix or address the problem on their own without support, or them feeling like they’re not a priority to us.

Even if they’ve made a major mistake, are facing serious consequences, or have done something foolish, thank them for being honest with you. Tell them, “I’m glad you told me. Thank you.” Thanking them doesn’t mean that there won’t ever be correction or consequences, or that we’ll encourage them to make that same mistake in the future. Thanking them does, however, increase the likelihood that they will come to us in the future when facing challenges or concerns. That’s what we want. What we don’t want is for our child to suffer in silence, or to potentially compound the mistake.

Understand the Adolescent Brain / Help Them Form a Plan to not Drink or Use

Adolescents are wired to make impulsive decisions and take risks. During adolescence, their decisions are heavily influenced by emotional decision making due to the dominance of the portion of the brain known as the amygdala. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain instrumental in impulse control, planning, judgment, anticipating risk, etc. doesn’t fully mature until 25 years old or older. Preteens and teens therefore often tend to focus more heavily on reward rather than risk when making decisions.

Knowing that, we need to temporarily be the prefrontal cortex for our kids. We need to set aside time with them to sit down and help them plan how to handle certain situations, including the temptation to use drugs or alcohol. We can’t simply say, “Well my child is a good kid, they’d never do that.” Even the best, brightest, most wonderful, loving, and conscientious kids with great families can still be prone to impulsive decision making, especially if they haven’t planned ahead.

Don’t let them wait for a moment of pressure or temptation to figure out a way out of it. Help them figure out their plan in advance. Guide them in finding a way to refuse drugs and/or alcohol when offered them. It’s important that they determine their own real reason for saying no. It can’t be a reason we try to foist upon them, because in the moment of pressure, they’re not likely to use it. It needs to feel real to them and it needs to be a phrase they can actually picture themselves using. For some kids it’s, “I don’t want to get in trouble with my parents.” For others it’s a matter of not wanting to be kicked off a sports team, arrested, or in a situation where they lose future opportunities. However, if your child has the level of self-identity and self-confidence that lets them simply say, “No, I’m good” when offered something, that works as well, because they don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why they’re not drinking/using. But if a reason makes them more comfortable saying no, use one.

Make Healthy Coping Skills a Priority

Help your kids find the things that naturally bring them joy and peace. What do they love to do? What lets them blow off steam and de-stress in a way that isn’t harmful? What hobbies or activities give them a natural dopamine release and therefore make them feel good?

Excellent healthy coping skills include (but are not limited to): music, writing, art, sports, exercise, time outdoors, time with family, hanging out with (healthy) friends, skating, martial arts, deep breathing/box breathing, working with animals, hiking, camping, reading, time outdoors, video games (in balance/moderation), volunteering, helping others, laughter, journaling, travel, collecting, letter writing, and acupuncture.

The list above is by no means exhaustive. Healthy coping skills are virtually limitless. So if nothing on the list above resonates with or works for your child, keep working with them to find what does. It’s so important that we give them time and support when it comes to their healthy coping skills. Also, keep in mind, if it is something the child is being forced to do against their will, it is not a healthy coping skill as it is likely to increase their stress vs. decreasing it.

Set a Healthy Example

We can talk to our kids all day long about the importance of avoiding drugs and alcohol, using healthy coping skills, finding positive ways to deal with stress, etc. but if we are not applying those things to our own lives, we’re sending a mixed message. They look to us for an example. As much as our words matter, our actions matter even more. Therefore, it’s essential that we set the example of healthy choices, positive stress management, and balance in our own lives.

We need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves in order to be the healthiest version of ourselves for our kids. You can’t pour out of an empty vessel, and a parent who is at their wits’ end as a human being is unlikely to be an effective, empathetic, or healthy example to their kids. Make your own mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, social, vocational, and financial health a priority.

Make Sleep and Exercise a Priority for Your Kids

Sufficient sleep and exercise are two major pieces that help regulate mood and improve decision making in kids. Yet many kids are not getting enough of either. The impact of too little sleep and exercise can lend itself to substance use by youth, and can make dealing with life in general harder than it needs to be for kids.

Sleep deprivation can actually mimic the impact of chronic stress, including depressed mood and a reduction in emotional control. Stress is a major risk factor for substance use by youth. In fact, a number of kids who are drinking or using attribute their use to trying to cope with stress. Additionally, when sleep deprivation reduces emotional control, kids become more prone to impulsive decision making, which can include using drugs or alcohol.

Exercise is also important in order to be able to manage stress, regulate mood, and get a natural release of the neurotransmitters that provide feelings of happiness. The more than an individual is able to manage their stress, regulate their mood, and feel good naturally, the less likely they will be to feel the need to turn to substances to deal with those things. Also, regular exercise can be beneficial in its ability to help people get a good night’s sleep.

A potential factor in sleep deprivation and lack of exercise is imbalanced technology use, including excess use of phones, tablets, and video games. While technology can be beneficial when used in balance and moderation, it can disrupt sleep when used too close to bed time. Ideally, kids should be off of their devices and end screen time at least 90 minutes prior to bed. The devices should be kept somewhere other than in their room, so they’ll be less likely to use them throughout the night. The impact of excess tech use can also manifest itself in a sedentary lifestyle, which then results in too little exercise. The more time someone spends on a screen, the less time they’re spending at the gym, outdoors, playing a sport, or connecting face-to-face with others.

Lock Up Your Prescription Drugs and Dispose of Those You Don’t Need

A major factor contributing to prescription drug misuse by youth is ease of access. Parents, grandparents, friends, and neighbors often have prescription drugs in their medicine cabinets. If a child realizes that a prescription drug in the home medicine cabinet can make them feel good, they might be tempted to misuse it by taking a prescription that isn’t theirs, taking the drug too frequently, or taking too much at a time. When misused, prescription drugs are just as dangerous as street drugs. In fact, from 2003 to at least 2012, prescription painkiller overdoses killed more people in the U.S. than heroin and cocaine combined.

Therefore, it’s imperative that we lock up our prescription medications. Many pharmacies have drug lock boxes available, and they can be purchased from Amazon as well. Other types of locking devices, including standard home safes, can be used to keep prescription drugs out of the hands of kids.

If you have prescriptions that are expired or you are no longer taking, please dispose of them safely. It’s not recommended to throw out bottles of pills or whole pills in the trash. If someone, including kids, realizes they have potential for “recreational” use, they’re likely to retrieve them out of the trash. A safe way of disposing them is taking them to a drug take-back event or permanent take-back location. If you are unable to take them to a drop-off location, grind them up into small pieces or a powder, and mix them with an undesirable substance such as kitty litter, sand, or coffee grounds before disposing of them.

If Your Child is Using…

Don’t be in Denial and Don’t Panic

If you see signs and symptoms, find paraphernalia, or find out in other ways that your child is struggling with drugs and alcohol, don’t deny what you see and hear. Don’t tell yourself, “This can’t happen to us.” Trust your eyes, ears, and parental instinct. As a parent, you know your child. You know what normal looks like for them.

And keep in mind that substance use and experimentation with drugs and alcohol can happen to any child in any family. If a child is drinking or using, it doesn’t mean that they’re a “bad kid” or that you’re a “bad parent” or have failed your family. Amazing kids with great parents can still end up using drugs and alcohol, for a variety of reasons. It’s not a failure of morality, it’s a mental and behavioral health (emphasis on health) issue.

At the same time, don’t panic. A panic driven response to anything is rarely, if ever, a healthy and effective response. Take time to compose yourself. Understand that a positive outcome is not only possible, but likely. The majority of kids who experiment with drugs and alcohol will not become problem users. Also take time to consider what your response should be. The emphasis should be on a well thought-out, logical response rather than an emotion-driven reaction.

Recognize That You are Not Alone

Substance use does not discriminate. It crosses into all groups, demographics, and levels of socioeconomic status. Even the children of physicians, counselors, law enforcement officers, attorneys, teachers, etc. are not immune to the pressure and temptation to experiment with drugs and alcohol. It’s important to know that you’re not alone in this challenge, nor do you need to be. A lot of parents who discover substance use in their family are tempted to keep it a secret, hide it, and suffer in silence, thinking that they’re the exception or an oddity. The truth is that this is a widespread challenge. If it happens to you and your family, understand that you’re in good company. This happens to far more kids, parents, and families than many people realize.

Begin a Conversation Promptly but Not Emotionally

If you suspect or have confirmed substance use by your child, it’s important to not delay in having a conversation with them. It’s important to get details and information promptly in order to know how to best help them. Delaying this conversation creates a situation where the challenge your child is facing could actually get bigger and become more difficult to address. The sooner we can intervene and get them the help they need, the more the odds will be in our favor of a positive outcome.

That said, it’s important not to rush into this conversation while in an emotionally-driven state. An emotionally-charged conversation is much less likely to result in understanding, clear communication, or connection– three things that are crucial to being able to help someone who may be struggling. If you find out your child is using drugs or alcohol, it’s very likely you’ll feel an emotional reaction. That’s completely normal. We care about our kids, and if they’re in danger, we’re very likely to feel strong emotions as a result. However, allow enough time to elapse to calm yourself down before beginning the conversation.

Take time to think and do some deep breathing to reduce the likelihood of the following conversation becoming an argument. If you have a spouse or partner involved in raising your child, connect with one another to decide when, where, and how the conversation with your child will take place. Lean on one another. In a situation like this, parents need support as well.

Seek to Know the “What” and Understand the “Why”

Knowing what your child is using, how much they’re using, how often they’re using, and how long they’ve been using is important. That information can help determine a course of action. Depending on the answers to those questions, the response can vary from a conversation all the way to the need for detox and residential in-patient services in a treatment facility, and can include many options in between as well. Some substances have a very difficult, painful, or even dangerous physical withdrawal, while others only have psychological withdrawals or none at all. What your child is using will heavily dictate what the response needs to be.

At the same time, ask your child why they use, and genuinely listen. They may respond with, “I don’t know,” but do a bit more gentle digging to get to the root of their use. Knowing why they use and why they got started is also crucial information as well. Many kids start using or experimenting out of curiosity, boredom, or peer pressure. Others genuinely just like how the substance makes them feel. Others, however, are drinking or using to mask or escape from negative feelings such as stress, anxiety, pain, or fear. Still others may have undiagnosed mental health challenges or neurotransmitter imbalances are are using substances to try to feel normal. Their use may not have anything to do with chasing a buzz, a high, or euphoria, but simply trying to cope with what doesn’t feel right or comfortable to them.

All of this information will be important to pass along if and when you get your child connected to counseling, treatment, or speak with their physician about the situation.

Connect With Professional Help and Speak With Your Child’s Physician

As helpful as we can be to our own kids, when it comes to issues of drugs and alcohol, or mental health challenges in general, there is no substitute for professional help. If your child is struggling with drugs or alcohol, get connected with counseling or a treatment facility. There are a variety of online search tools that can be used to locate licensed counselors and treatment facilities in your area.

Consult your child’s physician to get input from them on the situation. Depending on what your child is using, how much they’re using, and how frequently, your child’s doctor will likely suggest a specific approach. They may also be a good resource for finding local counseling and treatment options. Finding treatment can be an overwhelming prospect, as there are so many options out there, so having someone you know and trust who can narrow down and suggest specific choices can be very helpful. Contact your child’s doctor first, and use any recommendations they may have to move forward with treatment or counseling for your child.

If Your Child Has a History of Trauma, Healing That Trauma is Priority

Trauma is a mental, emotional, and physical response to an event or series of events that are overwhelming to an individual. Sources of trauma include abuse, neglect, accidents, war, and natural disasters. Trauma can result in long lasting effects which can make an individual feel helpless, confused, disconnected, afraid, and unable to cope. Trauma is a major risk factor for substance use and addiction. It is not unusual at all for someone who has experienced trauma, especially untreated trauma, to turn to drugs and alcohol to medicate their overwhelming feelings.

If your child has had traumatic experiences, healing and addressing that trauma is paramount. It should become an absolute focal point for you, your family, and your child. Untreated trauma can result in a variety of mental and behavioral health challenges and consequences, both in the short term and many years down the road. Trauma, unless treated and healed with the help of a professional, does not tend to just go away by itself over time. A child who has experienced trauma needs significant professional support, love and support from family, connection with healthy friends, and healthy coping skills, among other things.

An excellent book to help understand trauma, what it is, how it effects people, and how to overcome it, is Dr. Bruce Perry’s “What Happened to You: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing.” It breaks everything down in ways that are easy to understand and is written so that even people who are not mental health professionals can absolutely understand it.

As recommended above regarding substance use, getting your child connected to trauma-informed care is essential for healing, well-being, and the possibility of a positive and successful future. We owe it to our children to love them, help them, and get them connected to care that will allow them to be healthy and thrive.

Seek Support for Yourself and Your Family as Well – Don’t Fight Your Battles Alone

If one family member has been impacted by drugs and alcohol, or any other mental or behavioral health challenge, there is a chance that the family as a whole has been impacted as well. Getting help and treatment for the individual using or drinking is a good start, but the rest of the family needs to heal and strengthen as well. Find support for yourself, your spouse, and your child’s siblings also. Doing so will not only help you heal and become more resilient, but should help teach you about what to do and not do in order to help the member of the family who has been struggling.

If a family member receives treatment but returns to a dysfunctional home or school situation, they’re more likely to return to their prior unhealthy behaviors. It’s essential that when an individual works to get well, the family works to get well also. Not only does the affected individual need to change in order to succeed and stay healthy, the environment around them needs to improve as well.

Support groups for families of addicted loved ones are available and can help you not feel alone when navigating your children’s struggles. Likewise, going to family counseling as a group is an excellent way to address opportunities for growth and improvement within the family. The healthier the family as a whole is, the healthier the individual members will be as well.


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