As parents, one of the most difficult things we have to discuss with our kids is drug and alcohol abuse. But what if you have to tell them that a loved one in your family is an addict? We spoke with experts to see what to say — and when.
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Drug or alcohol abuse can have a devastating impact on the entire family and can especially affect teens, who are starting to become more aware of drugs and alcohol within their peer group.

The genetic factor

While many scientists and researchers believe that genetics play a role in addiction, it is still unclear to what extent. If someone in your family struggles with addiction, this can be a good basis for discussion about drugs and alcohol with your teen. He may also benefit from knowing that his family history may put him at greater risk for addiction. Having an addict in the family isn't an automatic indicator that your teen will become an addict — but talking to your teens about the possible link is important.

According to the National Institutes of Health, "Both genetic and environmental variables contribute to the initiation of use of addictive agents and to the transition from use to addiction. Addictions are moderately to highly heritable." The article goes on to suggest that an individual's risk "tends to be proportional to the degree of genetic relationship to an addicted relative." So even if this feels like a difficult conversation to have with your teens, her future health is potentially at risk — so have the talk.

Have a discussion, not a lecture

Conversations about such adult topics may be easier to deliver as a stern lecture, full of "don'ts" and warnings, but this won't be the way to get your teen's attention. In some cases, you may not even be the best person to get the conversation going. "Sometimes if there is a history of [substance] abuse in the family it is actually better to have someone knowledgeable about addiction talk to your teen," says Lisa Peacock, LMFT. "You can be present but sometimes with the emotional connections you might associate with the subject you will not be able to talk logically and make it an informative discussion."

You can be present but sometimes with the emotional connections you might associate with the subject you will not be able to talk logically and make it an informative discussion.

Peacock warns that turning this into a lecture is the worst thing parents can do. "They are developing their own identities and need to be given permission to ask questions and be allowed to decide on their own," she adds. She suggests bringing in a third party, like someone who does alcohol and drug counseling, so that parents can listen and learn cooperatively with their child, rather than trying to be the teacher. Especially with the added factor of family addiction issues, this third party can make all the difference in the discussion.

Walk the walk

The difference between a 2-year-old and a teen? Teens are really paying attention, and if you mess up they will call you on it. Lorelie Rozzano is a former addict, drug and alcohol counselor and author of Jagged Little Edges. "Our kids don't listen to what we say, they watch what we do," she says. "Lead by example. If you want to make a difference, open communication and support is the key. Make your home an alcohol/drug free environment. Speak to your teen from the heart. Share your concerns in a non-judgmental way. Set clear boundaries. Be prepared to listen to what your teen has to say." Act as if your opinion is the only one that matters and you run the risk of alienating your teen.

Rozzano points out that if you or your spouse are dealing with addiction, you should be prepared to own it and make changes in order to help your teen avoid the same fate.

Rozzano points out that if you or your spouse are dealing with addiction, you should be prepared to own it and make changes in order to help your teen avoid the same fate. "Before confronting your family member, make sure you have looked in the mirror," she says. "Are your drinking habits healthy? Do you use drugs? Do you have any behaviors you're ashamed of? Are you prepared to go to any lengths to change? Do you have a support system in place?" She mentions Al-anon, counseling and 12-step programs as great places to start. But as a parent, if you are not willing to reach out for help, your chances of making an impact on your teen aren't good. "It's like saying 'do what I say, not what I do,'" adds Rozzano.

The bottom line is that family history of addiction can potentially affect your teen's health and well-being. So if your family has a history of issues with addiction, don't just have the same-old, same-old "drugs are bad" discussion. Go the extra step and inform them of the potentially increased risk they have for becoming addicted, so they are well-equipped to make decisions on their own as they grow and mature.

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