How to Talk to Your Child About Drugs and Alcohol
In This Article
4 Tips for Talking to Your Child About Drugs and Alcohol
Talking to your child about drugs and alcohol can be difficult. Here are some tips for an honest and open conversation.
1. Speak to your child based on their age
You should speak to your child about alcohol and drugs differently based on age.
Speaking to young children
If your child is younger than eight, take advantage of ‘teachable moments.’ For example, if you notice a character in a movie or on TV with a cigarette, speak to them about smoking and how it affects the body. This can start a discussion about other drugs and how they’re harmful.
Keep your tone calm and use words that your child can understand. Explain that most drugs are dangerous and can cause issues in the body.
Teach your children early how to say no if someone offers something they understand to be dangerous.
Speaking to older children
As kids grow older past eight and into their teens, begin discussions with them by asking what they’ve heard about drugs. Ask in a nonjudgmental, open-ended way for a more honest response.
Remember to show your children that you’re listening and paying attention to their questions and concerns.
You may have to do some research about drugs and alcohol so you can provide your kids with the correct facts.
Kids at this age are usually still willing to talk honestly with their parents about touchy and sensitive subjects. Talking now helps keep the door open.
2. Make your values and rules clear
Parents often use vague phrases like ‘be smart’ or ‘make good decisions.’ However, these terms are unclear and have different meanings to different people.
For example, a parent saying ‘be smart’ may think they’re asking their child not to drink. However, the child may understand the instructions as ‘don’t drink too much alcohol.’
Be specific. If you mean ‘you can meet your friends as long as you promise me you won’t use cannabis,’ then say it that way.
3. Ask and listen
Ask and listen to your child but resist the urge to lecture.
As adults, we want to provide as much wisdom as possible to help young people avoid mistakes. However, drawing out their curiosity and encouraging them to seek answers is usually more helpful.
Consider starting a conversation by asking a question like ‘What do you know about marijuana?’
Teens and children who feel their point of view is valued may be happier to engage in a conversation. Use non-judgemental reflective statements to ensure your child feels listened to.
Follow up with questions like ‘So, you’ve heard that cannabis is safe because it’s natural. Do you think that’s correct?’
You don’t need to agree with everything your child says. Just make it clear that you’re listening.
4. If your child has used drugs, try to understand the reasons
Children may use substances for many reasons, including managing anxiety or connecting socially with peers.
Trying to understand the reasons why your child has used drugs can help:
- Your child feel less judged
- Give you an insight into your child’s underlying struggles
- Help your child develop insight into their behaviors
- Point to problems that may require professional support
These conversations may be difficult for you to have with your child. Some young people don't understand why they use drugs or alcohol.
For children using substances regularly, we recommend an assessment by a healthcare professional who can support them in behavior change.
What Age Should You Talk to Your Child About Drugs?
It would be best if you began talking to your children about drugs when they’re in elementary school. Around eight years old is a good start, but you should respond to your child’s cues. They may need to speak about drugs and alcohol sooner than this.4
Talking to kids early about drugs and alcohol will give them the information and skills to think critically when confronted with drugs and alcohol.
Another advantage of starting the conversation early is fostering an environment that encourages sharing information. You show that no topic is off limits, and you’re happy to discuss drugs and peer pressure.
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Why Should I Talk to My Child About Alcohol and Drugs?
By 12th grade, approximately two-thirds of teens have drunk alcohol. Nearly half have used cannabis.1
Teens drink alcohol and use drugs for various reasons. These include:2
- To feel good
- For self-medication
- To fit in with peers
Parents are essential in informing children and teens about alcohol and drugs. Parents should speak with their kids about drugs and alcohol early on and continue to have discussions as they get older.3
Benefits of Talking to Your Child About Alcohol and Drugs
There are many reasons why parents should speak to their children about drugs and alcohol. When parents foster supportive and nurturing environments, kids make better decisions. It may not always seem like it, but children often listen to their parents' concerns.3
Kids are more likely to listen to their parents' rules and advice about alcohol if they’re spoken to directly and honestly.3 Parents who speak with their children early and often about drugs and alcohol may also be able to protect them from many high-risk behaviors.3
Likewise, children don’t always know about alcohol and other drugs. If parents don’t discuss the risks of drinking and substance abuse, their kids may not see any harm in experimenting.3
Having a conversation enables parents to set clear rules about what they expect from their children regarding alcohol and other drugs.
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How Do I Know If My Child Is Using Drugs and Alcohol?
Behavioral signs of drug use or alcohol abuse include:
- Avoiding eye contact
- Ignoring or breaking curfew
- Acting irresponsibly
- Frequently asking for money
- Locking bedroom doors
- Making secretive calls
- Isolating from others
- Damaging relationships with family or friends
- Making excuses or lying
- Withdrawing from classroom participation
- Slipping in grades
- Resisting discipline or feedback
- Missing school or work
- Losing interest in hobbies or activities
- Abandoning long-time friends
Physical signs of drug or alcohol abuse include:
- Poor hygiene or change in appearance
- Glazed or bloodshot eyes
- Frequent runny nose or nosebleeds
- Paranoia, irritability, anxiety, fidgeting
- Mood or attitude changes
- Difficulty staying on task or remaining focused
- Small track marks on arms or legs or wearing long sleeves, even in warm weather
- Larger or smaller pupils than usual
- Cold, sweaty palms or shaking hands
- Sores on the mouth
- Puffy, swollen face
- Extremely tired or extremely hyperactive
- Rapid weight gain or loss
Contact a professional immediately if you notice signs of drug or alcohol abuse in your child or teen.
The longer that substance abuse takes place, the more challenging it becomes for your child to kick the habit.
Your family doctor can screen your child and diagnose whether they’re experimenting or experiencing a substance use disorder or alcoholism.
- Speaking to your child about drugs and alcohol can reduce the likelihood that they will use substances in the future.
- It’s best to start talking to your child about drugs and alcohol by age 8 and continue having discussions as they age.
- When discussing drugs and alcohol with your child, try to avoid lectures, state your expectations and rules, and keep an open dialogue.
- There are various behavioral and physical signs of drug and alcohol use in kids, including isolation from others and poor hygiene.
- If you notice signs of drug or alcohol abuse in your child, speak with a professional about treatment options.
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- Teen Substance Use & Risks, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), 2020.
- NIDA. "Why do adolescents take drugs?." National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020.
- Why You Should Talk With Your Child About Alcohol and Other Drugs, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2022.
- Talking to kids about drugs, BetterHealth, 2016.
- Teens and drugs: 5 tips for talking with your kids, Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, 2018.
- Lander, Laura et al. “The impact of substance use disorders on families and children: from theory to practice.” Social work in public health, 2013.