There’s a fine line between experimenting with alcohol and drugs and substance abuse. During the teenage years especially, the brain is still developing, which makes the risks of dependence and long-term mental health implications so much greater. That’s why it’s important for parents to talk about the “slippery slope” of underage drinking and potential dangers of “trying” drugs.

“Research supports that the earlier we can intervene in a young person’s life, the higher the chance of remedying that addiction.” – Ken DeBlock

Research shows that teens report higher rates of alcohol and marijuana abuse or dependence disorders compared to older age groups.

What do these numbers say?

    • 5% of teens reported having their first alcoholic drink between 12 and 17 years old
    • 19% of youth ages 12-17 who consumed alcohol reported using marijuana within 2 hours of drinking
    • 1 in 6 youth who use marijuana before age 18 are most likely to become addicted
    • 1 in 5 teens have abused prescription medications, many of which they get from home

Because the human brain is still developing between the ages of 12 and 25, early exposure to alcohol and drugs can impair the process and lead to long-term dependency. Without the knowledge and experience to handle the pressures of adolescence – intense emotions, academic stress, and relentless pressures by society and peers – young people are more likely to perceive that the short-term benefits (relief, gratification, escape) are worth the long-term risks.

Addressing substance abuse early on creates the best chance for a teen’s success. “Research supports that the earlier we can intervene in a young person’s life, the higher the chance of remedying that addiction,” says Shelterwood Executive Clinical Director Ken DeBlock. “At Shelterwood, we focus on catching addiction early, doing the intense work, and then helping the student find some healthy habits and healthy thinking to steer their life in a positive direction.”

How do you talk to your teen about the long-term risks of drugs and alcohol?

  • Don’t assume your child knows about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse. Many kids think they can only become addicted to a substance if they consume a lot of it or use it repeatedly. They need to know that trying something once (even a small dose) can lead to long-term consequences: drugs and alcohol are designed to lower inhibitions or increase the need for thrill-seeking, opening the door to worse decision making, sexual risks and negative outcomes.
  • Ask if they have ever been offered any drugs, prescription pills or over-the-counter meds at school or anywhere else. Make sure they know never to take anything that has been given to them without talking to you or a health professional first. Explain that certain prescriptions are very powerful and can have deadly or serious long-term effects, if not used properly or under the guidance of a doctor.
  • Give your teen specific examples of how to say NO to drugs or alcohol. Equip them with different responses they can use in the moment to decline pressure from peers.
    • “I’m not interested/no thanks.”
    • “I’m allergic/it makes me sick.”
    • “Someone I know is really struggling with addiction, do you need help, too?”
    • “I have a [drug/health] test coming up.”
    • “I promised my sister/brother/coach/parents I wouldn’t.”
    • “I like to be in control/I can’t.”
    • “I’m focusing on my grades/job/health/training.”
  • If you suspect your child is under the influence, intervene right away. As difficult as it might be, try to react calmly and listen to what your teen has to say. Although no excuse will suffice, it’s important to learn what led to their decisions to get to the root of any problems and identify the best solution for treatment. Are the kids they’re hanging out with a bad influence? Are they overwhelmed or stressed about school? Have there been any changes at home you need to address?

The purpose of talking to your kids about the dangers of experimenting with drugs and alcohol is to show your teens you love them by providing them clear ways to avoid potential pitfalls and peer pressure. Getting involved early will help prevent future dependency and equip your teen and family for success.


  1. “Teen Substance Abuse & Risks.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 10 February 2020.
  2. “Teenage Drug Abuse and Addiction,” written by Jeffrey Juergens.   Clinically reviewed by David Hampton. 22 February 2019.
  3. “Alcohol Use Survey Reveals Risks Before, During and After Addiction.” The Recovery Village. Reviewed by Stacey Henson, LCSW, ACSW. 27 April 2021.
  4. “Know the Risks of Marijuana.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Updated 16 December 2020.
  5. “Be Prepared to Have the Difficult Conversation,” printed 2021. Results from the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (2020) and 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables.