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Substance Misuse and Your Middle Schooler

Alcohol, Tobacco, Vaping, Marijuana And Other Drugs

  • What are common substances middle schoolers currently use?
  • How can I recognize the signs of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use?
  • What do I do if I think my child is using substances?

What are Some Common Substances That Middle Schoolers Currently Use?

Children in middle school are at an age when they are exploring, experimenting and are heavily influenced by their peers.  It is also a time when they may be exposed to alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, vaping and potentially other drugs.  Although drug and alcohol use is less in middle school than in high school, it is still a problem that needs to be addressed and prevented.  

According to the Center for Disease Control, the most common substances used by teens are alcohol, marijuana and tobacco..  In addition, vaping and the use of inhalants (sniffing glue, paint thinner, markers and household chemicals) are becoming more and more common for this age group.  It is important that both parents and caregivers have accurate information about how these substances can affect a tweens’s brain and body so that they are equipped to educate their children on the risks of using them.  It is also important to note, however, that not all teens will use these substances.   

Why it Matters

SubstanceEffects on the Mind and Body
Inhalants These slow down the brain activity and produce a feeling that resembles being drunk. The use of inhalants can cause seizures, trauma, accidents and even death. This can also be a gateway drug into other harmful substances.


(CBD, edibles)

Cannabis use can cause depression and anxiety.  It can also cause issues with memory and learning as well as problem solving and thinking.  Physically it can create body tremors, increased heart rate and loss of motor coordination. Tweens who use cannabis are more likely to do poorly in school.  If they drive while using, they are two times more likely to get in an accident.
AlcoholKids who begin drinking before age 15 are 40% more likely to develop a substance use disorder.   Alcohol on a developing brain can damage the memory and learning part of the brain as well as impair the part responsible for good judgment. Alcohol-related deaths are prevalent in teens,  Many are a result of underage drinking and driving, but others include suicide, homocide, and alcohol poisoning.  Tweens who drink are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses.

Prescription Medication

(Ex. stimulants such as ADHD medications , depressants and opioids such as pain medication)

When taken as prescribed by a medical provider, prescription drugs are safe. When misused certain types of medicine can “get someone high,” though many teens  are simply trying to cope or manage the stress in their lives. Prescription drugs are like other drugs and are harmful to the developing brain when used inappropriately. Can create an addiction pathway in the brain that will make it more likely to become addicted to other drugs. Long term effects may include heart problems, psychosis, anger, paranoia. And substance use disorders.


(smoking cigarettes and vaping)

Has the potential to damage the developing brain and create mood disorders.  It can also lead to nicotine addiction, which may cause your teen to become addicted to other drugs.  When people vape they inhale cancer-causing chemicals and heavy metals into their lungs.

Check In:

How Can I Recognize the Signs of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Use?

While the following can be signs of alcohol, tobacco or other drug abuse, they can also be attitudes and behaviors of a typical tween.  If you suspect your child is using, and they exhibit some of these behaviors, contact your school counselor, nurse or administrator. You may also want to reach out to a social worker or doctor to find out how to handle the situation.

  • Behavior/Mood Changes
  • Different friend group (suddenly changes)
  • Problems at school or home
  • Unexplained need for money
  • Strange mental or physical behaviors
  • Changes in appetite
  • Disobeying family rules
  • Negative/Ambivalent  attitude
  • Deceitful/secretive
  • Silent/uncommunicative
  • Makes endless excuses
  • Poor hygiene
  • Frequently sick
  • Slurred or rapid-fire speech
  • Locks doors
  • Goes out for long periods of time/breaks curfew
  • Loss of motivation
  • Inability to focus
  • Sudden weight gain or weight loss
  • Changes in sleep patterns- sleeping more than normal (marijuana use), unable to wake up (opioids & nodding off), or not sleeping at all (speed, cocaine)

NOTE:  Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, conduct disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) create a greater risk for problematic substance use and addiction. As a parent, it’s important to be on the lookout for whether your child may be using substances to cope with their condition.

Connect & Communicate:

How Can I Start Talking to My Middle Schooler about Substance Use and Why is it Important?

Tweens whose parents disapprove of early drug use, discuss the risks of substance abuse with them, and have clear consequences are more likely to say no when they are exposed to it. In order to have an open and meaningful conversation, base it on the facts.. Use the information from the top of the page to share what you know about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs and how it can affect them physically, mentally and academically. It is important that these talks happen early and often.

Start the conversation

Ask open-ended questions:  “Can you tell me more about….”  This will help your teen actually share information instead of answering simple yes/no questions that may not move the conversation anywhere.

Stay positive:  “Thank you for your honesty and sharing that with me.”  This demonstrates your openness to talking and appreciation for what they share.  It also sets a tone of being on their side and genuinely wanting to understand.

Reflect back: “What I am hearing you say is…”  By reflecting, you show them that you understand what they are saying and that you heard them.  It is also an opportunity for them to correct you if they feel that what you heard was not what they meant or said.

In addition to the discussion strategies above, you can:

  • Have small talks more often, especially throughout the adolescent years.
  • Talking on a regular basis builds trust and your tween will be less likely to use substances  if they have a strong relationship with their parents and caregivers.
  • Have a lot of short discussions, which are more effective than having one “big” talk.  Taking the time while driving, hiking, and having dinner makes the conversation more comfortable and less intimidating
  • Be clear and honest about your beliefs and expectations around underage drinking and substance.  They will be more likely to follow the rules if you are honest and real with them.
  • Get their point of view. This will help provide space for them to ask questions and share any thoughts or beliefs they have about drinking, smoking and using drugs. 
  • Be a role model.  When and if you drink, do so in moderation and don’t get behind a wheel afterwards.  What you do is even more important than what you say and can go a long way in helping your teen make good decisions.
  • Pay attention to their music, videos they watch and how much time they spend online- ask questions, become involved in their media choices. 

What Do I Do If I Think My Child Is Using Substances?  

If you suspect that your teen is using, prepare ahead of time so that you talk to them with a clear, calm and open mind.  It is important to avoid shaming, blaming or accusing because you want to create a safe and supportive environment for them to share.  Following are some suggestions for what you can do before and during the conversation to help them open up.

Before the conversation:

  • Get on the same page about how to handle it with those who also parent your tween
  • Provide evidence (tangible or observations) of substance use
  • Mentally prepare for anger and to be called a hypocrite
  • Think through possible comments and questions they will have and prepare our answers
  • Get clear on expectations and consequences of substance use in the household
  • Identify any addiction in the family and be prepared to share that information
  • Set realistic goals for the conversation (especially if it’s the first one)
  • Find a comfortable setting

During the Conversation:

  • Stay calm
  • Reiterate how much you love your child
  • Pause the discussion if it gets too volatile
  • Set or remind them of the expectations and rules for substance use
  • Allow space for them to talk/share as well; listen 
  • Resist the urge to lecture
  • Explore the reasons they are using with curiosity and not blame
  • Be aware of body language (try and avoid finger pointing and crossed arms)

One of the best ways to help prevent substance use and substance misuse is to stay connected and interested in your tween’s life. Spend time with them and their friends doing things that they enjoy.  Find ways to get them involved in household chores and decisions so that they feel a sense of family and belonging.  Stay open to talking about anything going on in their world or in the lives of their friends.  Doing this will help create a relationship that is built on trust, love and respect, and that will go a long way in helping your child follow the rules.


Guide for Hosting an Alcohol-Free Tween Party:  Provides parents with a guide for how to have an alcohol free party in their homes for tweens.

Alcohol-free Activities Around Town:  Lists various activities that middle schoolers can do in their town or neighborhood that do not include alcohol.

Family Agreement: An example of what a family agreement around substance use can look like.

Podcast:  Teenager Therapy:  What it’s like to Quit Vaping:  Listen to the podcast and talk about the experiences shared and how they relate to your tween.

Contact & Collaborate:

Your child’s school will have resources to support you.  They may even have a program for substance use prevention. Reach out to find out what your child is already learning and support that education at home.  The school nurse, counselor and administrators can also help point you in the right direction.  The list below is for additional resources.

Parent Up: These are resources in your local community that help during times of crisis.

Youth Vaping and Tobacco Cessation Resources:

American Lung Association:

802Quits: Provides free cessation support for Vermonters ages 13 and older:  By phone, 24/7, at 1-800-QUIT-NOW

It’s a good idea to talk with health care providers about the connection between mental health and substance use. Managing and treating underlying mental health conditions, or understanding how emotional and behavioral problems can trigger or escalate substance use, is important for reducing risk and preventing co-occurring disorders (that is, when mental health and substance use problems occur at the same time).

Continue Learning:

Talk. They Hear You. Mobile App (And other resources)The app provides parents and caregivers of children and teens ages 9 to 15 with the tools and information they need to start talking with their children early about the dangers of alcohol.

No Safe Vape (from the Dartmouth-HItchcock Health) “No Safe Vape” aims to educate young people and their families about the dangers of vaping and to provide resources for those seeking further information or help quitting.

Answering your Teen’s Tough Questions:

Harvard Ed Cast (podcast)  Raising Addiction Free Kids:

Dr. Cam Family Coach (podcast):  Talking to Teens About Drugs and Alcohol:

Drug Facts 4 Young People (website):  A Resource for Parents

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