Key takeaways:

  • What’s appropriate to tell an 18-year-old and a 5-year-old about alcohol and drugs can vary quite a bit, but even a five-year-old old should know a little about the harmful impacts of drugs and alcohol
  • Taking advantage of “teachable moments” when alcohol or drug issues come up so you can have a frank conversation with them is important
  • Talk about possible consequences of drug and alcohol use, both legal and medical, and be clear about what you will do if the rules are broken

Unfortunately, no matter what you do to protect your kids from drugs and alcohol, it is inevitable they will be exposed to them. These exposures may happen at school, with friends, and even online, making it important for parents to initiate conversations early and often with their children. By having direct conversations about drugs and alcohol and their harmful effects, you will be giving your child information that they need to stay safe and make smart choices about drugs and alcohol, instead of letting them learn from their peers, social media, or first-hand experiences. In this article, you will learn how to start conversations with your children about the risks of drugs and alcohol, and how to keep lines of communication open.

Why talking with kids about drugs & alcohol is important

Some parents avoid talking to kids about drugs and alcohol because they assume that they are too young, won’t understand, or even worry that talking about substances will make their child more curious and likely to experiment. In reality, this isn't true. In fact, talking with your child about alcohol and drug abuse at a young age is one of the best ways that parents can help to prevent early experimentation with drugs and alcohol. [1, 2]

According to the research, children are less likely to experiment early with substances when their parents have early and ongoing conversations with them about drugs and alcohol. [1, 2] Some parents wait until there is a ‘reason’ to have this talk, like when they find alcohol or drugs in their room, car, or after getting a call from another concerned parent or teacher about their child drinking or using drugs. Some parents may overhear their child or teen talking about drugs or alcohol with friends via social media or texts, and are shocked to learn their child is using drugs.

It is important to know that parents play a key role in preventing child drug and alcohol use, and having conversations before kids are exposed online or from peers is important. Talking openly, giving information, and informing kids about the risks of drug and alcohol use can all make a difference in whether or not your child experiments with substances. In fact, research has shown that kids who have conversations with their parents and learn a lot about the dangers of alcohol and drug use are 50% less likely to use alcohol and drugs than those who don’t have such conversations.

It can be challenging to know when, where, and how to start conversations about drugs and alcohol with your children. In reality, the conversation needs to begin when your child is young before they are exposed to drugs or alcohol in other ways. As your child grows up, their risk of being offered or exposed to drugs from peers increases, and the conversations you have with them will also need to change. In the next section, we’ll talk about specific tips and strategies for how to start the conversation with your child about substance use, and how to continue it as they grow up.

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6 tips on talking to your child about drugs & alcohol

Below are some tips and strategies about how and when to start conversations with your young kids or teens about drug and alcohol use, including what to say if you suspect your child is experimenting.

Start the conversation when your child is young

You have more influence over your kids’ attitudes and decisions about alcohol and drugs before they are exposed or offered them than you will afterward. A young person goes through many different stages as they grow up, and conversations with older children and teens should be more detailed and informative.  What’s appropriate to tell an 18-year-old and a 5-year-old about alcohol and drugs can vary quite a bit, but even a five-year-old old should know a little about the harmful impacts of drugs and alcohol. [1] 

Here are some tips on what to share with young children about drugs and alcohol (ages 5-11): [1]

  • Some adults choose to use alcohol (or other drugs) responsibly, but taking too much or when you’re too young can harm your brain and body

  • Many drugs are illegal and people can get arrested for buying, using, or selling them

  • Drugs and alcohol can have very bad long-term effects on the body and brain

  • Drugs and alcohol can be addictive, meaning that people have a really hard time stopping once they start

  • Drugs and alcohol addiction can ruin a person’s life, relationships, health, and future

  • It is possible but hard for people addicted to drugs and alcohol to stop using, but it’s easiest to just never start

Be more honest and direct with older kids and teens

As your child grows up, it’s important to add more information to the conversation you have with them about drugs and alcohol. Be more honest and open with them when they become older and more mature, especially if you think they are being exposed to drugs or alcohol online, at school, or from peers. [1, 2]

Some additional information to provide to older kids and teens (ages 12 and up) includes:

  • Specific information about different kinds of drugs and their risks

  • Emphasizing that it’s not possible to verify what a drug is made of, and drugs sold illegally are often contaminated with poisonous or harmful substances

  • Informing them of the risks of drinking, binge drinking, and the ways alcohol can harm them or even lead to alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal

  • Explaining that certain prescription medications are addictive, dangerous, and can lead to overdose

  • Encouraging them to make smart choices about their friends and peer groups, and to not hang out with friends who drink or use drugs

  • Sharing your family history to let them know if they’re at higher genetic risk for addiction.  Addiction to alcohol and other drugs is a chronic, progressive disease that can be linked to family history and genetics so be honest about any family history of addiction, just as you would be with any other chronic disease like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer.

Closely supervise older children and teens

Active and close supervision is another important way that parents can prevent their child or teen from using drugs, and also helps to catch any early experimentation their child might be doing. Be involved in your child’s everyday world. Get to know your child’s friends and continue to educate your child about the importance of maintaining good health - psychological, emotional, and physical. [1, 2]

Here are some recommendations for parental supervision:

  • Monitor your child’s phone, social media, and online browsing history

  • Set parental filters and block explicit content with drugs, sex, or violence

  • Know where your child is and what they’re doing

  • Talk with other parents of your child’s friends 

  • Ensure there will be parental supervision when your child is away from home

  • Get to know your child’s friends and peers

  • Ask open questions to your child about drugs and alcohol

Encourage honest and open discussions

Talk to your child regularly about their feelings, their friends, their activities, and also listen to what they have to say. As much as you can, try to avoid questions that have a simple “yes” or “no” answer and ask “open-ended” questions designed to get more information. For example, ask them what they know about drugs or alcohol, or what kinds of experiences they’ve had personally with being offered them. [2]

Find teachable moments

Don’t miss your opportunity to teach your kids. If you do, they will get their information about alcohol and drugs from friends and acquaintances, the media, the internet, or other sources that not only misrepresent the potential negative impact of alcohol and drugs but, actually glorify using alcohol and drugs.

Taking advantage of “teachable moments” when alcohol or drug issues come up so you can have a frank conversation with them is important. It’s not about “the big talk,” it’s about being there for them when the issues come up on TV, at the movies, on the radio, on news events about celebrities or sports figures, about their friends, or in conversation. It’s also important to use these moments to teach your child important skills that can prevent drug use, like how to say no, get out of an unsafe situation, and find healthy ways to regulate stress and emotions. [1]

Set Expectations, Limits, and Consequences & Follow Through

Make it clear that you do not want your child drinking alcohol or using drugs and that you trust them not to. Talk about possible consequences of drug and alcohol use, both legal and medical, and be clear about what you will do if the rules are broken. Make sure to be consistent in your follow-through with whatever consequences you say you’ll use if they break the rules and limits you set. [2]

Final thoughts

Conversations with kids about drugs and alcohol should start early, before they are exposed online, in the media, or from peers. Also, these conversations should continue throughout their adolescence, with parents being more open, honest, and direct with their kids about the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol. Early, ongoing, honest conversations and close supervision are the best ways that parents can help to prevent their child from using drugs or alcohol or developing an addiction in later life.