The teen years are about growth and exploration. But exploring drugs and alcohol can lead down a dangerous path with lifelong consequences. Teens are smart. They know they shouldn’t use illegal substances. But now that they’re older, they need to understand why. Arm them with the facts they’ll need to make good decisions. And keep the lines of communication open. Here’s how.

Talking Point #1: Why is it OK for Grown-ups to do it?

If you drink alcohol or use recreational drugs, your teen may ask why it’s fine for you, but not for them. It’s a valid question with important answers. First, teen brains are still growing and developing. Using drugs and alcohol can harm that development — and their future. Second, a teen’s most important job is laying down the foundations for their lives as adults. Using drugs and alcohol can interfere with future-building activities like school, hobbies, and friendships. Finally, underage use of alcohol — and everyone’s use of illegal drugs — is against the law. Getting caught can have lifelong consequences for your teen and for your family.

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On top of that, it’s dangerous. WebMD reports that alcohol and drug abuse is a leading cause of teen death and injury from car crashes, suicide, violence, and drowning. Also, drugs and alcohol affect judgment, which can increase the risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. And if that’s not enough, illegal drugs aren’t regulated for quality, purity, or dosage. So you often don’t know what you’re getting.

Talking Point #2: Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on Your Body


A lot of people think alcohol is less dangerous because it’s legal. That’s just not the case. This idea can tempt teens to drink more than they should. And the situation can quickly become life-threatening. How much is too much? When it comes to alcohol, it’s probably a lot less than you think. In the United States, driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 is a crime. But your body will start to feel the effects long before then. This chart gives the physical effects a person may experience at different BAC levels. This calculator can tell you how many drinks it takes for a person at different weights to reach different BAC levels. In addition, it will tell you how long it will take for that amount of alcohol to leave that person’s body.

Drinking too much alcohol can quickly result in alcohol poisoning, which can be deadly. Binge drinking can be especially dangerous, because you can consume quite a bit of alcohol before feeling the effects. Alcohol poisoning can make a person confused, then unresponsive. That person may pass out, go into a coma, or even die.

Illegal Drugs

The physical effects of drugs depend on the drug. WebMD has a list of some illegal drugs your teen might encounter, as well as their health risks. But most drugs fall into three categories.

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Stimulants (Uppers)

Stimulants, including cocaine, crack, amphetamine, ecstasy, Ritalin, methamphetamine, and crystal meth, stimulate the nervous system. Some people enjoy them because they can make a person feel smarter, stronger, and filled with energy. They can also cause anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, hyperactivity, seizures, stroke, brain damage, depression, psychosis, heart attack, and death. Stimulants are highly addictive.

Depressants (Downers)

Depressants, including alcohol, heroin, tranquilizers (“tranks”), benzodiazepines (“benzos”), and barbiturates suppress different nervous system functions. Some people enjoy them because they can make a person feel relaxed or sleepy. It can also cause nausea, vomiting, confusion, slowed pulse and breathing, depression, brain damage, organ damage, suicidal thoughts, coma, and death. Depressants, too, are highly addictive.


The hallucinogens include LSD, mushrooms, DMT, MDMA, and the strongest kinds of marijuana. Hallucinogens change the way a person sees, hears, tastes, smells, and feels the world around them. They can cause visions, or hallucinations. These can be enjoyable or frightening. Hallucinogenic drugs are generally not addictive. However, used often enough over time, they can increase the chance of certain serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and psychosis. The greater danger is confusion and panic brought on by hallucinations. This can cause a person to act dangerously, or keep them from recognizing dangers around them.

Talking Point #3: Effects of Drugs and Alcohol on the Brain

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In 2012, researchers discovered that two parts of the brain deal with two different kinds of decision making. The orbitofrontal cortex is responsible for decision making in the moment. A different part of the brain makes decisions based on values and experience. Under normal circumstances, both parts work together. But drugs and alcohol interrupt this process. What this means is that, even though we know better, drugs and alcohol can physically prevent us from making good decisions in the moment. And this can lead people to take risks that result in violence, accidents, unplanned pregnancies, STDs, and more.

Brain Damage

Using drugs and alcohol can cause permanent brain damage. Damage can be caused by binging (using a large amount over a small period of time) or by repeated use over time. Certain stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine can cause seizures. They can also increase the chance of developing Parkinson’s Disease. Use of meth and MDMA can damage the brain in a similar way to a traumatic brain injury. Use of opiates like heroin and morphine can cause the brain’s white matter to degenerate. Chronic alcohol use can result in B vitamin deficiencies that lead to psychosis. In addition, it can cause memory lapses and damage to motor functions.

Talking Point #4: Have a Plan

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You can help your teen understand the risks of drugs and alcohol. But you can’t keep him or her away from every risky situation. Your teen might find themselves in the position of wanting to do the right thing, but not wanting to look bad in front of their peers. Or maybe things are becoming uncomfortable. They have a bad feeling about things that are happening, but don’t know how to leave without drawing attention to themselves. This is where you can help. With a little planning ahead, you can give your teen a way out.

The X Plan

Writer and educator Bert Fulks came up with the X Plan to help his own teens out of this situation. Fulks told his kids that if they’re ever in an uncomfortable situation and need a way out, to text himself, his wife, or a sibling with only the letter “X.” The person who received the message would call back immediately, and initiate the following conversation:

Parent: Something’s come up and I have to come get you right now.
Child: What happened?
Parent: I’ll tell you when I get there. Be ready to leave in five minutes. I’m on my way.

This escape plan gives your teen the excuse they need to leave but allows them to save face with their friends. They have the tools they need to make the right choice but don’t open themselves up to social ridicule. In exchange, Fulks says, parents must agree that kids can tell them as much or as little as they want about the situation. There will be no punishment, no judgment, and no criticism. The exception, of course, is that if someone is in danger. In this case, your child has the moral obligation to speak up for their protection. Not only does the X plan give your teen a way out of a sticky situation, but it also helps to build trust between you.

In Conclusion

Teens are smart. And if parents have done their job, they know right from wrong. One of teens’ most important jobs is taking the foundation their parents have given them, and using it to build a life of their own. Drugs and alcohol can derail this. But by giving teens the reasons behind the rules, we give them the power to make important life decisions rather than just following the rules. And by keeping the lines of communication open and judgment-free, we give them the space to make the right decisions while still saving face with their friends.


Featured Image CC BY 2.0 by Indi Samarajiva, via Flickr.

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