Talking Points & Resources

How to talk with children, family & friends about drug use

In the face of a nationwide opiate epidemic, more widespread marijuana legalization and increasing alcohol and prescription drug advertising messages, families can feel powerless. Effective prevention starts with an honest conversation. Talk with your loved ones about substance use today.

Here are tips on how to talk with children, adults and seniors…


Parents are the #1 reason children do not use alcohol or drugs

Start talking early and regularly with children. “Upsetting or disappointing my parents” is the top reason youth give on why they won’t drink alcohol or use substances. Start at an early age and keep the lines of communication open.1 As children become teens, there might be more competition for time to talk, but this is prime time for parents, and other adults, to remain involved and demonstrate how much they care. Keep talking regularly.

Lots of little talks are more effective than one “big talk.” Sitting down for the “big talk” about alcohol can be intimidating for both you and your child. Try using everyday opportunities to talk – in the car, during dinner or while you and your child are watching TV. Having lots of little talks takes the pressure off trying to get all of the information out in one lengthy discussion, and your child will be less likely to tune you out.5

Set clear family rules. As you continue to talk with children as they grow, be sure you’ve established clear family rules about alcohol and substance use. Each family will know what will work for them, but above all, follow through when the rules are broken.1

Scare tactics don’t work. Strategies based on fear are not an effective approach to prevention. More than 60 years of studies show that fear based approaches just don’t work and can increase problem behavior.4

Do not talk about drugs in a positive manner. If you do take a painkiller or other addictive prescription drug, do so discreetly. Be careful not to make remarks indicating how much better you feel since you have taken the drug or how good it makes you feel. Your child listens to your every word.3

Safeguard your family’s medicines. Keep prescription medication in a secure place, count and monitor the number of pills you have.3 Eight out of 10 teens who use prescriptions say they got them from friends or family.6 Safely dispose of unwanted or expired medicine at a drug collection site near you. Drug drop off locations »



Starting a conversation early can help build attitudes and habits that may help with decisions they make as they grow older.1 Short, frequent discussions can have real impact on your child’s decisions about alcohol5 and substance use. Consider the following talking points:

  • Discuss why children need healthy food and explain the importance of making good decisions about what should and should not go into their bodies.1
  • Take time to point out harmful household substances.1 Discuss that children can get poisoned by eating, drinking, touching or smelling something that can make them sick or hurt them.
  • Some things like medicines prescribed by a doctor for illness can be helpful for the sick person but are not meant for others.1
  • Remind children to never take medicine, unless a trusted grown-up gives it to you.
  • Reinforce if the child does not know what something is, never put in in their mouth. Always ask a trusted grown-up first.
  • Tell children that you love them and give them encouragement every day.1



Youngsters are being exposed to alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs early. As your child shows increasing interest in the world outside the family and home, now is the time to start conversations. Explain some people use alcohol, tobacco and drugs even though they have harmful consequences. At this age it is essential to help youth understand what is harmful versus what is helpful. Alcohol, tobacco and other drugs are harmful when taken in a way that interferes with the body’s ability to function.1

Be a good role model and set a good example. Do not make drinking the sole focus of social gatherings when children are present. It is never okay to ask a child to get a beer or alcoholic drink for you.1 Consider the following talking points:

  • Introduce concepts of legality and danger. People who use drugs like cocaine, opiates and marijuana can go to jail. People can also die from drug use.1
  • Explain the idea of addiction. Abusing drugs can cause brain disease to develop. And, it becomes very difficult to stop.1
  • Set clear family rules, and make sure each child understands them. For example, It is never okay for kids in our family to use drugs or drink alcohol.1
  • Explain why adults may choose to drink alcohol, but children may not. For example, It is illegal for children, and it is harmful for a child’s growing brain. It can affect a child’s ability to learn and stunt developing social skills.1
  • Take advantage of teachable moments.4
  • Tell children that you love them and give them encouragement every day.1



Research shows that the earlier children begin using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs, the more likely they are to experience serious problems. Keeping drugs away from children as long as possible is best. It is essential that your child’s drug-free attitudes are strong before entering middle, intermediate or junior high school. At this age it is important to nurture your relationship with children.1 Consider the following talking points:

  • Ensure children know you expect them not to use alcohol, tobacco or drugs. Keep communications lines open, even if it is difficult or causes you embarrassment.1
  • Listen to what children are saying and experiencing. This is the age when children begin to experience different pressures with school and friends.1
  • Talk with children about why they think young people might use alcohol, tobacco or drugs. Talk with them about why it is not a good choice for growing brains, no matter the reason.1
  • Brainstorm with children about what could happen to them if they use drugs.1
  • Set family rules about attending parties. For example, If you are going to a party, then I’d like to call the host’s parents. Pay attention to where they are and with whom they spend time. Establish party and curfew rules with other parents.1
  • Share with your teen all the things you find wonderful about them. Positive reinforcement can go a long way in preventing drug use.3
  • Show interest and discuss your teen’s daily ups and downs. You’ll earn each other’s trust, learn how to talk with each other and won’t take your teen by surprise when you voice a strong point of view about drugs3 or alcohol.
  • Take advantage of teachable moments.4
  • Short, frequent discussion can have real impact on your child’s decisions about using alcohol5 and other substances.
  • Tell children that you love them and give them encouragement every day.1



Although teens often seem unreceptive to their parents as they struggle to become independent, teens desire and need parental support, involvement and guidance more than ever.1 The average age kids try drugs for the first time is 13. Youth who learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use. Stay involved. Young teens may say they don’t need guidance, but they are much more open to it than they’ll ever admit. Make sure to discuss their choices of friends, because drug use in teens often starts as a social behavior.3

Most youth at this age are not concerned about long-term consequences of drug use such as the possibility of interfering with brain development or limited academic achievement. They are concerned about short-term consequences like embarrassing themselves, smelling bad, disappointing people they care for, getting into trouble, etc.1

At this pivotal time, teens must be monitored closely, clear family rules must be set, intervene early if use is suspected and enforce consequences when rules are broken.1 Consider these talking points:

  • Listen and support your youth. This is a difficult time for adolescents. Continue to stay actively involved in their life.1
  • Point out the immediate consequences of tobacco and marijuana use. For example, Smoking causes bad breath, stained teeth and makes hair and clothes smell.1
  • Share with your young teen the negative effect that prescription and over the counter medications can have on physical appearance. Teens are extremely concerned with their physical appearance.3
  • Don’t leave your young teen’s substance use education up to the school. Ask your teen what they learned about drugs in school and then continue with that topic or introduce new topics.3
  • Restate your expectation that they not use drugs.1
  • Decide together on the consequences that will be faced if family rules are broken regarding alcohol and drug use.1
  • Youth at this age will make new friends as they enter new schools. Get to know the new friends, their parents and communicate with them often.1
  • Set family rules about attending parties. For example, If you are going to a party, then I’d like to call the host’s parents. Pay attention to where they are and with whom they spend time. Establish party and curfew rules with other parents.1
  • Take advantage of teachable moments.
  • Make alcohol, tobacco and other drug choices that help you serve as a good role model for your youth.1 They are watching.
  • Tell young teens that you love them and give them encouragement every day.1



Many parents may have used, or tried, drugs in their youth, but gave them up years ago. Most important, is that parents don’t avoid talking about drugs, out of fear of this question. This discussion can be handled in a number of ways.1

Consider the situation, the age of the child, and the tone of the conversation. Be sure to listen and to slow down the pace of conversation. Ask for feedback throughout the conversation.1

If you did not try drugs, then explain why you chose not to take the risk. If you did experiment with drugs, think about why you decided to use and why you stopped.1

  • Before answering the “Did you do it?” question, ask your child why they’re asking. Based on what you hear, use the following guidelines to continue the conversation:1
  • Talk with them about why you no longer use.1
  • Discuss the negative effects of your usage.1
  • Be honest, and do not glorify or glamorize the experience.1
  • Explain you made some uninformed decisions in your youth, and now you have better information about the effects of use.1
  • Explain you want to help your youth stay healthy and drug-free, just like you want them to wear a bicycle helmet1 or seat belt.
  • Share that drugs are a lot stronger today, so the risk is even greater.1
  • This is an ideal time to discuss the genetics of alcoholism and addiction, and family history, if there is one.1



Older teens have likely had to make decisions about whether or not to try drugs or alcohol. They sometimes witness their peers using drugs or alcohol – some without obvious or immediate consequences and others’ whose drug use gets out of control.1

To resist pressure to use, teens need more than a general message not to use drugs.1 Scare tactics can backfire. Use facts to help build more in-depth conversations. Consider these talking points:

  • Alcohol-related car accidents are one of the leading causes of death among 15-24 year olds in the United States. Let your youth know you expect they will not drink and drive, or ride with someone who has been drinking.1 Impaired driving from marijuana and opiate use is on the rise.7
  • There are no mood-altering drugs that will enhance academic performance. One in twelve teens report misusing or abusing Ritalin® or Adderall® in the past year.9 One in eleven teens indicates misusing or abusing prescription opioids in the past year.9 Impairment of abstract thinking caused by alcohol use leads to lower college entrance exam scores.1
  • If a college applicant is convicted of a drug-related offense after submitting a FAFSA, eligibility for federal student aid could be lost and/or suspended.10
  • Help youth deal with peer pressure and practice saying “No.” Rehearse specific social situations with your youth in which friends offer drugs. Have them develop and practice comfortable ways to refuse the offer.1
  • Give your permission for your youth to use you as an excuse. For example, If my parents find out, I’ll be grounded for a month. It’s not worth it.1
  • Decide together on the consequences that will be faced if family rules are broken regarding alcohol and drug use1 and follow through when consequences are needed.
  • Youth at this age will make new friends as they enter new schools. Get to know the new friends, their parents and communicate with them often, particularly around events such as homecoming, prom, spring break and graduation.1
  • Anyone can become addicted to drugs and alcohol.1 Addiction can occur just as easily with Rx drugs as it does with street drugs. Prescription drugs are not safe alternatives. People often think that prescription and OTC drugs are safer than illicit drugs. But they can be as addictive and dangerous and put users at risk for other adverse health effects, including overdose – especially when taken along with other drugs or alcohol.11
  • Discuss your family history of addiction, if any, and let your children know they are 4 times more likely to become addicted if it runs in the family.1
  • Never share prescription medication. Eight out of 10 teens who use prescriptions say they got them from friends or family.6
  • If medical needs arise, talk with your youth’s doctor about alternatives to opioid painkillers and other drugs. Act as a role model, and show what a responsible consumer is for your teen.
  • Make alcohol, tobacco and other drug choices that help you serve as a good role model for your youth.1
  • Validate that when young people turn 21, they can choose to drink alcohol because it is legal.1
  • Tell teens that you love them and give them encouragement every day.1

BREAKING POINTS, directed by Tucker Capps, is a 30-minute documentary intended for adults that explores the stress and pressures teens face every day, as well as the unhealthy ways that many of them cope, including abusing prescription stimulants.

NIDA FOR TEENS features straightforward drug facts on many drugs, and information on drug use and its effect on the brain. Teacher and parent resources are also available.

KNOW! PARENT TIPS from Stark Talking is a resource for parents, grandparents and other caregivers. Sign up for emails twice monthly that contain current facts about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, as well as action steps to help children resist peer pressure to use.



Reinforce it is illegal in all 50 states to purchase alcohol until they are 21. Because drinking rates among college students are considerably higher than those who join the workforce after graduating high school, parents of college-bound teens need to be aware of the risks young people are like to encounter away from home.2

Adjusting to an unfamiliar atmosphere, new friends and the pressure to make good grades contribute to making this a difficult time. Students may turn to alcohol and other drugs to relieve stress, unwind or celebrate. High-risk drinking is never a rite of passage into adulthood.2 Helping young people develop healthy coping skills is smart prevention. Consider these talking points:

  • Remind your student that education is their priority and you expect they will not drink alcohol.
  • Help your student identify positive stress relievers 2 such as exercise, coloring, meditation, etc.
  • Even though they may be living away from home, they still need your love and guidance.2



People often worry that initiating a discussion with the person with an alcohol or drug use problem will lead him or her to take drastic steps. They might make a scene in front of other family members, move out of the house, drop out of school, use more excessively, try to hide their problem or retaliate against them or other family members. However, you might find the conversation to be a wonderfully productive experience. Perhaps the person simply hasn’t noticed behavioral changes or doesn’t realize that his or her substance use was or is causing a problem.2

Ideally, the person should be assessed by a professional who can determine the best course of action depending on the severity of the problem and the person’s medical, psychological, and social history. If you sense the person is willing to consider that there is a problem, suggest that an evaluation or a consultation with a trusted medical or mental health professional. (This suggestion may be too threatening for some people during a first conversation of this kind.)2

Consider these guidelines to help have a discussion:

  • Don’t bring up the subject when the person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. When people are inebriated, they are less able to understand logic and are more likely to be impatient, dismissive, angry and blameful. Some people have poor impulse control and may act irrationally or violently if the subject is brought up while he or she is under the influence.2
  • Don’t be under the influence of substances yourself.2
  • Establish a time to talk when the two of you can have more than a few minutes alone. Your goal is to have a dialogue – a two-way conversation in which you can state your concerns and understand the person’s perception of the situation. Ask if you can set a time to speak in the next few days to discuss something on your mind. If the person responds by saying, “Now is fine,” tell them you’d prefer to set time aside and not be interrupted.2
  • When you meet, tell your family member or friend that you care for him or her. Emphasize that you wanted to have this conversation because you’re concerned for their well-being.2
  • List the behaviors you’ve observed, state that you are worried about the effect drinking or drug use is having and express concern about continued use.2
  • Create a two-way dialogue so the person doesn’t feel lectured or badgered and use open-ended questions.2
  • If the person states that there is definitely not a problem, ask to talk again at some point in the future. Your goal is not to convince the person that there is a problem, but to let them know that you believe there is one and that your belief is based on observable behaviors.2
  • Don’t try to speculate, explore motives or judge. It can sidetrack you from the main point.2
  • Don’t expect a dramatic shift in thinking or behavior right away; this conversation may be the first time the person has thought about this problem.2
  • Keep in mind that there is no quick fix – prepare yourself for the long haul.2

Take a short online screening quiz to find out if there might be a problem and get connected to resources.




1 Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati, Parent’s Guide to Talking with Kids About Drugs, 2002

2 Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Helping an Adult Family Member of Friend with a Drug or Alcohol Addiction, 2014, accessed on June 13, 2017

3 Opiate Prevention Toolkit, Tips to Prevent Prescription Drug Abuse Among Children, accessed June 13, 2017

4 Start Talking!, Parents, Grandparents & Caregivers: You have a voice in drug prevention,  accessed June 14, 2017

5 Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Why Small Conversations Make a Big Impression,  accessed June 14, 2017

6 Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2009 News Release: Campaign Launches to Sound Alarm about the Misuse of Prescription Drugs Among Teens,, accessed Aug. 21, 2017

7 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Drug Facts, Drugged Driving,, accessed Aug. 21, 2017

8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Wide-ranging online data for epidemiologic research (WONDER), Atlanta, GA: CDC, National Center for Health Statistics, 2016,, accessed Aug. 21, 2017

9 Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, 2013 Attitude Tracking Study for Teens & Parents,, p. 15, accessed Aug. 21, 2017

10 Federal Student Aid, Office of the U.S. Department of Education, Students with criminal convictions have limited eligibility for federal student aid,, accessed Aug. 21, 2017

11 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications,, accessed Aug. 21, 2017