Research-based tips for talking about adolescent substance use

Alcohol, tobacco and drug use tends to begin in adolescence. Parents can play an important role to help their teens stay safe through effective communication. This article explains communication elements that are protective against substance use during adolescence.

 Communication about substance use

Parent-child communication includes the extent to which adolescents and parents can talk to each other about a range of issues, including sensitive topics such as substance use.

For example, they can have conversations about:

  • Media portrayals of substance use
  • Risks and negative effects of using substances


 Strong emotional bond is needed for effective communication

This article summarizes results of previous studies. The article focuses on elements of connectedness (the quality of the emotional bond between parent and child) and parent-child communication that could delay or reduce adolescent substance use. The authors concluded that:

  • High levels of connectedness and good quality of communication were protective against adolescent alcohol, tobacco and drug use.
  • Communication was most effective when connectedness between adolescents and parents was high. So, a strong emotional bond between parent and child can facilitate effective communication.

 How to talk to your teen about substance use?

Effective communication elements about substance use include:

  • Open two-sided conversations, for example about health risks of substance use. Listen to your adolescent and let him or her contribute to the conversation. Do not lecture, as adolescents are often unreceptive to these messages.
  • Constructive and respectful conversations. Both parents and adolescents need to feel comfortable and understood.



  • Plan to have the talk. It may be difficult to initiate conversations about substance use, particularly drug use. Do not avoid having these conversations.
  • Remember to have open two-sided conversations. Let your child speak and listen to your child. Do not lecture your child.
  • Talk about the health risks and potential consequences of substance use.

 More information

Carver, H., Elliott, L., Kennedy, C., & Hanley, J. (2017). Parent–child connectedness and communication in relation to alcohol, tobacco and drug use in adolescence: An integrative review of the literature. Drugs: education, prevention and policy, 24(2), 119-133.

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