How to Have a Conversation About Drugs and Alcohol With Your Kids

mom and dad talking to son

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While talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol sounds about as enjoyable as having a root canal, it is not a topic that should be ignored. Pretending the risks do not exist or convincing yourself that your kids would never engage in such behavior is not realistic.

What's more, it is downright dangerous to avoid discussing this topic—no matter how uncomfortable or unprepared you feel.

As a parent, you have no way of predicting how your kids will respond when they are offered drugs or alcohol or whether they will even know how to resist peer pressure unless you have been having ongoing conversations since a young age. The best preventative measure you can take is to consistently talk to your kids about the risks of drug and alcohol use along with your views on the issue.

You Have More Influence Than You Realize

As a parent, you have more influence in your kids' lives than you might realize. In fact, more than 80 percent of kids and teens 10 to 18 years old indicate that their parents are the leading influence on their decision of whether or not to drink.

Research also shows that teens rely on parents more than anyone else when making important decisions and that parents have more influence on their kids' lives than peers when it comes to making decisions. Make sure you are utilizing this influence to help them make good choices.

"While I wouldn't share the good, bad, and the ugly in kindergarten, I would talk to them about the fact that there are certain things out there that can be harmful to them—different poisons that can make you sick," explains Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, CAADC, NCC, a certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor in Chicago, Ill. and a professor at Southern New Hampshire University.

Though it may not always seem like it, especially when you are met with grunts or rolling eyes, the truth is that your kids really do hear your concerns. They care about what you think and do listen to what you are saying. They just don't always show it.

"It is really important to view these conversations as ongoing instead of a one and done," says Hailey Shafir, LCMH-CS, LCAS, CCS, a therapist specializing in treating addictions who works with a number of companies including Good Therapy and TherapyCred.com in North Carolina. "Even in elementary school, it is appropriate to have basic conversations with them. These conversations will expand and deepen as they get older."

Risk Factors Associated With Drug and Alcohol Use

While you should be having ongoing conversations with your kids, discussing the topic during these points in their life can add a layer of prevention. Here are some things that increase the likelihood of experimentation:

  • Going through social transitions like starting high school, getting a driver's license, beginning to date, attending parties, or hanging out with a new group of friends
  • Having a family history of drug abuse or alcoholism
  • Experiencing depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues
  • Struggling with social or emotional issues including impulse control
  • Spending time with peers who engage in risky behaviors
  • Feeling like they do not fit in or having self-esteem issues

Refraining From Talking Still Sends a Message

Kids and teens are not born knowing everything there is to know about drugs and alcohol and they might not even realize the risks associated with substance use. That's why you need to take time to talk to them.

If you neglect sharing your concerns or talking about the risks associated with drugs and alcohol, they may assume that you don't care or that it is just not that big of a deal. What's more, by not talking to them you miss out not only on the opportunity to educate them but also on how to prepare them for different scenarios they might encounter.

"The earlier you can get in front of something, the better," says Dr. Glowiak. "In terms of having a conversation, lead by example. Let them know you love them and that you want what is best for them. Come from a place of collaboration and support, rather than lecturing them."

Remember, you do not have to know everything there is to know about drug and alcohol use to have a conversation. The point is that you talk about it and explore the issue together. And, if your child has questions you cannot answer, research them together.

Kids Are Exposed to Alcohol and Drugs Early

It is never too early to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol as long as your conversations are age-appropriate. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), children as young as 9 already view alcohol in a positive way, and 3,300 kids as young as 12 try cannabis every day. Meanwhile, about five out of 10 kids use prescription pain relievers for non-medical purposes.

Yet most parents put off talking about drugs and alcohol because they feel like they have time before they have to think about the issue or that their kids are too young for a conversation about such a scary topic. The truth is kids are often exposed to drugs and alcohol at a very young age and that can have a number of long-term consequences.

"The earlier someone starts using substances, the more dangerous it is," explains Dr. Glowiak. "Substance use interrupts development and the person's mental maturity stops when they start using drugs and alcohol. As an adult, if you have already gone through life, you can navigate your way out of a problem easier than someone who started using earlier in life."

That is why it is crucial that you talk to your kids as early as you can. It can save so much heartache if you are able to prevent it before it happens, he adds.

Talking Helps Prepare Them

There is a lot of misinformation spread among young people when it comes to drugs and alcohol. For instance, some people assume that taking pills is safer than heroin or that you cannot get addicted if you only snort drugs instead of injecting them. They may even believe that you cannot overdose on amphetamines.

Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, CAADC, NCC

You want your kids to be well informed and to correctly understand what these substances do.

— Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, CAADC, NCC

"Just like people worry that talking about suicide will give kids ideas, they also worry that talking about drugs and alcohol will put ideas in their head.," says Dr. Glowiak. "But it is important to talk about it. Come from a place of support. If you use scare tactics, you will lose your child."

You also what to be sure your kids know what to do if they see drugs at school or how to respond if someone offers them something, he adds. "A lot of times it is better to role play with them about what they might experience," suggests Shafir. "Teach them refusal skills, too. Talk about what they can say when someone pressures them to try something."

Conversations Can Educate Them

Your children and teens are exposed to more than you might realize. They see things on social media, hear about them in the halls at school, and witness them in the community. For this reason, it is very important to be upfront and honest with them.

"Give them accurate information," suggests Shafir. "It's not the best idea to say something generic like all drugs and alcohol will damage your brain. Talk to them about current trends as well as the fact that a lot of drugs being used and shared are not even illegal—they were taken from a parent's medicine cabinet."

Remember, drug and alcohol use is not restricted to kids who are struggling in school or who have problems at home. Straight-A students and those from affluent neighborhoods also experiment with different substances.

"The classical interpretation is that the person using drugs is a junkie, making a mess out of things," says Dr. Glowiak. "Today, it is something that is a lot different. Kids are turning to drugs to enhance performance or to help with mental acuity so a lot of kids are using ADHD medications. So, it's not something that is reserved for the student who isn't doing well."

She suggests parents check out the emerging trends section on the Drug Enforcement Agency's (DEA) website for information on the latest in drug use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is another useful resource parents can use to make sure they are sharing accurate information.

Street Drugs Can Be Lethal

Experimenting with drugs has always been dangerous, but the drugs kids are accessing on the streets today are even more potent than they were years ago. The problem is that drug dealers have gotten really good at producing counterfeit drugs, says Shafir. Kids may think they are buying prescription pills, but instead they are fakes filled with deadly amounts of fentanyl.

Hailey Shafir, LCMH-CS, LCAS, CCS

Kids need to know the risks of drug and alcohol use. They might buy something that looks exactly like Vicodin, but it is actually fentanyl, which is extremely dangerous and in many cases lethal.

— Hailey Shafir, LCMH-CS, LCAS, CCS

Plus, people are dying on a daily basis from drug use—and it is not just addicts but casual users or kids experimenting for the very first time. Now more than ever, it is crucial that parents educate their kids about the risks of drug use and arm them with the facts. By doing so, kids and teens will be better equipped to make the right choice when the time comes.

Age-by-Age Guide to Starting a Conversation

Having open and honest conversations with your kids about important issues like drugs and alcohol help your kids develop into responsible adults some day. Keep in mind that talking about substance use is not a one-time conversation, but instead should be an ongoing conversation that evolves as they get older. Here is an age-by-age guide on how to talk to kids about drugs.

Preschool (2 to 4 years old)

When your kids are at the preschool stage, your focus should be on keeping your conversations simple and to-the-point. For instance, Dr. Glowiak suggests talking to kids about the fact that there are things out there that can make them sick or be poisonous to them.

Remind them not to take medicines on their own and that they should never put anything in their mouth that could be poisonous. Warn them about cleaning supplies and adult medications—even taking a kid's multivitamin without your permission could harm them if they take too much.

If they are curious about the prescription or over-the-counter medicines in your home, see you taking something, or you are giving them something for an illness, use this as an opportunity to talk to them.

You could say: "We only take medicine when we are sick. Never take anything unless I give it to you or a doctor gives it to you. Taking medicine by yourself or taking medicine that is not specifically for you could be really dangerous."

Early Elementary (5 to 8 years old)

Even though your child is starting elementary school, you still should keep your conversations about substances focused on the present. At this age, kids still cannot quite comprehend long-term consequences, so you do not have to go into a lot of detail about what can happen to their brain. Just remind them that they should not take any substances (over-the-counter or prescription) or experiment with smoking or vaping because it will it will hurt them.

You also can talk to your kids about the substance-related messages they overhear at school or see in the movies. Keep the conversation light and ask questions about what they think or feel about what they are hearing or seeing.

For instance, if they mention that a peer at school was talking about an older sibling vaping, try to find out what they think about that. You can ask: "What do you think about Billy's brother vaping?"

Or, if you are watching a movie together and there is substance use, use this as an opportunity to start a conversation. Ask: "How does that make you feel to see the hero in the movie taking drugs (or drinking alcohol)?"

Fill in any gaps in their understanding with factual information about substance-use. For instance, many kids do not realize that vape pens often have nicotine or other substances like marijuana in them. Instead, they might believe that people are just inhaling flavorings like bubblegum or vanilla. Keep the conversation light but informative.

Preteen and Tweens (9 to 12 years old)

At this age, kids are trying to figure out who they are and tend to give their peers' opinions a lot of weight. They also may start to question your views and your rules. Although these changes are a normal part of development, you still need to be consistent with your messages and expectations regarding substance use.

When you see something on television, in a movie, or in the news about substance use, take that opportunity to remind your child about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, and nicotine. Remember, your child will be starting middle school during this timeframe so, it is more likely that they will be exposed to substances at school or in social settings.

Make sure they know what your expectations are and that there will be consequences if these rules are broken. Research indicates that kids are less likely to use nicotine, alcohol, and other substances if their parents or caregivers have established clear rules and consequences.

At this age, it is not uncommon for kids to share prescription drugs or even experiment with vaping. Let's assume you read on social media or hear from another parent that kids are sharing drugs at school. You could say something like: "Mrs. Jones told me that some kids at school are sharing their ADHD medication. What would you do if someone asked you to try something?"

You also can practice role playing with them in case they are offered medications by a friend or a peer asks them to vape. Role playing helps them have an idea of what they should say when put on the spot. Also, let them know that they can always use you as an excuse.

Tell them they can something like: "Have you met my dad? He would kill me if I did something like that." Or they can say, "I could never get away with something like that. My mom can always tell when I am hiding something."

Teens (13 to 18 years old)

By this time, your teen likely is well aware of your rules and expectations and they should know generally what can happen to them physically and mentally if they experiment with substances. But, this does not mean that your job is done.

In fact, this is a pivotal time in your child's life when you can help them make good choices and decisions. Continue having regular conversations and see if you can get them to open up about what they are seeing at school. Use everyday experiences as conversation starters with your teen.

For instance, let's assume you are picking your child up from school and there is a group of teens in front of the local convenience store vaping. Use this opportunity to start a conversation with your teen. Ask them: "What is your opinion of vaping? Do any of your friends vape?"

Try to listen more than you talk. While it is important to share factual information, you will learn a lot more about where your child stands and what they are thinking if you listen instead. You also want to avoid lecturing, using scare tactics, or threatening them.

Also, make sure you show interest in your child’s daily ups and downs. Not only will you will earn their trust and improve your communication with each other, but it also won't shock them when you express strong views about substance use.

A Word From Verywell

Talking about drugs and alcohol with your kids does not have to be a painful conversation, especially if you keep it low-key. You also don't have to discuss everything in one sitting. Instead of planning to have one "big talk" about drugs and alcohol, plan on having many small conversations from the time they are little.

Also, make use of conversation starters—like things you see on television or hear about in your community—and ask questions about what they are seeing and hearing at school or on social media. Their experiences can often guide the conversation and help you know what things you should be talking about. And, if you feel like your child may be experimenting with drugs or alcohol do not stop talking or feel like you failed. Instead, intervene as soon as you are aware of an issue.

If your child is struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

7 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Svetaz MV, Garcia-Huidobro D, Allen M. Parents and family matter: strategies for developing family-centered adolescent care within primary care practicesPrim Care. 2014;41(3):489-506. doi:10.1016/j.pop.2014.05.004

  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. What you can do to prevent your child from drinking.

  4. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Teens: Alcohol and other drugs.

  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. What you can do to prevent your child from drinking.

  6. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts.

  7. Partnership to End Addiction. Drug prevention tips for every age.

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.