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  • Natasha Hillman, LPC, CSAC

Teens & Drug Use: How to Understand, Intervene, and Plan as a Family

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

― Albert Einstein

As we know (as we once were a teen ourselves), adolescence is a time of exploration and awkwardness! We don’t know what we’re feeling and why we’re feeling the way we are! *Sigh* It can be confusing and just downright annoying to be a teen. But along with exploration and awkwardness comes experimentation that can oftentimes include substance use (including alcohol) which can easily lead to addiction. Obviously, this can create even more chaos for the teen and their families.

So, you may be wondering how can substance use and experimentation lead to addiction? Well, did you know that one can develop an addiction after JUST ONE USE, for those experimenting with harder drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. One can also develop an addiction after just a few uses when experimenting with legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco (e.g., cigarettes, e-cigarettes, vape pens, Juul pods, etc.) (Four Surprising Facts About Addiction, 2014). According to SAMHSA’s 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly “2.2 million adolescents ages 12-17 had consumed alcohol in the past month. The same survey found that in the past year, 3.1 million adolescents had used marijuana, and 699,000 adolescents had misused opioids.”

It’s time to stop viewing addiction as a lack of willpower or self-control and instead as a more complex issue that we can start to work on by simply discussing it and exploring the nature behind one’s drug use.

So, I've put together some suggestions on how to talk about, understand why, and plan for teen substance use as a family:

  • Discipline vs. Punishment: These two terms can be confusing for many, but there’s a difference! Discipline focuses on teaching desired future behavior while punishment inflicts suffering for past behavior. As parents it can be easy to fall into the trap of constantly punishing our kids for wrong or deviant behavior (such as substance use), yet it’s typically ineffective long-term. Instead of punishing, consider providing greater discipline in the home setting. The four types of discipline include: “model good behavior, use positive discipline, be consistent and do not lapse, reevaluate age appropriateness” (Parenting for Brain, 2019). When approaching “wrong or deviant behavior” with discipline instead of punishing, we’re creating a new dialogue where we all can learn from problems that arise in the family unit and how to move forward.

  • Family Check-Ins: A good way to model healthy communication (assertively, openly, and honestly) is by scheduling family check-ins. These don’t have to consume much of your time, but it’s important to check-in as a family, whether it’s weekly or daily. A good rule of thumb is to keep family check-ins about 20-30 minutes in duration and to have a focus so that family members aren’t getting off topic. Important things to remember: each family should take turns, not interrupt one another, and challenge themselves and others to be vulnerable. A tool that can be helpful in exploring what emotion your feeling is the emotion wheel.

  • Distress Tolerance Skills: Encourage your teen to use distress tolerance skills when your teen is experiencing more intense urges to use. One scale that is easy to follow to gauge where their anxiety/stress/distress is at is the 0-7 scale, with 7 being intense anxiety/stress; Stress turns into distress when one reaches a “5-7” on this scale. Distress Tolerance Skills are to be used as a short-term solution (roughly 20 minutes or so):

  • TIPP: TIPP stands for temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation. TIPP can help teens when they’re experiencing high urges to use to focus on the body sensation that they’re experiencing instead of solely focusing on their high cravings/urges to use.

  • ACCEPTS: Used to help tolerate a negative emotion.

  • IMPROVE: To tolerate emotions until they subside.

  • PRO AND CON LIST: To weigh out the consequences of your decision.

  • SELF-SOOTHE: Reduce the intensity of negative emotions.

  • RADICAL ACCEPTANCE: Allows one to decide whether to stay miserable in the situation or accept and move forward.

  • Urges to Use Log: An important tool for teens to understand the process of their substance use and why they’re using can be tracking their urges to use. This includes tracking when they experience the urge to use, triggers and situations associated, what the urge was like for them, how they responded, and what they’ll do next time. This is important because it’s teaching our brains to plan ahead so that we’re not being as reactive to our urges to use and instead allowing ourselves to stop and think about how we can respond that fits the direction we’re wanting to take in our recovery/life.

  • Recovery Calendar: Recovery calendars can be a helpful tool for teens to visually see the progress they’re making, develop a sense of pride in their sobriety, and where they’re at in their recovery.

As a therapist I always encourage families, individuals, and partners to seek therapy if they feel like it may be helpful and are willing. As always, the above are simply suggestions.

Remember, recovery is a process, not a destination.

Take care,


P.S. For more tips on how to approach a challenging convo with your teen, click HERE!


If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Natasha, you can reach her via email:

or call our intake line: 608-709-6972

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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]

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