How to talk to your kids about substance abuse
Updated: Feb 15
Drugs. Alcohol. Tobacco. These things lie in wait for your kids. Even the best-behaved kids encounter them in school and on the playground.
Studies continually show that the chance of kids abusing drugs, especially teens, is less likely to occur if their families have open, honest discussions with them.
That’s why it’s never too soon to talk with your kids about substance abuse—whether you think they’re at risk for these drugs or not.
Starting the Conversation Is Key
Substance abuse is devastating. It hurts the child that's addicted. It hurts the child’s family. And it hurts society. The cost of abuse in the United States, including drugs, alcohol, and tobacco—exceeds $820 billion…and growing.
But talking with kids about substance abuse is challenging. It’s easy for the conversation to go off the rails no matter how sincere you are with your child. The key is starting the conversation the right way.
Below is some guidance on how to start the conversation with your kids and what to say once it’s started:
Start in an age-appropriate way
It’s never too early to discuss substance abuse with your kids. That’s especially true when it comes to alcohol and drugs. Kids as young as two can associate abuse with being bad for them. The trick is to start the discussion in an age-appropriate way, like using examples on television to make a point.
Let them choose the time and date
Let your child pick the time and place to have the conversation. Tell them you need to talk with them about something critical. That way you’re not catching them off guard. Plus, it eases the process of discussing the topic. Talking with them during driving or when they’re not working on a project, for example, sets up the right environment to express their feelings.
Talk about the harmful effects of abuse
Don’t sugar-coat the bad effects of substance abuse. Tell it just like it is. Abuse damages a young child’s thinking and learning abilities and hurts the performance of certain activities, like playing ports or learning to dance. Abuse and alcohol also can have immediate effects, like getting pregnant, catching an STD, or causing a fatal accident.
Ask them what they already know
Kids are sponges. They can quickly absorb images on television and things overheard in conversations between adults. So, before getting deep into the discussion, ask your kids what they know. Ask them also if anyone has offered them drugs or they've seen others using drugs or alcohol. Find out just what your kids know, and then build on it.
Communicate the seriousness of the risk
Among the top goals of your conversation with your kids is communicating about how big a risk they're taking when they do drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Warn them that they may hear about how much fun it is or how much good it will make them feel. But that’s a trap. Tell them that even a one-time use can make them addicts.
Warn them about the dangers of peer pressure
Many first-time users succumb to peer pressures. Unfortunately, it can be an occasional occurrence that kids hardly notice. They may be given a beer at a party or asked to take a hit on a joint after a dance or other school function. Peer pressure plays no favorites. Make sure your kids know this.
Other tips on talking with your kids about substance abuse are setting clear expectations, focusing on the positive, and being honest about your own experiences.
The tips above provide guidance on talking to your kids about drugs. Use empathy and understanding in the conversation. If necessary, speak with a professional. Your child's life and happiness are at stake.