Walks to school are a great opportunity for candid chats about peer pressure and substance abuse. (For Health Beat)

The statistics paint a sobering picture: By their senior year, about two in three high schoolers have tried alcohol, while about half of students in ninth through 12th grade reported using marijuana.

If your teen has not used alcohol or marijuana, chances are they know someone who has.

Parents and guardians should talk to their kids about the dangers of alcohol, smoking and drug use, but it’s not a one-and-done conversation.

“I remind parents that you have to have consistent conversations because you’re sending the message that this is unacceptable behavior,” Lisa Lowery, MD, section chief of adolescent medicine at Corewell Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said.

It’s crucial to have these conversations early and often, Dr. Lowery said.

“You can’t just have the talk when they enter ninth grade,” she said.

She recommends starting as early as fifth or sixth grade, noting that elementary schools have seen an increase in vaping, while about 8% to 10% of children in grades six through eight have tried alcohol or drugs.

And the stakes are high. Marijuana, for instance, can negatively impact brain development and put teens at higher risk for mental health issues. Smoking or vaping damages developing lungs.

‘Keep it simple’

Parents may feel tongue-tied broaching the subjects of smoking, vaping, marijuana and alcohol.

Dr. Lowery’s advice?

“Keep it simple,” she said. “Kids are all into sound bites. I tell parents it doesn’t have to be this long dissertation.”

The goal is not to “scare” your children, but to send a consistent message, Dr. Lowery said.
Depending on the age of your child, conversation starters can go something like this:
  • “I’ve heard some kids might be interested in smoking or vaping. I don’t know if this is something you’ve thought about, but here’s how I feel about it, and this is why: Smoking and vaping hurts your lungs.”
  • “You may go to a party and be offered alcohol. How are you going to handle it?”
  • “This is why I don’t want you to use drugs … your brain is still growing, and drugs can effect your brain development.”

Parents can help their kids develop strategies. Running errands or driving to school activities are prime opportunities for these talks.

Beyond words, what we model can leave a bigger impression.

“Before you have a conversation, you have to look in the mirror,” Dr. Lowery said. “If Joe sees mom and dad having two beers and two glasses of wine every night, that sends a message.”

What are the signs?

Drawing on 18 years of experience, Dr. Lowery doesn’t hesitate to ask direct questions if she or a parent suspects a child is using alcohol or drugs. She advises parents do the same.

“I do encourage parents to have outright conversations,” she said. “If you’re concerned about a decline in schoolwork, changing sleep habits, irritability or a change in friends, those are red flags.”

When she sees teens or tweens who use drugs or alcohol, Dr. Lowery said she asks them why.

Some are simply bored or blame peer pressure. Others may self-medicate in an attempt to deal with mental health issues.

“It’s one thing if a teen tells me, ‘I was at a party. It’s this one-time event,'” Dr. Lowery said. “It’s another if a teen or child is saying, ‘I smoke four to five times a day and before I get up.'”

Finding out why a teen uses substances can help parents and providers address the underlying issue.

For example, if a teen started smoking with co-workers, it may be time to find a new job. If a child is struggling with mental health issues, counseling may help.

Working with teens, Dr. Lowery sees that substance abuse cuts across socioeconomic levels.

“Dysfunction knows no bounds,” she said. “Your ZIP code is not always a protective factor.”

Parents don’t have to go it alone.

Whether a child has used alcohol one time or a parent suspects addiction, it can help to seek out a professional for guidance.

“Any time you have a concern or you want that extra support is the time to reach out to your health care provider,” Dr. Lowery said.

Give grace

Remember the sleepless nights with your newborn baby? Parents get to experience it all over again waiting for their teens to come home late at night.

Let your kids know they can call you if they or a friend have been drinking or smoking marijuana, Dr. Lowery said. If they do, she advises parents to thank them for calling, pick them up and stay calm on the ride home.

“You might be mad as all get out, frustrated and disappointed,” she said. “But you never want to get into a situation where they may not come home.”

The next day you can talk about what happened and why, discuss consequences, and determine next steps.

Remember that no one is perfect—and we can tell our kids this while still setting consistent expectations about underage drug and alcohol use. Empathy and understanding go a long way.

“Give your kids grace,” Dr. Lowery said. “Give yourself grace.”