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Preventing Teenage Alcohol and Drug Problems 

Decide to incorporate empathy and insight

By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.


As a forensic psychologist who evaluates individuals with alcohol and drug-related legal problems, I am interested in parenting practices associated with preventing substance problems. As a mother of two boys, I am invested in trying to implement such practices in our home. What follows are some guidelines for parents based on factors associated with decreased risk of substance use disorders during the teenage years.

“Through hearing stories about family members or close family friends, teens learn that substance use disorders are real problems with real consequences.”

Create a strong relationship

A close, positive relationship between a teenager and parent(s) reduces the risk of developing substance problems. There are many things parents can do to improve the quality of the relationship with their teen such as having regular family dinners and attending religious services together, both of which are associated with decreased use of alcohol and drugs. Parents should promote a positive connection with their children and teens characterized by warmth, affection, support, monitoring, and use of humor. If your relationship with your teen does not reflect these qualities, do what you can to turn the relationship around for the better.

Foster emotional intelligence

Emotional Intelligence, or “EQ,” refers to the ability to identify, regulate and control one’s emotions. Children and teens with problems managing their emotions have higher rates of drug and alcohol use. Alcohol and drugs are seductive because they promise to deliver instant relief from emotional pain—sadness becomes euphoria, anger is dampened, anxiety is quelled, and disturbing recollections or images are banished. If your pre-teen or teen shows signs of inability to manage, process, or express emotions, address these deficits in emotional intelligence, seeking assistance from a mental health professional if needed.

Discuss substance use early and often

Start talking about alcohol and drug use before children reach middle school where they may be exposed to drugs by peers. Parents can initiate such conversations by asking children what they have heard about substances from teachers or peers and then affirming accurate information and correcting misinformation. As part of the conversation, parents need to establish rules regarding substance use and consequences for rule violations. Because parental tolerance of a teen’s alcohol or drug use is associated with increased risk of developing a substance use disorder, make it clear that no drug use or underage alcohol use will be allowed. In evaluating a college student arrested for drug possession, I learned that when his parents caught him using marijuana as a teen, he successfully avoided consequences by convincing them that his high grade point average was proof his drug use was not a problem. His drug use progressed unimpeded until eventually he faced very serious legal consequences.

Bring the skeletons out of the closet

Due to genetic inheritability, those with a family history of addiction are vulnerable to developing addiction problems. Teenagers with a positive family history need to know they carry an increased risk of developing a substance abuse problem if they experiment with drugs or alcohol. Tell them about family members who have struggled with addiction, highlighting the real life consequences of the problems. For example, my children know that my grandfather was prosecuted for vehicular homicide after killing a woman while driving drunk. They also know that a beloved uncle’s death was due to alcohol related health problems, and that a cousin struggles with a pain pill addiction and associated legal problems. Be compassionate in telling these stories, emphasizing that these relatives were/are not bad people, just ill with the disease of addiction. Through hearing stories about family members or close family friends, teens learn that substance use disorders are real problems with real consequences.

Be non-judgmental

While it is important to communicate your expectation of abstinence from alcohol and drug use, make sure also to set the stage such that if your teen develops a problem with substances, he or she knows you are available. The reality is that roughly one in ten teens will develop a substance use disorder, and that teen could be mine or yours. Avoid speaking about addicts or alcoholics in judgmental or derogatory terms, lest your teen conclude you will condemn or reject him or her for drug or alcohol use. Make it clear that help is available for those with addictions and that as a parent you will do what you can to facilitate your teen’s recovery from addiction and return to physical and mental health.

Kathryn Rea Smith, Ph.D. is a private practice psychologist specializing in psychological assessment and parenting consultation. Dr. Smith can be reached at

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