Teens

How to Talk to Your Kids About Drugs and Alcohol

May 11th, 2018 Lisa Westerson, LCSW
Father and son sitting at skate park

What do you wish your parents would have told you about drugs and alcohol? Do you wish they told you how it might affect your health? Your relationships? Your judgment? Your perception of yourself? If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself?

Last year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that illicit drug use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders is holding steady at the lowest levels in 20 years. And while this is promising news, it is still important to talk to your kids about substance abuse.

Speaking with children and teens about drugs and alcohol can seem scary. There is a lot of information out there, and it can feel overwhelming. How do you know what is accurate? How much is too much to share? Parents may feel that just mentioning alcohol and substance use may lead to use.

It is helpful to frame this discussion as you would with any other health issue, such as exercise, diabetes, or asthma. Take it slow, get the facts, promote discussion, have a plan, and invest in support.

Here are some tips that may prove useful in your development of a plan:

Know Your Audience

When planning your conversation, take into consideration your child’s age. While it is never too early to talk to your kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, it is important that you make sure that the information you provide them is age-appropriate.

If your child is 10 or under, start with a simple conversation about peer pressure and how people often struggle to say “no” or make positive choices. You can also use television to help you spark a conversation. If you see a character on TV smoking or drinking, take this time to explain to your child that such behavior can be dangerous. Remember that this is a conversation, not a lecture, so keep the tone light and use terms that they will understand. It is important to establish a foundation of healthy communication that will encourage them to go to you for answers when they are older and encounter drugs and alcohol.

Know that most older children and teens have had some kind of exposure to drugs and alcohol. Whether it’s because of TV or their friends at school, kids nowadays know more about drugs and alcohol than ever. Unfortunately, a lot of what they hear is misinformation or doesn’t focus on the negative effects of using and drinking.

They might be seeing and hearing that this kind of behavior is “cool,” so it is important that you provide them with the facts. When doing so, be sure to steer clear of lectures, as this will cause them to shut down. Instead, bring up real life scenarios and take advantage of “teachable” moments – something happening in pop culture, something you saw in a movie or read in the news, and discuss it with them. Providing a space of safety and listening for your child to ask questions will promote better communication and foster trust.

Have a Family Plan

Having a clear family plan regarding what the adults in the home understand and believe about drugs and alcohol is key in sending clear messages. If you have teens in the home, it is important to establish expectations so your teen understands what is acceptable and not acceptable for your family. For instance, some families have utilized verbal or written contracts on the rules about going out and using the family car.

Speak Without Shame

Using non-judgmental and open-ended communication in the home encourages your children and teens to do the same. Provide gentle encouragement asking for their thoughts and feelings. Create an environment without shame and build trust. Your children and teens are more likely to seek you out with questions, if there is trust and an open environment to be curious and ask for help. Pay attention to cues and recognize when your children are going through difficult times, so that you may provide support they need.


When communicating with children and teens about sensitive topics, it is all about the delivery of the message and ensuring that the message is clear, concise and is backed up by your own confidence and belief. Utilizing the skills provided will give you a basis to begin and keep the conversation going. While there is no one “right” way to speak with your children and teens, having a plan, knowing the facts, finding time to talk, and providing a safe place to communicate will help guide your way. Backing up what you say with actions and an open heart will make it more likely that they will truly hear the message.