For Parents

What Should I Do If I Think My Teen Is Harmfully Involved With Alcohol, Drugs or Gambling

Children in their teen years are inevitably faced with decisions about becoming involved with alcohol, drugs or gambling. Curiosity and the natural desire to fit in and have fun can lead many young people to choose to experiment. Some of these young people may go on to experience serious problems in their lives as a result of their involvement.

What are some possible signs?

The best way to determine whether or not your teen may be harmfully involved with alcohol, drugs or gambling is to look at what is happening in the different areas of their life. Changes in what would be considered typical behaviour for your teen should be noted. Here are some examples of signs to be aware of:

  • Changes at school: marks, attendance, attitude towards school, behaviour problems at school
  • Emotional Changes: mood swings, increased defiance, anxiety, paranoia.
  • Social Changes: changes in peer group, decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities, sudden increased popularity, loss of friends, secretive about friends/activities.
  • Legal Problems: alcohol or drug specific charges, theft, assault or other illegal behaviour when under the influence
  • Physical Changes: weight loss, tired/run down, atypical amounts of energy, appetite changes, frequent illnesses, increase in accidents, memory problems, less concern about appearance, change in sleeping patterns.
  • Changes in Family Relationships: withdrawing from family, no longer following rules at home, isolating self, increased tension at home.
  • Financial Changes: increase in spending money, their own or other’s possessions are missing, money is spent with nothing to show for it, frequent job changes.

What should I do if I am concerned?


It is common for parents to feel the need to catch their teen using in order to feel that they have proof. Because of this you may be tempted to search your teen’s room, or go on other “spy missions”. These feelings are often motivated by a natural desire to protect our kids and keep them safe. When we are concerned that someone we care about may be harmfully involved with alcohol, drugs or gambling it is tempting to try and control the person and their activities. The reality is that we cannot control anyone but ourselves.

There are some things that you can do that may help your teen to re-examine their choices. If you have noticed changes in your teen you should express concern to them. The way in which this concern is communicated will have a lot to do with how it is received.

Positive Communication Techniques

  • Focus on the Behaviour Changes that you have Observed
    It is helpful to talk with your teen about the changes that you have observed and to let them know that you are concerned. Try not to sound judgemental. One way to do this is to focus on the behaviour rather than the person
  • Use “I” Messages
    “I” messages focus on what you are seeing and how you feel about it. They can lessen defences and keep the lines of communication open. “I” messages look something like this: “I feel worried when you stay out all night without calling because I am afraid that something terrible may have happened to you.”
  • Really Listen
    Communication is a two way process. You can learn a great deal from your teen if you take the time to really listen to what they say. It can be hard to listen to things that we do not like hearing and sometimes it is tempting to jump in and say our part. Try not to do this. Your teen is more likely to choose to talk with you if they know that they will be listened to and treated with respect.
  • Remain Calm and Caring
    This is easy to say but hard to do especially when we are feeling upset. Sometimes when anger or fear take over we may say or do things that we do not mean. Some of these things can damage the relationship that we have with our teens. Families with lots of yelling, anger and attempts to control others can cloud the issue. Instead of seeing their use/gambling as a problem, teens may see the problem as the poor relationship they have with their parents.
  • Request that your Teen go for Counselling
    Parents often struggle with how to approach the subject of counselling with their teen. You may want to simply express your concerns and ask that your teen go and talk to a counsellor. It is helpful to do your homework ahead of time and fi nd out about the services available in your area and what they offer. Many programs will do an assessment to determine whether alcohol, drug or gambling behaviours are a problem and what the extent the problem is. Your teen will likely respond more positively to you encouraging them to go to a program to “check out” their use/gambling and get some information rather than asking them to go and get help for their “addiction problem”.
  • Take breaks
    Keep in mind that if your attempts to communicate with your teen end up with your teen becoming defensive or angry, it’s ok to take a break from the conversation and revisit it again when everyone’s emotions are under control. Taking steps to improve communication at home can go a long way in helping your teen through this tough time.

Strategies to help teens make better choices:

  • Set Clear Rules and Consequences
    Make sure that your teen is aware of what the limits are in your home and what the consequences are if the limits are broken. Keep in mind that these need to reasonable and enforceable. Once limits and consequences are set it is important that you stick to them.
  • Try Not To Enable
    Negative consequences can motivate change. Many teens who are using /gambling will identify a number of positive things about it such as “it is fun”, “feels good”, “make friends”, etc. If a teen is only experiencing positive consequences chances are that they will continue using/gambling. Alcohol and other drug use/gambling can have several negative consequences as well and it is these consequences that often motivate people to make changes. Sometimes parents get in the way of their teen experiencing these consequences and unintentionally encourage their use/gambling to continue. This is called enabling and parents do it because they care and because it can be hard to see those we care about in trouble. Parents enable when they do things like make excuses or cover up for their children and pay their legal fi nes or their debts. Enabling behaviours can be changed by asking yourself this question before you act “ Is what I am about to do getting in the way of my child experiencing the consequences of their choices?” If it is and you are not comfortable with that, then you may want to reconsider.
  • Get Support for You and Your Family
    When a family member is in trouble with alcohol, drugs or gambling it is common for all family members to be affected. You may notice that relationships within your family are strained. It is important that families talk with each other about how they are feeling. Not talking about the problem leaves everyone feeling alone and isolated. Even if your teen does not get help there are supports available for family members through addiction counselling services and support groups like Families Anonymous and Al Anon.

Where can I get help?


There are a number of services available for adolescents and their parents. You may also want to consult with your family doctor or school guidance counsellor about what is available in your community or province. Remember, even if your teen is not ready to get help you can still gain a lot from talking to a counsellor who specializes in this area. AFM and other agencies offer programs for parents to assist with this challenging time. For more information, contact your local AFM office or visit