It’s not that you don’t know what to say…

It’s that you aren’t entirely sure how to say it!

You likely have a pretty good sense of your values, opinions, expectations and boundaries around your teens and substance use. 

You could probably articulate it pretty clearly and efficiently to me. 

But when it comes to talking to them about it? Tongue tied!

Or worse, beautifully and elegantly crafted statements that are met with eye rolls, and “whatevers”. 

Starting a conversation about anything awkward or important comes down to setting the stage. 

When you set the stage, the words themselves don’t matter as much.

Read on for some tips and techniques on how to set the stage for a talk on substances.

Last week we explored the current landscape of teens and substances. It’s NOT what it used to be and so it requires much more nuanced information. This means that as an adult in their life, you have to make sure you are approaching them in a way that doesn’t immediately shut them down or get them to discount your concerns. 

Remember, tweens and teens are at that crucial stage where they are exploring their identities and boundaries. They are assessing how they fit in around people, what expectations they feel they need to live up to to be accepted and to belong – but also to feel independent, powerful, and excited about themselves as people. 

Substance use fits in with that “nicely.”

What?? Surely you aren’t suggesting…

Let’s back up: What I mean by that is substance use (like it or hate it) can provide a sense of belonging, it can offer a “coolness” factor, it can be a way of testing boundaries and asserting themselves against parental rules and regulations, it can be a way to feel a bit more alive and excited about life and their inner experience – what has felt like boredom for the past two years can be transported back into a zest for life and a joy and a feeling of happiness and fun in the body. It can feel like a way to be included in a social group after two years of isolation.

It’s not just about coping, it’s about searching for and seeking sensory and social experiences. For some, the engagement with substances is one of the pathways that teen identify is crafted and tested out. 

And you know what….that’s not ALL bad or scary. After all, with the right self-awareness, appropriate guidance and support, and strong foundations from the adults around them looking out for them, teaching them the things they don’t yet know, and offering them non-punitive and non-judgemental support if something goes wrong, teens can learn how to have healthy and safe relationships with substances that they may enjoy including in their life. 

Or they may choose to not use substances in their life too. The point is, the right information and support can help them make the right decisions. 

Imagine handing a kid a chainsaw after never letting them handle anything sharp ever in their lives! How could they possibly know how to assess safety and maneuver properly without having first developed the crucial skills? 

Imagine restricting sugar and junk intake their entire life and then they go off to college and have a meal plan card and HOLY CROW it can be used at all the stores and fast food restaurants? 

Hmmm yes…my personal experience is coming out here. And guess what? I would have LOVED to have known how to better regulate myself around nutritious vs pleasurable eating. Were my parents doing what they thought was best for my health? Absolutely. But then I didn’t learn how to do what was best for my health. 

Building skills is more crucial than setting rules. 

Rigid instructions about what to do and not do isn’t going to teach a teen how to make healthy decisions. Our goal is not to ensure they never try a substance (because we can’t control that – and trying to control that can actually cause some damage), our goal is to ensure that they make decisions that we can trust won’t take them off track. 

Our goal is their wellbeing. And YES their wellbeing WILL also include parameters, boundaries, and expectations. It’s not about saying “well kids are gonna try drugs I guess we just let them” because that ALSO does not teach them safety and healthy decision making. 

So what do we do? It starts with creating effective conversations: 

Conversations about substances are important for two reasons: 1) we can shape HOW they navigate the landscape of substances, and 2) we are offering them a pathway to lean on us and open up which is going to provide many many many more opportunities to help them grow strong, confident, and able to embrace their adult life in a way that we all can be proud of. 

And that’s a HUGE sigh of relief for us. 

Here’s the thing: If you teach them to “just say no” but don’t explore the factors that may make them want to say yes, and plan for the ways they could say no, and to understand the implications of each decision, you are not just taking away their capacity to build healthy decision making skills and create strong boundaries for themselves, but you are also setting yourself up to be constantly anxious about them, monitoring everything they do, and feeling perpetually responsible for all their actions. 

That does not sound like something you have time for or the mental or emotional capacity to take on. So instead, let’s start by building trust. And that begins by creating a platform for open communication. 

Here is a post on two key ways you can invite a teen to open up in a way that will make them WANT to talk to you more – regardless of subject matter!

Here are 5 foolproof ways to keep them talking so you can really figure out what’s going on for them. 

After all, how can you talk about anything if you don’t even know how to approach them? How can you talk about substances, if you don’t know what’s going on for them?

The bottom line is this: The landscape teens have to navigate when it comes to experimenting with alcohol & drugs is starkly different than it was when we were growing up. That means it requires a starkly different response from us. 

  • Do you struggle to talk to them about substance use because you don’t know how to start?
  • Are you worried they’ll start exploring substances and you’ll miss the signs?
  • Or maybe you know they’re already experimenting and you don’t know how to react?

If you want answers on these questions and more, we invite you to join our next live workshop