How to Talk to Your Child About Addiction: A Comprehensive Guide

Medically Reviewed by
Marisa Savic, PMHNP-BC
July 24, 2023

Addiction is a complex and devastating issue affecting millions of people around the globe. Unfortunately, young people are particularly vulnerable and face higher risks of developing this condition. 

Recent estimates show that 74.0% of those who struggle with addiction and are admitted to a treatment center began substance use at 17 or younger, and 10.2% started using substances as young as 11. Studies show that early substance use quadruples the risk of developing a substance use disorder. These worrying statistics should prompt parents to take action. 

Approaching this topic with teenagers can be difficult. Certain approaches work better than others so we have included the best tactics to use when speaking with your child about this topic. Providing them with the proper education, tools and safe space to talk about their use can help them avoid long term consequences and improve their quality of life.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a pattern of using a substance or engaging in an activity that becomes difficult or impossible to control and can lead to harmful consequences. It involves changes in the brain that make an impulsive action become compulsive and painful to stop. 

Types of Addiction

There are various types of addiction that plague young people. Alcohol, stimulants (i.e. cocaine, methamphetamine, and amphetamine medications such as Adderall), sedatives (i.e. benzodiazepine medications such as Xanax, Valium and Klonopin), opioids (i.e. heroin, fentanyl and medications such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet), nicotine (i.e. cigarettes, dip, chew and vaping), and cannabis (marijuana) are the most common substances leading to addiction in young people. Additionally, many teenagers have been struggling with behavioral addictions, such as problematic gaming, gambling, use of social media, and even eating.

How Addiction Affects the Brain, Body and Behavior

Addiction alters brain chemistry, hijacking reward pathways, impulse control, and decision-making abilities. It diminishes the ability to experience pleasure from other sources, leading to detrimental changes in one’s behavior. Such changes cause people to prioritize their addiction over their responsibilities, well-being, and relationships. Additionally, substance use can lead to tolerance, the need for higher amounts of a substance to achieve the same effects, and withdrawal, physical pain and discomfort when stopping use. These factors make it more difficult to feel “normal” without a substance and contribute to prioritizing use over all other aspects of life.

A parent sits on the couch talking to their child

Identifying Risk Factors

Certain conditions or experiences can increase the risk for developing an addiction. For young people, environmental conditions such as peer influence, and behaviors such as using substances before age 15, can contribute to the development of a substance use disorder. Additionally, psychological factors such as mental health disorders and trauma can increase the risk for addiction. It’s also important to note that genetic predisposition can play a role in substance use; specific genes can increase vulnerability by altering brain function and response to certain substances. 

Indicators of Addiction

There are common behaviors that have been observed with people struggling with addiction. The following signs are worth investigating together with your child:

  • Changes in behaviors and appearance 
  • Sudden decline in academic performance
  • Social withdrawal
  • Mood swings
  • Secretive behaviors
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns

Supporting a Loved One With Addiction

Prepare for the Conversation

Supporting a loved one with addiction requires empathy, patience, and understanding. Think back to when you were young and try to view things from their perspective. Learn up-to-date information about addiction and review nonjudgmental terms to use. 

Two parents talk to their child at the dinner table

Start the Conversation

Starting a conversation with your child about addiction can be challenging, yet essential in ensuring their well-being. Here are practical tips to help you approach this sensitive discussion with honesty, care, and openness:

  • Choose the right time and setting: Pick a time when both of you are relaxed and find a quiet and comfortable place for open dialogue.
  • Show love and concern: Approach the conversation with empathy and honesty. By expressing genuine concern for your child’s well-being and showing them how much you love them, your child may be more open to hearing you out.
  • Use age-appropriate language: Attune your language to their age and maturity level. Give clear and concise explanations with relatable scenarios on the risks and consequences of addiction. 
  • Give accurate information: Use statistics and real-life examples on the effects of addiction on physical and mental health, life opportunities, and relationships
  • Encourage participation: Encourage your child to ask questions and air their thoughts. Reassure them that their opinions matter and avoid being judgmental. 
  • Keep the conversation ongoing: Establish an open line of communication and let them know they can reach out to you anytime with their concerns about addiction and other related issues. 

Addressing Common Questions and Concerns

Prepare to answer difficult questions about addiction and provide accurate information to your loved one. Listen actively and validate your child’s feelings, letting them know that addiction is a complicated issue many people struggle with. Address any stigma or shame around addiction by reassuring your child that it’s a health condition, not a moral failing. 

Encourage Healthy Habits

Here are tips on fostering positive coping mechanisms to help your child navigate addiction challenges. 

  • Teach them relaxation techniques, such as mindfulness or deep breathing, to help them manage cravings and anxiety.
  • Help them discover constructive outlets like art, exercise, or writing to channel their emotions. 
  • Encourage healthy social connections and support networks through peer groups, therapy, and positive friendships. 
  • Foster a structured routine like regular physical activity, nutritious meals, and sleep.
  • Empower them to set small achievable goals and celebrate their wins. 

Above all, offer your child love, understanding, and continuous encouragement for them to feel supported.


If your child continues to struggle, encourage them to seek professional help and assist them in finding appropriate treatment options. 

Choosing an appropriate, individualized treatment plan is essential to recovery. There are multiple levels of addiction treatment, such as detox, inpatient or residential rehab stays, or outpatient treatment. Medications can be used for some forms of addiction to help reduce cravings and prevent use. Additionally, individual and family therapy can decrease risk for relapse. There are also resources to help connect you to the right level of treatment, such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) and treatment locator.

Support groups can also be beneficial, and there are many options from 12-Step programs like AA or NA to more skill-focused groups such as SMART Recovery. Accompanying your child to support groups can help affirm your commitment to their recovery. 

If you are concerned for a loved one who may be showing symptoms of an addiction, we are here to help. Download our eBook, “How to Help a Loved One Struggling with Substance Use Disorder,” for information on addiction and how to best help someone experiencing it while still caring for your own mental health.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, Eleanor Health is here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Washington.

Get Started Today

Marisa Savic, PMHNP-BC

Marisa Savic, PMHNP-BC is a board certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner who received her nursing and master’s degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. Marisa has worked as a provider, clinical manager, director of clinical quality, and program manager of addiction treatment at numerous companies specializing in telepsychiatry as well as working in person at inpatient, outpatient, detoxification and crisis center facilities. She is currently the National Lead Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner at Eleanor Health and her clinical interests include therapeutic communication, evidence-based treatment and nonjudgmental care.

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