How to talk to your teenager about the dangers of drug use

When my kids were little, I thought it would be easy to talk with them as teenagers about the dangers of drug use. Now that I have one in college and another in high school, it’s complicated. Sure, they’re good kids; good kids can still make poor decisions. And it only takes one.

It’s not that they don’t know about our nation’s growing opioid crisis where 130+ Americans die every day of an overdose. It’s more that they perceive themselves as invincible beings. And far more knowledgeable than their parents and most adults on nearly everything, drugs included. They’ve learned it all in school, what else is there to talk about? So, when they sense a lecture coming on, they’re often quick to dismiss it.

While their frontal lobes are still developing—you know, the rational part of the brain responsible for good judgement and awareness of long-term consequences—yeah, that’s the one—it’s important to keep talking to them about the dangers and where you stand on the topic of drugs and alcohol.

“Parents, you are the biggest influence in your teen’s life. Kids who say they learn a lot about the risks of drugs at home are significantly less likely to use drugs.”

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

I find that movies and especially books are great ways to talk to your kids about the dangers of recreational drug use. Stories from a teen’s point of view tend to be better received as if they are hearing it from one of their friends. Here are a few YA reads that aren’t afraid to tackle the ugly and gritty side of drugs.

Go Ask Alice (Anonymous, AKA Beatrice Sparks)

I start with this classic because it holds up spectacularly. It also scared the bejeezus out of me as a teen. Intimate diary accounts of a lost, self-loathing teen turn tragic as she unknowingly consumes LSD at a party. Her foray into marijuana, speed, acid, sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and heroin is only the beginning. The part where she’s slipped acid while watching a baby and is sent to an asylum will shake your teen to the core.

Heroine (Mindy McGinnis)

Mickey’s promising softball career is in jeopardy after a devastating car crash. She’s later prescribed Oxycontin post surgery. Her determination to expedite her recovery resorts to more pills, even after her doctor cuts her off. She finds new Oxy-using friends and later turns to heroin. Her fall from grace is uncomfortable and intense with realistic scenes of drug use and withdrawal. Heroine also pokes holes at preconceived notions of what a drug addict looks like.

White Lines (Jennifer Banash)

Similar to the way Bret Easton Ellis’s novel, Less Than Zero turns the glamorous portrayal of rich kids who like to party hard on its ear by revealing the ugly side of addiction, 17-year-old Cat finds herself amongst the glitzy club scene of 1980s New York City. Raised by an abusive mother and a checked-out dad, she’s afraid of everyone and everything. She uses drugs to quell her rage inside and eventually learns they can’t save her.

Smack (Melvin Burgess)

Based on real people and actual events, 14-year-olds Gemma and Tar run away to Bristol, England to escape their parents. After experimenting with marijuana, they are introduced to heroin, thinking that they won’t get addicted by merely smoking it. A brutally honest depiction of heroin dependency that leads to violence and teenage prostitution for once free-spirited teens turned tragic, beaten-down adults.

Crank (Ellen Hopkins)

Book one of a powerful YA trilogy shows how even the “best” homes aren’t immune to the perils of crystal meth. Kristina gives her nemesis its rightful name: the Monster as it swiftly takes over, unlocking her alter ego Bree, the promiscuous cool girl who’s up for anything. Based on the real-life experience of Hopkins’s daughter and written in verse, Crank captures the dark descent of a once gifted and popular girl in the clutches of addiction.

Beneath a Meth Moon (Jacqueline Woodson)

After losing her mom and grandmother in Hurricane Katrina, 15-year-old Laurel starts over in a new town. She makes the cheer squad and soon begins dating the school’s star basketball player. Her sadness, however, is never far behind. When her new boyfriend introduces meth to her, she’s immediately hooked, thus her cravings begin. Her lies sever her relationships. She finds herself emaciated, malnourished, and living on the street.

Gym Candy (Carl Deuker)

Groomed by his dad since the age of four to be a football superstar, Mick feels the pressure more than ever as he enters high school. Looking for the edge he needs to compete against bigger, stronger opponents, he starts taking steroids and experiences side effects from acne and growing breasts, to “roid rage.” When his secret is discovered, he attempts to take his life. Lesson learned: Cheating your way to the top comes with consequences.


Heather Cumiskey is an award-winning author of the YA duology, I Like You Like This and I Love You Like That, a poignant coming of age story about addiction, peer pressure, sexuality, and first love. Connect with her at