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What Parents Can Do to Prevent Alcohol and Drug Use

The key to reducing the likelihood your child will experiment with alcohol, tobacco or other drugs is to stay involved in their life, know who their friends are, and set reasonable limits on their activities.

Stay Involved in YOUR TEEN'S Life

Risks of alcohol and drug use increase during significant social transitions including starting middle or high school and getting a drivers license.  Often these transition times are associated with more independence.  These are critical times for you to stay involved in your child’s life.  Your child is meeting new kids, is more interested in peer acceptance, and is more likely to be exposed to older kids who may be using substances. 

During the teen years your child is also going through some key developmental changes including separating from you, establishing their own identity (which may include challenging your values), and starting to make more independent decisions.  You might start to feel unwelcome as your child pulls away from you physically and emotionally but your child actually needs you to be involved in their life now more than ever. 

Here are some of the things you should be doing to protect your kids:

  • Know where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing.
  •  Encourage your child to participate in adult-supervised activities after school or during the summer.  Since unsupervised time along is a big risk factor, if your child doesn't participate in these activities, set strict expectations for their activities including household chores, rules about who can come over, and policies about calling to check in with you. 
  • Check in with your child regularly about their experiences, school, friends, and other topics.  Address problems and concerns as they come up. 
  • Be awake and interact with your children when they come home.
  • If they are staying overnight at a friend’s house, talk with the host parents.  Ask if alcohol or tobacco is allowed.  Ask who will supervise.  Tell your child you will be checking up on them and then do it.
  • Don’t assume your child is immune to the temptation to experiment.  Substance use happens in all kinds of families.  Be knowledgeable and proactive about the risks. 
  • Monitor their use of social media.  Ask to see the photos on their cell phone.  Listen to their “top 25” on their iPod and talk about the messages in the lyrics.  Flip through magazines they are reading to see how topics like substance use are covered.  To learn about some of the messages they are getting from the media, check out the web.  Go to and type in “marijuana” or “smoking” and see what videos come up.

Maintaining a close relationship with your child is one of the best ways you can protect them from risky activities.  Plan dates to do things together or create family rituals (e.g. monthly Sunday brunch, or a family movie night) where you spend time together catching up. 

Know YOUR TEEN'S Friends

One of the greatest predictors of alcohol and drug use is hanging out with others who are using.  Get to know your child’s friends.  Offer to drive, chaperone events at school, and host friends at your house. 

Talk with your child’s friends about your expectations about alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.  Make it clear you do not want young people using these substances. 

Get to know the parents of your child’s friends.  It will be easier to call a parent hosting a party if you have already met and talked with them.  Seek them out at school events, practices, or other school-related activities.  Talk with them about your expectations about alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.  Talk and agree together about expectations for  supervising, hosting parties, etc.  Create your own parent community to set and reinforce rules for your teens.  Visit the web site Parents. The Anti-Drug for more advice for parents including a Parent-to-Parent forum for sharing experiences. 

Find opportunities to observe kids your child’s age.  Watch for kids your child’s age at the mall, sporting events or concerts, or at the park or other public places.  Watch how they interact, what they wear, and how they behave. 

Volunteer to chaperone school events.  Teens often behave very differently when their parents aren’t around.  See the person they are presenting to others.  See who they are hanging out with and who influences them. 

Set Reasonable Limits on their Activities

Continue to set limits on your children’s activities, especially as they get older.  It can be tempting to relax your limits as your teens get older, if only to reduce the amount of conflict that can come with limits.  But, your teen needs you to continue to provide reasonable limits. 

Teens often use parental limits when they are resisting peer pressure to do something they prefer not to do.  Let your child know that it is important to you that they do not use. 

Set curfews and enforce them.  Be awake when your child comes home. 

Make it easy for your child to leave a situation where alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs are being used.  Some families set up code words a teen can use to let a parent know they want to be picked up from a party.  If you have an agreement to pick your child up from a party where substances are being used, be sure you are available and follow through on this agreement. 

Every time your child goes out, tell them clearly that you do not want them using alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.  They can’t hear this too often.  Teens say one of the biggest deterrents to experimenting with substances is they don’t want to disappoint their parents. 

Discuss and decide together what the consequences will be if you have any evidence or suspicion about alcohol or other drug use.  Tell them that you will not require “proof” but that if you see warning signs like finding empty bottles, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, etc., you will impose consequences. 

Trust your instincts.  If you think your child is using, do not hesitate to take your child for an assessment to find out what the problem is and how to remedy it. 

Some parents struggle with setting limits for kids out of fear that their child will be seen as different, conservative, a goodie-goodie, etc.  Sometimes these fears are based on our own experiences or challenges from middle and high school.  It can be painful to remember how important it can be to fit in with your peers but remind yourself and your child that smoking or drinking doesn’t make you “cool”.

Additional Resources:

Shoulder to Shoulder is a dedicated to helping parents of teenagers and includes lots of resource and information specfically for you. 

University of Minnesota Extension publishes tip sheets for parents including one specifically on Talking with your Teen.