Helping teens make safe choices

picture of mother and son talking

As the school year comes to a close, teenagers are eager to toss their notebooks into the recycle bin and welcome the freedoms of summer. So how can you talk to your teen about making smart choices when they are out celebrating?

Parents should have conversations with their children early and often. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Children as young as 9 years old already start viewing alcohol in a more positive way, and approximately 3,300 kids as young as 12 try marijuana each day.” Stress, peer pressure and transitions can contribute to drug and alcohol use among teens, so during the busy season of teen milestones like proms and graduations, it’s a good time to reinforce these conversations.

Be clear and honest

More than 80% of children between the ages of 10 and 18 say that their parents’ opinion about alcohol affects their decision to drink. Don’t assume your child knows how you feel. If you expect your child to not use drugs and alcohol, you need to tell them that. Be prepared to discuss your own experiences with drugs and alcohol.

Teens should understand all the consequences of their choices—not just within your household. Be a reliable source of information when it comes to explaining the legal and personal costs of poor choices. Discuss with them how their choices can affect their family, their community and their future such as endangering themselves or others, paying fines and legal fees, loss of privileges like driving. 

They also need to trust you. Some families have a no-ask policy where if their child is in an uncomfortable situation, they can call for a ride—no questions asked. This doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences for not following expectations. It’s Instead, about making it easy for your child to leave an uncomfortable situation safely, without being afraid of your reaction.

Have a plan and practice

To help having these conversations, SAMHSA offers a mobile app. Practicing these talks with your child can help make sure your approach will be willing to listen and talk with you.

Practice with your child how they might handle a situation where they might feel uncomfortable speaking up—or saying no. Practice what they might say if their driver decides to leave a party impaired. Discuss what actions they can take, like call you for a ride.

Consider a using a code word or phrase if your child gets into a situation where they feel unsafe, they can text you that code word for you to call them or to pick them up.

Communication is key

Open and frequent conversation is the most important action you can take to make sure your child stays safe. Let them know how much you care and that you are someone they can trust to come to and be honest with.


SAMHSA’s “Talk, They Hear You,” campaign’s “The 5 Goals of conversations with your child,” is a good guiding resource for talking to your children about substance misuse and making safe choices.

For more information on talking how to talk to your children about making safe choices, watch the “How to Keep Your Teen Safe Around Prom and Graduation Season” webinar.


Deryn Smith, MPH, community health partnership coordinator
Population Health, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth Hitchcock Clinics

Andrea Smith, MPA, MSW, community health partnership coordinator
Population Health, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth Hitchcock Clinics