Talking With Your Kids About Drugs, Alcohol, and Tobacco 

A father and his teenaged daughter walking down a street having a conversation.

Talking with your child about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco can be difficult. But don't ignore these topics. Children learn about these substances and feel pressure to use them at a very young age.

If your child is older than 5, or anytime your child starts asking, start talking with them about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. Here are some guidelines on how to start talking and how to help your kids be substance-free.

Start early

Experts suggest that you start talking about drinking, smoking, and using drugs when your child is between ages 5 and 7, and that you keep the discussion going.

When possible, look for teachable moments. For example, if family members drink wine with dinner, talk about why they do and what it means to drink responsibly. Or if your younger child is watching TV and a beer commercial comes on, discuss the fact that although the people in the commercial appear to be having a good time, drinking too much alcohol can cause you to make bad decisions. It can also cause you to hurt yourself or others. Talking with your child at a young age is especially important if family members have alcohol or drug problems. Children with a family history of substance abuse are more likely to become substance abusers.

As your child gets older, continue to talk regularly about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. But do so in a way that's right for your child's age. Make your views on the subject clear and repeat them often. If you don't approve of smoking or drinking, be sure your child knows this and the reasons for your beliefs. Your child needs to understand that under no circumstances is drug use acceptable and that there are no safe street drugs.

Know the facts

To educate your child, become informed. Learn about the main drugs that children often try first:

  • Alcohol

  • Marijuana (smoking and edibles)

  • Nicotine (cigarettes, e-cigarettes or vaporizers, and chewing tobacco)

  • Inhalants (glue, paint, hair spray, and correction fluid)

The more you know about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, the clearer you will be when you tell your child why they should not drink alcohol or use tobacco or drugs.

Talk about these facts:

  • Getting drunk affects judgment. It can make people take dangerous risks that they would not take if they were sober. For younger children, warnings may include riding in cars with a drunk driver (including, unfortunately, parents). Or being around people who are violent. For preteens and teens, warnings about loss of judgment might include:

    • Riding with a drunk driver or driving while drunk

    • Having sex against their will or before they are ready

    • Having unprotected sex at any time, which could cause a sexually transmitted infection such as HIV or an unwanted pregnancy

    • Using drugs with the alcohol

    Loss of inhibition may introduce them to drugs or the dangerous practice of sharing needles. And finally, teen girls may be beaten while they are drunk, their boyfriends are drunk, or both are drunk.

  • Marijuana causes short-term memory loss. Ongoing use during the school years harms the child's ability to function at school. It may result in poor grades and trouble with social relationships. It's also illegal. If a child is caught, both the child and the parents will be held legally responsible.

  • Alcohol is a factor in thousands of teen deaths. These deaths include motor vehicle crashes, homicides, alcohol poisoning, and suicides.

  • Marijuana alternatives such as spice are no safer. In fact, they may have more risks. These options are readily available. They are even sold in stores labeled as incense. This does not mean that they are safe or legal.

  • Bath salts (not to be confused with bathing soaps or perfumes). These are manmade crystallized drugs that contain stimulants or other psychoactive drugs in small amounts. These drugs are readily available and may even be sold in stores. They are not legal or safe to use.

  • Nicotine is addictive, and smoking is dangerous to your health. It also makes your clothes, breath, and hair smell bad. It is also expensive. These immediate consequences can be more convincing to kids than the threat of health problems years from now. But it doesn't hurt to remind them that smoking causes serious lung disease, cancer, and greater risk for heart attack. It is responsible for nearly 500,000 premature deaths each year in the U.S.

  • Using an inhalant is extremely dangerous and can kill you. Even using it once can cause suffocation or heart irregularities. The solvents that are typically inhaled damage the liver and other organs. Some substances can increase the risk for leukemia. Use can cause lifelong (permanent) brain damage.

  • When children or teens drink and use drugs, it affects their brains differently than adult brains. This is because the brain is more vulnerable during childhood and the teen years to changes and damage caused by alcohol and drugs.

How to be supportive

You may get a variety of responses when you bring up substance abuse with preteens or teens. If your child is already involved in these activities, you may get responses such as, "You're making a big deal out of this," "I can quit when I'm older," and "You did it when you were a kid." It's important that you stay calm, be nonjudgmental, and state the facts. Making threats or losing your temper will not work in the long run. Here's what will work:

  • Make your point. Be clear about your views on drug, alcohol, and tobacco use. State your position calmly and clearly. For instance: "No amount of smoking, drinking, or drug use is OK with me." If you currently smoke, drink, or use drugs, or if you have in the past, be honest about it. Tell your teen why you don't want them to make the same mistakes you did.

  • Give guidance. Preteens and teens sometimes use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco to cope with strong emotions or feelings. Talk with your teen about other ways that they can manage emotional pain, stress, or loneliness.

  • Listen. Pay attention to what your child says. Do your best not to get defensive. Talk about your child's opinions without judging or accusing them. For example, if your child says smoking makes them cool, ask them to define what makes one person cooler than another.

  • Explain the message. Talk with your teen about the messages in cigarette and alcohol advertising. Explain how companies use marketing to sell their products. Nobody likes to be tricked or manipulated.

  • Role-play. A newspaper story about a car accident caused by drinking or about a drug incident at your child's school can give you a good chance to talk. Ask your teen questions such as, "What would you say if someone offered you drugs?" Then help them come up with confident, helpful answers.

  • Be open and accessible during a crisis. Make a written contract with your teen. Include a section stating that you will pick up your teen, no questions asked, if they are in a dangerous situation, drunk or high, or offered a ride by someone who is. Let your teen know that while you don't approve of drug use, you don't want them to take dangerous risks.

  • Control access to prescription medicines and alcohol. Keep drugs and alcohol in secure locations.

  • Discuss social media use. Parents differ on whether children’s social media activity should be limited or monitored. Talk to your child or teen and develop a strategy that works for your family. Some studies show that teens spend an average of 9 hours a day on digital devices. They may not be completely aware of the risks of peer pressure, predators, mental health threats, and cyberbullies who can cause havoc in their lives through social media platforms.

  • Make it OK for your child to talk about sadness and depression. Substance abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts often occur together. The CDC states that suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents ages 10 to 14. It's the third leading cause of death for those ages 15 to 24. Let your child know that if they feel depressed, have thoughts of harming themselves, or if one of their friends expresses self-harm ideas, they can and must talk to you right away.

It's important to be supportive and have open communication with your children. This can encourage them to turn to you instead of drugs, alcohol, or smoking. As a parent, this is one of the most important gifts you can give your children.

Connecting with your teen

The more involved you are in your teen's life, the less likely they are to drink, smoke, or use drugs. Here are some ways to be supportive:

  • Build your teen's self-esteem. During the teen years, the body changes, emotions run high, and moods swing. It can be a confusing time for both you and your teen. Listen to your teen, and be careful not to judge. Let your teen know that their feelings are important. This helps build self-esteem. If your teen has the confidence, assertiveness, and strength to handle tough times, they will be less likely to try drugs, alcohol, and tobacco to feel better or to please friends.

  • Keep tabs on your teen. Know how much time your teen spends unsupervised. Studies show that having a lot of unsupervised time can make a teen more likely to try drugs. Help them choose healthy leisure activities.

  • Know their friends. Discourage your teen from having friends that use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco. Peer pressure is a powerful influence on teens.

  • Be a role model. If you smoke or use alcohol or drugs, chances are your teen will, too. If you smoke or have a problem with alcohol or drugs, get help. Call a local substance use treatment center or an organization such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or Nicotine Anonymous. Let your teen see your efforts to kick a substance use habit. Or ask a relative or friend who is trying to quit smoking, drinking, or using drugs to talk with your teen about how strong the addiction is.

  • Ask for help. Raising children is complicated, and you may need help. Think about taking a parenting class or going to a family counselor. Hospitals and community centers often offer such classes. Your teen's healthcare provider can help you find one.

Watch for signs of substance use. Here are some common ones:

  • Change of friends

  • Drop in grades or absenteeism from school

  • Lack of motivation

  • Red eyes (or increased use of eye drops)

  • Secretiveness or moodiness

  • Staying by themselves

  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns

  • Missing nail polish remover, correction fluid, or paint (common inhalants) from around your house

  • Using air freshener, incense, or breath freshener to cover the smell of cigarettes or marijuana

  • Violence or destructiveness

If you notice any of these signs of substance use, talk with your teen and your teen's healthcare provider or a counselor. Take the problem seriously, and get help.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Tennille Dozier RN BSN RDMS
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2023
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