Talking to Your Adult Child about Substance Use: A Guide for Parents

Talking to your adult child about their substance use can be an important first step in helping them make a change. It’s essential to understand the challenges they might face surrounding substance use and create a safe and open environment for discussion. But when should we talk to them about it, and how can we approach the conversation with empathy and understanding?

Understanding the Influences on Adult Children’s Substance Use

Have you noticed any changes in your adult child’s behavior? Are they easily worried, emotional, or angry? Transitioning into adulthood can be a time of change, challenges, and stress, which may influence their use of substances. 

Although parents do not cause their child’s substance use, studies have shown that parents play a significant role in influencing their child’s substance use decisions by modelling behavior. Parental alcohol misuse can nearly double (64.7% vs 37.5%) the chances that their child uses substances in adolescence when one or both parents struggle with alcohol use themselves.  

As adolescents become young adults, they are still trying to understand who they are and find their independence. This may involve seeking new challenges and engaging in risky behavior. Many adolescents might want to experiment with substances, and most young people don’t recognize the impact alcohol or drugs can have on their health and well-being. 

Although we hear a lot in the news about opioids, alcohol is still the number one substance that people struggle with and seek help for. 77 per cent of people consume alcohol and 16 per cent struggle with heavy drinking. 73% of people who come to ALAViDA are seeking help for alcohol use. 

According to “Knowing your Limits with Alcohol: A Practical Guide to Assessing your Drinking”, Alcohol can harm the way the body and brain develop. It is best to delay drinking onset for as long as possible to allow the brain to fully develop. If someone chooses to drink, less is always better. The risks to health and well-being increase the more you drink. Risks to your health increase at anything over 2 drinks per week.  

Many factors can contribute to substance use, such as: 

  • Stress: Adult life comes with various stressors, including work, relationships, and financial responsibilities. As young adults navigate the demands of their careers and personal lives, they may turn to substances as a coping mechanism to deal with stress. 
  • Peer Pressure: Pressure from friends or social circles can influence their choices regarding substance use. In social settings, young adults may feel compelled to use substances to be part of a group or to avoid feeling left out. 
  • Mental Health: If your adult child faces mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, substance use may worsen these conditions. Individuals may use substances to self-medicate and temporarily alleviate emotional pain. 
  • Family History: If substance use disorders run in the family, there may be a higher risk for your adult child to develop such issues. Genetic predisposition, combined with environmental factors, can contribute to substance use tendencies.  

Harm Reduction and Safety Planning 

When addressing substance use with your adult child, consider adopting a harm reduction approach instead of a strict abstinence-only stance. A harm reduction approach aims to equip young adults with the skills and information to keep themselves and their friends safe while encountering or experimenting with substances. 

An abstinence-only approach, for example, the “just say no” campaigns of the past, have proven to be ineffective and disconnected from the reality of young adults’ lives. Instead, a harm reduction approach acknowledges that substance use may happen and focuses on providing practical strategies for minimizing risks. 

Here are some harm reduction tips to discuss with your adult child: 

  • Plan the amount of a substance you will consume in advance and stick to the plan. 
  • Consume lower alcohol content drinks. 
  • Eat and hydrate while drinking. 
  • Take substance use breaks. (Example: Dry January or Sober October) 
  • Track your substance use to create more awareness about your patterns. 
  • Work with a coach or therapist to help you understand why you use substances. 
  • Plan activities that do not include substance use. 
  • Only consume substances to enhance pleasurable experiences vs to reduce painful emotions. 

Safety Planning: Help your adult child develop a safety plan to minimize risks associated with substance use: 

  • Buddy System: Encourage the buddy system to avoid going anywhere alone or with strangers while under the influence. Having a trusted friend by their side can provide support and assistance if needed. 
  • Safe Ride Home: Always have a safe ride home and avoid accepting rides from friends under the influence. Planning transportation in advance can prevent potentially dangerous situations. 
  • Keep a Charged Phone: Ensure they have a fully charged phone to call for help if needed. Being able to contact someone for assistance is essential in case of emergencies. 
  • Sexual Safety: Encourage them to be prepared with protection and knowledge of consent while sober and under the influence. Being informed about safe sexual practices is crucial for their well-being. 
  • Avoid Sharing Drinks: Advise against accepting drinks from strangers or consuming unattended drinks to prevent potential tampering. Being cautious about what they consume can safeguard against harmful substances. 

New Guidelines on Alcohol and Health 

It is important for you to have a conversation with your adult child and look at the information they need to make well-informed decisions if they decide to consume alcohol. The new Canadian Guidelines of Alcohol and Health recommend that less is more when it comes to drinking and that risks to your health increase the more you drink. According to these guidelines, consuming even small amounts of alcohol is associated with an increased risk of harm to yourself and to others. 

Binge drinking is having 5 or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion. Over 35% of young adults binge drink, with the vast majority unaware of the risk or health risks (such as cancer risk) that alcohol consumption can bring. Binge drinking can result in legal impairment, and it could potentially become a risk factor for more serious consequences such as death. 

Some of the risks of binge drinking are: 

  • Unintentional Injuries 
  • Violence 
  • Heart Disease 
  • High Blood Pressure 
  • GI Inflammation 
  • Alcohol Use Disorder 

Binge drinking can also affect someone other than the person who is drinking, for example: driving accidents, or violence while someone is under the effects of alcohol. 

When to Talk to Your Adult Child about Substance Use 

It’s better to talk to your adult child instead of avoiding the topic. But have this in mind: young adult children are being lectured all the time while at university or college. They sit and listen to a professor teaching them something for hours on end. When talking about substance use, they may zone out if they feel they are listening to another lecture. Preparing for what to talk about in advance, asking open-ended questions, and being brief in what you say can be effective in communicating about the harms of substance use. 

Did you know that the human brain only fully matures around 25 years of age? Before then, a young adult’s brain remains structurally and functionally vulnerable to impulsive sex, eating disorders, substance use and more. Understanding that impulsivity is a biological variable for young people, and not a testament to their upbringing may shift your perspective and help you in supporting your adult child If you see they have chosen to drink, understanding why they made that decision, rather than being upset, could help them feel supported. .

You can guide them towards reduced-risk behaviors by engaging in open dialogue. Be empathetic and understanding and avoid harsh judgment or criticism. Instead, focus on fostering an environment of trust and communication, where they feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences.

Try to see substance use from their perspective and ask why they are consuming substances. Once you feel ready to start the conversation, choose a calm setting, such as during a nice dinner, a walk or a hike; somewhere that is more casual and will allow you to bring up the discussion without making it seem too formal. Before you start talking about it, don’t forget to complement them on anything they are doing right so the conversation is not just focused on drinking or consuming substances, but the conversation comes from a place of love and care.  

Is it time for the talk?  

If you’re interested in learning more about how to apply positive communication or access resources on how to talk to your adult child, access the ALAViDA TRAiL Loved One pathway. 

Sources: / / / / of the adolescent brain – PMC ( /