Talking about substance abuse

We’ve heard a lot in recent months about underage drinking and the consequences to parents who allow it to occur in their homes. The possibilities include probation, jail time, and, in the case of Jeffrey and Sara Hutsell of Deerfield, the grief of having a hand in the deaths of two teenagers who died in a car crash last October after leaving a party in their home.

I have a hunch that more than a few parents followed this story with an uncomfortable awareness that this could easily have happened to them. We try to be easy-going parents, always hip and cool, whose kids actually want to hang out at home with their friends. At least we’ll know where they are, right? Some parents believe that drinking is an inevitable rite of passage for teens and prefer that their children party with their pals at home.

Proponents of‘social host liability’ laws urge them to reconsider.

The debate about what the Hutsells knew or allegedly condoned rages on, but I feel tremendous compassion for them and for the families of the children who died. Mistakes were made and opportunities were missed, but lessons can be learned that might save our own children sooner than we might realize.

In a recent study, 64 percent of eighth-graders said alcohol is easy to get from their own homes without their parents’ knowledge and 34 percent reported drinking at least once in the previous year. My advice? Talk early and often with your kids about substance use and abuse. Don’t preach, but teach your children about drugs, alcohol and inhalants: what they look and smell like and their permanent effects on developing brains, bodies and emotional well-being. Ask your kids about their goals. Are they aware of how substances could interfere? Rehearse with them ways to respond to friends’ invitations to use.

Be a good model. Kids will imitate our actions, regardless of our words.‘Do as I say and not as I do’ just doesn’t cut it. Also, realize that while it’s important to cultivate an easy rapport with our kids, understand that they already have friends. What they need from us is parenting.

Devise and discuss family rules about substance use and consequences for breaking them. Suggestions:

n No drinking alcohol until 21.

n Leave teen parties if substances are present.

n Don’t ride in a car with someone under the influence.

n I (parent) will be available 24/7 to help, no questions asked.

Your kid wants to have a party? Great. Help him brainstorm alternatives to drinking and establish a few ground rules. Some possibilities:

n Agree on a guest list. No crashers allowed.

n If a guest brings substances or arrives under the influence, his parents or the police will be called.

You’ll have greater success if you collaborate with other parents in devising common policies. This isn’t so far-fetched when you consider what you may already do. You’ve made it your business to find out who your kid’s friends are, know their parents and provide adequate supervision for the kids in your home. Research tells us that unsupervised teens have more opportunities to experiment with risky behaviors and start abusing substances earlier.

I’ll never forget the advice of an old friend, a veteran mother of four. She encouraged me to team up with other parents and to listen. Carpools are great opportunities. Just sit in the front seat and shut up, like a good chauffeur should. Resist the impulse to interrupt or to raise a judging eyebrow; you don’t want to burst the bubble of intimacy that exists in the world of your backseat. Simply pay attention. Enjoy the giggling about crushes, and notice who tends to lead and who is more inclined to follow. You might be surprised by what else you learn when the kids forget you’re there. Consider the power of this‘zone defense’ approach. It worked on the playground when you and other parents took turns watching the older children and tending to your babies, and it can work now.

As parents, we often feel powerless, somehow intimidated at the prospect of setting real limits on the substance abuse monster. We’ve seen what happens when we don’t, though. Sometimes children die.

Parenting is a team effort. Together we can make a difference.


Got a question or concern you’d like me to address? Nothing is off limits. If you’re a parent and it’s on your mind, chances are you’re not alone. Don’t suffer the wonders. Send your questions to

Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., has been a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy since 1995 and is a featured blogger at

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