How to Talk to Your Kids About Drugs, Alcohol and Addiction

Beautiful happy family smiling and talking while hugging at home

“We’re going to a party tonight. Do you want to go? They have alcohol…”

“C’mon, just try it; one hit isn’t going to kill you!”

“Everyone else is doing it. What’s wrong with you? Are you scared?”

Starting conversations with your children about alcohol and other substances at an early age is crucial.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), by the age of nine, many children begin to think of alcohol more favorably, and roughly 3,300 children around the age of 12 experiment with marijuana daily. Moreover, around half of those 12-year-old children began using prescription pain relievers for nonmedical use. 

If you’re not talking to your kids about drugs, alcohol, and addiction, there’s a good chance they are unaware of the risks associated with underage drinking and substance abuse. Most teens and tweens, highly influenced by peer pressure, may influence one another to consume drugs or alcohol or partake in other dangerous activities.

Unaware of the dangers of addiction, a significant number of teenagers with substance abuse issues start using drugs or alcohol due to peer pressure

Initiating these discussions and talking to your children before their peers expose them to drugs and alcohol can make a significant difference because research shows the older they get, the likelihood of experimenting with alcohol or other drugs drastically increases. 

Case in point, while nearly 10 percent of 12-year-olds have consumed alcohol, this figure soars to a shocking 50 percent by the age of 15. Furthermore, by their senior year (age 17-18), nearly 70 percent of high schoolers will have experimented with alcohol, half will have tried an illegal drug, and over 20 percent will have misused a prescription medication for nonmedical reasons. 

The earlier you talk to your kids about addiction, alcohol, and other substances significantly impacts their choices regarding drinking and drug use. While having these frank talks about drugs, alcohol, and addiction can be challenging and often uncomfortable, they are one of the best preventative measures to ensure your kids are armed with the knowledge to empower and protect themselves.

By consistently voicing your views and keeping the lines of communication open to your young children, tweens, and teens about the risks of alcohol, drug use, and addiction, you’ll be preparing them to make better choices.

How to have difficult discussions about drugs, alcohol, and addiction

These conversations aim to educate, protect, and develop a trusting relationship where your child feels comfortable coming to you with their concerns or questions. 

  • Using age-appropriate language, start with a foundation on what addiction and substance abuse disorders are, how they harm, and the importance of saying no when faced with peer pressure.
  • Be a good listener. Encourage your child to share their thoughts and feelings. Listen more than you speak!
  • Use teachable moments from daily life, news or social media as opportunities to start conversations.
  • Set a positive example with your own behavior regarding alcohol and drug use. Kids are always watching what you are doing vs what you are telling them to do. Be a good model.
  • Reassure them of your love and support, making it clear that they can always come to you with any questions or problems without fear of judgment.

Conversations through the years: Age matters

Talking to children (Ages 5-8)

Pretty brunette mother and daughter posing at home

Matt Glowiak, a certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor, explains that small children don’t need all of the details. You can frame the talk to them about certain things that can be harmful and different poisons that can make you sick.

  • Keep it simple and relatable. A good example is using a metaphor, like comparing the body to a car that needs the right fuel to run properly. Explain that some substances can harm our “engines.”
  • Focus on the concept of safety by teaching them what substances are safe to consume (like food and water) and which are not (like certain drugs or alcohol).
  • Encourage questions and answer them honestly but simply in a way that makes them feel safe and heard.

Engaging with tweens (Ages 9-12)

father gesturing and talking with teenager son in park

At this age, it’s entirely possible your kids have already heard of drugs and alcohol and possibly have already started experimenting—or know of someone who is. Consider beginning by asking leading questions like, “Let’s talk. Tell me, what do you know about drugs? Do you know anyone who has tried drugs or alcohol?”

Most tweens are still quite open and communicative with their parents; this is the perfect age to solidify a strong and open relationship. Tweens who feel like their point of view is valued may be more willing to engage in conversations in the coming years. 

  • Gently introduce the concept of peer pressure, discussing how friends might try to influence each other’s decisions, including the use of substances.
  • Discuss the importance of making healthy choices for themselves and the consequences of unhealthy ones, including how drugs and alcohol can affect their bodies and minds.
  • Empower them by practicing ways to say no and encouraging them to talk to you about any situation they’re unsure about.

Conversations with teens (Ages 13+)

Parents talking to their daughter

While the main focus should be to refrain from any substance, in reality, it’s impossible to control teen’s lives and decisions. Teens are known to experiment, but they need to know the risks involved.

The best approach is to be non-judgemental and practice active listening. Remember, you don’t need to agree with everything they say. The most important thing is to be present and gain their trust for future conversations. 

There is no perfect way to talk with teens about substance use, but these tips may be helpful. 

  • Be direct but respectful. Acknowledge their growing independence and capacity to make decisions while stressing the importance of informed choices.
  • Share facts and debunk myths about drug and alcohol use, including the social and legal consequences of substance abuse. Stress the fact that alcohol is a drug!
  • Talk about the risks of addiction, its signs, and its impact on individuals and families.
  • Encourage them to think critically about the portrayal of drug and alcohol use in media and pop culture. Is it glorified? Demonized? Gendered? Watching movies together can be great starting points for these types of discussions.
  • Offer support and resources, letting them know you’re there for them no matter what and providing information on where to get help if they or someone they know is struggling.

Engage early and often

Talking to kids about drugs, alcohol, and addiction is an ongoing conversation, not a one-time talk. By starting these discussions early and continuing the conversation through the years, you’ll keep the lines of communication open and establish trust that your kids can come to you anytime with their concerns. 

Addiction treatment at Centres for Health and Healing

If you or someone you know is navigating the complexities of addiction, remember help is available, and recovery is possible. The Centres for Health and Healing is committed to providing compassionate, comprehensive care for those seeking recovery.

Our dedicated team offers a wide range of services tailored to each person’s needs, from therapy and counseling to support groups and holistic recovery programs.

Whether you’re struggling with active addiction, are in the early stages of considering sobriety, or are seeking ways to support a family member, we’re here to help you every step of the way.

At The Centres for Health and Healing, we believe in your strength and potential for growth. For more information on our programs or to speak with a specialist about starting your journey toward healing, please reach out today. Let’s take the next step together.

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