Substance Use and Risk-taking Behaviors – What Parents Need to Know

Jeanne Blake

Father concerned for son

“It could be the ugliest person in the world; someone we wouldn’t think twice about if we were sober, but we’d go to bed with if we were high or intoxicated.” These are the words of Veronica, a young woman with HIV, from our video In Our Own Words: Teens and AIDS.

When young people hear this line, they laugh. They know it to be so true.

Parents on the other hand, hear the quote and gasp. Veronica’s bluntness crosses their line of comfort. It penetrates their denial about teen’s substance use and risk-taking behaviors.

While conducting interviews for our video, Alcohol: True Stories Hosted by Matt Damon, and the companion booklet, Words Can Work: When Talking About Alcohol, I was astounded by parents’ capacity for denial.

Kathy told me of learning that her 16-year-old daughter Megan had been drinking at a party. Kathy ignored it. After all, it was just one night.

But then the mother of a friend saw Megan drunk, and called Kathy. “I’m so grateful,” Kathy says. “I’m not sure how long I would have had my head in the sand.”

When Megan’s parents confronted her, she told them the truth about substance use and risk-taking behaviors and asked for help. “It was the first time I’d seen my dad cry,” Megan says. “The next day I was sent to a counselor. Basically, I was an alcoholic is what she said.”  

Megan didn’t think she could be an alcoholic. “First of all, I’m 16 years old,” she said. “Second, my parents don’t drink. My sisters don’t drink.” But Megan agreed to go to a treatment recovery center.

Kathy and Wayne realized they’d been in denial. Kathy didn’t think anyone so young could be an alcoholic. Now she regrets ignoring the early warning. “I should have pursued it,” she says. “But you want to believe your kids.”

Other parents deliberately look the other way, considering drinking by teens a harmless rite of passage. “Kids will be kids,” they say. “Everybody drinks.” But I have met mothers and fathers whose children were seriously harmed because they chose to drink. Dreams were shattered. Opportunities were lost. They wish now, they’d done more to stop early alcohol use.

Dr. Brian Johnson, Director of Addiction Medicine at SUNY Upstate Medical University, says many parents avoid the issue for a variety of reasons. “Sometimes they fear pushing their child away,” he says. “Other times it’s denial. When something is frightening, you can decide you won’t think about it. But kids’ drinking is Russian roulette. Most people who play Russian roulette don’t get hurt. But would you do it?”

The following facts underscore Dr. Johnson’s point.

  • Young people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who begin drinking at age 21.
  • 16% of high school students report they drank alcohol for the first time before age 13.

Many parents – who say they will do anything for their kids – turn a blind eye to substance use and risk-taking behaviors. By ignoring the use of alcohol, and often supplying it, parents send a message that alcohol is harmless. 

To do so leaves a child vulnerable. Dr. Paula Rauch, a consultation child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital says many parents recall their own drinking as teens and remain silent on the issue. “They ask themselves, ‘How can I judge my child’s behaviors? I wasn’t perfect.’ But that robs their children of a mature guide, one who confronts the distortion that bad things can only happen to other people.”

In our Words Can Work® trainings, conducted in communities nationally, educators and prevention specialists confirm that parents’ denial is an obstacle to keeping kids safe. Research shows that young people who learn at home about the risks of drugs, including alcohol, are less likely than peers to experiment with or use substances.

Janna, featured in our booklet Words Can Work: When Talking About Drugs explains how her parents Heang and Tew left Cambodia and arrived in the United States barely speaking English. Soon after, Janna was born.

“I didn’t expect to see so much drug abuse in this great country,” Heang says. “So, I warned Janna to avoid drugs, or she could throw opportunity away.”

Janna heard the message so many times it stuck. She says, “My parents helped us understand that if you do bad things without thinking, it will hurt you. Talk with your kids about drugs. Not in a demanding or uptight way. That shuts kids down. Say, ‘Here’s what I hope you’ll do, and why.’ It’s better than trying to force an idea. Kids like to feel they have a choice.”

Talking about substance use and risk-taking behaviors gives kids a chance to think through what could happen. Then, if they hear, “Oh, you should try this drug,” they have more confidence in refusing. 

Dr. Johnson suggests asking open-ended questions to get the conversation going. “Parents can ask their kids, ‘Do you know any kids using drugs?’ ‘Why do you think they use them?’ ‘How do you think using drugs would affect your ability to do well in school?’ Then listen to their answers and follow up, as Janna’s parents did, with your own opinions and the reasons you hope they’ll stay drug-free.”

One parent told me she starts conversations by acknowledging the pressures her kids face. She says, “It must be so hard to be constantly exposed to drugs and alcohol and have to deal with that.” Her children appreciate that she understands how hard it is growing up. You can help protect your children by consistently including clear and truthful messages about substance use in ongoing family dialogue.

References Provided Upon Request

Words Can Work – evidence-based educational products and trainings help communities talk about substance use.

Trainings held onsite in your community feature Alcohol: True Stories Hosted by Matt Damon and Drugs: True Stories. You’ll learn how to engage youth in substance abuse prevention, raise resilient youth and engage young people and parents in vital conversations about alcohol, opioids and other drugs.

To purchase or stream Words Can Work videos, purchase Words Can Work booklets (available as e-booklets or hard copy), or to schedule a training, email  or call 978.282.1663.

Jeanne Blake is president of Blake Works, creator of Words Can Work and an affiliated faculty member at Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addiction.

Words Can Work: When Talking About Alcohol