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Preventing Preadolescent and Adolescent Substance Abuse

Steps Toward Discouraging Substance Abuse in Your Preteen or Teen


Updated July 15, 2010

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Research reveals that parents can take a number of steps to prevent substance abuse during the adolescent years.

Increase Awareness of the Harmful Side Effects of Substance Use

One step parents can take to prevent substance abuse is to make tweens and teens aware of the side effects of using substances. Twelve to 17 year-olds who perceived a greater risk of harm were less likely to use or abuse drugs according to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). It’s important to note that risks extend beyond the physical. When assessing risks, adolescents also consider how drug use might affect them socially, occupationally and emotionally, says the Adolescent Substance Abuse Knowledge Base (ASK). For example, if a tween realizes that legal trouble from underage drinking could endanger future college and career prospects, he or she may be less likely to drink. Case in point, tweens and teens surveyed in the NSDUH who had talked with a parent at least once in the past year about the dangers of drugs & alcohol had lower rates of cigarette and illicit drug use. Unfortunately, though, talking with parents about the dangers of marijuana or binge drinking did not affect the rate of these usages.

Make it Clear That You Don’t Approve of Adolescent Substance Use

What you seem to think of substance use really matters to your child. Tweens and teens who believed their parents would “strongly disapprove” of smoking or drug use were less likely to use than those who thought their parents would “somewhat disapprove” or “neither approve nor disapprove,” according to the NSDUH. Therefore, make your disapproval clear to your child. Keep in mind that your actions speak much louder than your words do. That is, think about how the substance use decisions you make in front of your kids may affect their likelihood to use themselves.

Don’t Worry About Finding a Structured Prevention Program

Worried that your tween’s school lacks a drug or alcohol prevention program? Don’t be. While prevention programs don’t seem to be detrimental, there is little data supporting their effectiveness, especially if they focus on education only. What’s more important is that tweens and teens be exposed to drug and alcohol use prevention messages, such as about the dangers of inhalants. Such messages were associated with lower rates of tween and teen substance use in the NSDUH, regardless of whether the messages were presented inside or outside of school. Notably, involvement in a structured prevention program was not associated with any difference in substance use.

Include Religion, If Appropriate

If religion feels like a comfortable element in your life, share your beliefs with your child. Tweens and teens who believed that religious beliefs were “a very important part of life” were less likely to use substances than those who lacked such a belief, according to the NSDUH.

Monitor Your Child’s Activities

Perhaps you want to show your tween or teen respect by monitoring their activities less. While noble, adolescents’ cognitive deficits can result in poor decision making. In other words, they still need you to keep them in check! The NSDUH found lower substance use among children of parents who “sometimes” or “always” engaged in monitoring activities, compared to those whose parents “seldom” or “never” monitored.  Monitoring included checking on whether homework was completed, limiting how long they could be out on school nights and providing help with homework. In fact, about 7.5% of teens whose parents “sometimes” or “always” helped with homework had used illicit drugs, cigarettes and binge alcohol over the past month, while about 15.5% of those whose parents “never” or “seldom” helped had. Other researchers have found that teens who spend time after school with peers are more likely to use substance than those who are at home alone, with parents, or in extra-curricular activities.


Adolescent Substance Abuse Knowledge Base. Factors of Teen Drug Use. Accessed July 7, 2010: http://www.adolescent-substance-abuse.com 

Phares, PhD, Vicky. Understanding Abnormal Child Psychology, Second Edition. 2008. Hoboken, NJ:  John Wiley & Sons.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Office of Applied Studies. Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health:  National Findings. Accessed July 7, 2010: http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/nsduh/2k8nsduh/2k8Results.cfm

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