Tips for Talking to Kids About Drugs and Alcohol

Tips for Talking to Kids About Drugs and Alcohol

Father and son talking together on park benchIt’s never too soon to begin talking to kids about drugs and alcohol. Children are being exposed to tobacco, alcohol and other drugs at increasingly younger ages. In 2017, the Monitoring the Future Survey reported that:

  • 10% of 8th graders and 33% of 12th graders drank during the past 30 days.
  • 4% of 8th graders and 17% of 12th graders binge drank during the past 2 weeks.
  • 16% of 8th graders and 40% of 12 graders used any illicit drug in the past 12 months.
  • 2% of 8th graders and 11% of 12 graders smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days.

The statistics can be scary and overwhelming for parents. However, just as you protect your children from illnesses like measles, there are things you can do to “immunize” your children against drug and alcohol use.

According to experts, one of the most important things parents can do is to start an ongoing dialog with their children at a young age. A dialog is a two way conversation where both parties can express their thoughts and opinions safely. Tone matters in this sort of conversation. It is important to let go of attempting to “make them think” or showing them how substance use will ruin their future. As a parent, you are inviting them into a conversation where the two of you are exploring a topic together over the course of their life.

The Preschool Years

Mom & Young Daughter Talking to PharmacistMost parents don’t think about starting a conversation about drugs and alcohol at this age, but it is an important place to start.

Healthy versus Unhealthy

Parents can begin to create an understanding of what is healthy for their bodies, minds, and spirits and what is unhealthy. Talk about how good your child feels when they wake up in the morning and have slept well or have enjoyed a fun activity. Contrast this with identifying things that are unhealthy and have caused them to feel poorly.

Medication

When your child needs medication, talk about what medications do good things, when taking medication is dangerous, and how to know whether or not they should take medication.

Environmental Dangers

Point out substances in your child’s environment that would be harmful to use or consume. Show your child how bleach and cleaners have warning labels but not all harmful substances have labels. Teach your child they should only consume substances you, a relative, or a caregiver gives them. Role-play situations so they learn to come and ask you about things instead of just experimenting with them.

Five to Eight Years Old

As children enter school and spend more time around others, they will be exposed to new ideas and messages. Your child will still rely upon you to make sense of this new information

Discuss your views

Begin to let your child know how you feel about tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs by providing simple, relatable facts. For example, talk about how drinking makes it harder to hit a baseball, read a book, or do other activities your child enjoys. Let them know drinking can make people throw up, feel scared, or feel tired. These are things you child can relate to and would want to avoid.

Invite Conversations

When someone on TV or around them is using tobacco, alcohol, or other substances, ask your child questions like,

  • “Why do you believe this individual is smoking/drinking/using?”
  • “What do you think about this individual’s choice?”
  • “What would you do if you were this individual?”

This gives you a chance to help practice decision making skills as well as identify and correct misinformation your child may have.

Set Expectations

Let your child know what your expectations are around drugs, smoking, and alcohol. It is important to be sure you are not setting expectations for them that you are not living out consistently in your own life. Remember—your actions speak louder than your words and your children are watching even when you aren’t aware of it.

Eight Years Old and Up

Teen refusing his peers' offer of alcohol and drugsAt this age, children are beginning to develop a sense of independence but still need your input and advice. Their brains are developing the ability to think through consequences of actions but they remain very present and immediate gratification oriented.

Rules and Consequences

Research shows children are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs if their parents establish and utilize a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking these rules.

  • Establish 3-5 family rules and consequences for breaking these rules.
  • Consistently enforce the rules and consequences for everyone in the family—including you.
  • As a part of this, let them know what your expectations are around substance use and what the consequences will be if they don’t meet these expectations.

Teach Refusal Skills

Knowing how to get out of a situation where you don’t want to do something is a set a skills that must be taught and practiced. Take everyday opportunities to teach these skills. While driving in the car together, throw out a situation like, “What would you do if your friend is saying mean things to another student and ask you to join in?” and invite them to brainstorm how they could respond.

Make sure some of these situations involve being invited to smoke, drink, or try other substances. Help them to identify simple sentences like, “No thanks” or “My parents would kill me if I did that” and to repeat these phrases over and over to get out of sticky situations.

Provide Facts

At this age, your child loves learning and knowing facts—even weird ones. Take advantage of this by finding and inviting them to find the facts about various substances. Remember that facts will be far more effective than fear will ever be.

It is impossible to make your child totally immune to the lure of drugs and alcohol. It is also important to understand any child—regardless of how good the parents are—can end up with a substance use issue. However, if you create a warm, open family environment where talking about any topic, including drugs and alcohol, is safe and common place, you increase the chances your child will have the skills and resources necessary to effectively live without drugs and alcohol.


Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and Clinic Manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.

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