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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Safeguard your family’s medicines.
Securely store your medications; consider using a lockbox. Keep a log of all prescription medicines in your home, including name, dosage, and how often the medication is taken. Around half of people ages 12 or older who use prescription pain medication for non-medical use got them from friends or family. Safely dispose of unwanted or expired medicine at a drug collection site near you. Find Drug Dropoff Locations »
Talking Points for Every Age
These talking points are adapted from “Growing Up Drug Free: A Parent’s Guide to Substance Use Prevention” published by the U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Safe and Supportive Schools.
Young children ask a lot of questions. Your response lets them know you can be trusted to provide honest answers. The early attitudes your children form help them make healthy decisions when they are older.
- Use every chance you can to share your feelings about substance use. For example, when you see someone smoking or vaping, tell your child that it can cause people to get sick.
- Explain that things like cleaning products or paint have unsafe ingredients in them.
- Remind children never to take medicine, unless a trusted grown-up, like a parent, caregiver, or medical professional gives it to them when they are sick.
- Give short honest answers. For example, if your 4-year-old asks to try the beer you’re drinking, respond with something like “No, this is only for adults. But I can pour you some juice instead.”
- Encourage them to eat healthy foods that can help make them strong.
- Let them make small decisions (e.g. choosing their outfit) to help build their confidence to do so.
- Tell children that you love them and give them encouragement every day.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL STUDENTS (6-10 YEARS OLD)
Children this age are ready to learn. Talk to them about the consequences of using substances and continue encouraging healthy decision-making. Creating rituals, like having meals together or taking a walk after school, can create time for uninterrupted conversations. Be a good role model; don’t make drinking the focus of social gatherings when children are present and never ask a child to bring you an alcoholic beverage.
- Reinforce to children that medication should only be taken when given to them by a trusted adult. Add that medicine that helps you when you’re sick can be bad when taken for the wrong reason or in the wrong way.
- Remind children that drugs can harm the brain and make it harder to learn in school.
- Provide praise when they make healthy decisions.
- Set clear family rules and make sure everyone understands them.
- Take advantage of teachable moments, using events from the news or your own lives.
MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS (11-14 YEARS OLD)
Children in middle school may already be experiencing stressors that can lead to substance use. Reinforce healthy coping skills and decision-making.
- Encourage children to nurture their interests in positive ways, such as participating in art, music, sports, etc.
- Talk to them about setting goals.
- Find healthy ways to help boost their confidence and manage stress, especially as their bodies begin to change.
- Get to know your children’s friends and their families and communicate your family rules about substance use.
- Suggest ways to say “no” if your child is offered alcohol or drugs, such as “My mom would kill me if I drank a beer!.”
- Tell your children that you’ll get them if they’re somewhere alcohol and drugs are being used. Talk to them about what to do if they see alcohol or drugs at a party.
- Remember that it’s important to talk, but it’s also important to listen. Start discussions with open-ended questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” response.
- Teach them how to find credible information on websites like www.justthinktwice.com and nida.nih.gov/teens, which were developed for teens and young adults. Consider having them visit these websites before they go to their first party.
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS (15-18 YEARS OLD)
By this age, most youth have seen others use alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. They may even have peers that have a substance use disorder. Help them create opportunities for healthy choices around friends and activities that do not involve drinking, smoking, or drugs.
- As they think about their future, remind them that substance use can jeopardize their dreams. Encourage continued involvement in healthy activities that they enjoy.
- Ensure your child understands Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders and what causes them. There is no safe underage drinking and there is no safe amount of alcohol a pregnant woman can consume without potential lifetime consequences for the fetus.
- Have teens help you set limits, such as curfews, and the consequences they think are fair for breaking the rules. Consistently follow-through if the rules are broken.
- Tell your children often that you care about they and that they’re important to you. Regularly spend time with them; even as they push for independence, they need you!
- Know what’s trending. New drugs show up all the time so reach out to your local coalition or ask your teen what drugs are an issue at their school.
- Do not let your teen drink at home, nor let them host a party in your home where alcohol is served as you could be held legally responsible for anything that happens to minors who drink in your home.
- Have an informed conversation about marijuana with them. Make sure they know marijuana in any form is illegal for youth and has harmful effects on the developing brain.
- Let teens know you care about their health and well-being.
- If your child chooses to attend college, before they leave, ask about the school’s drug misuse prevention programs. Be sure your child knows the legal and school penalties for underage drinking.
YOUNG ADULTS (18-21 YEARS OLD)
As young adults face important decisions about the rest of their lives, they can become stressed, which can often lead to an increase in substance use. You may find it difficult to stay connected as your young adult gains more independence and self-reliance. Remember, what you say still matters.
- As your young adult matures and gains independence, you may not see them as often. When you do see them, look for everyday opportunities to raise the topic of substance use.
- The college application and enrollment process offers many natural opportunities to discuss substance use with your child. For example, you could discuss what your child thinks of substance-free residence halls.
- If they are already in college, remind them that avoiding drugs can help them keep their studies and future career options on track.
- Young adults entering the workforce may be exposed to older coworkers who drink or do drugs. Talk to your child about their career choices, coworkers, and workplace challenges. Talk about the consequences of substance use on the job, such as job loss due to infractions or safety concerns.
- Remind them that binge drinking is associated with a variety of injuries and can make it harder to make good choices (e.g. practicing safer sex)
For more tips, view the “Growing Up Drug Free: A Parent’s Guide to Substance Use Prevention” document here.
This is an ideal time to discuss the genetics of alcoholism and addiction, and family history, if there is one. 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.
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. Helping young people develop healthy coping skills is smart prevention.
- Remind your student periodically that education is their priority and you expect they will not drink alcohol.
- You can support your student by identifying positive stress relievers (exercise, coloring, meditation, etc.) – consider their interests and hobbies.
- Even though they may be living away from home, they still need your love and guidance.
Be Ready for the “Did You Do It?” Question
Many parents may have used, or tried, drugs in their youth, but gave them up years ago. Don’t let your past stop you from talking to your child about substance use. You can be honest, but acknowledge that it was risky and emphasize that we know more about the risks of youth substance use.
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 the conversation. Ask for feedback throughout the conversation.
If you did not try drugs, explain how you avoided them and what opportunities being drug-free provided you. If you did experiment with drugs, explain why you do not want your child to use drugs even though you did.
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:
- Don’t beat around the bush; say “I don’t want you to use drugs.”
Talk with them about why you no longer use. (e.g. drugs are dangerous, unpredictable, etc.)
- Discuss the negative effects of your usage. (e.g. academic issues, social problems, legal involvement, etc.)
- You don’t have to tell the whole truth, but be honest; do not glorify or glamorize the experience.
- Explain you made some uninformed decisions in your youth, and now you have better information about the effects of use.
- Explain you want to help your youth stay healthy and drug-free, just like you want them to wear a bicycle helmet or seat belt.
- Share that drugs are a lot stronger today, so the risk is even greater.
Adults & Seniors
People often worry that initiating a discussion with a 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.
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 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.)
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.
- Don’t be under the influence of substances yourself.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Create a two-way dialogue so the person doesn’t feel lectured or badgered and use open-ended questions.
- 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.
- Don’t try to speculate, explore motives or judge. It can sidetrack you from the main point.
- 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.
- Keep in mind that there is no quick fix – prepare yourself for the long haul.
 Growing Up Drug Free: A Parent’s Guide to Substance Use Prevention https://oese.ed.gov/files/2022/01/Final-508-Compliant-Online-small.pdf
 Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Helping an Adult Family Member of Friend with a Drug or Alcohol Addiction, 2014, https://drugfree.org/parent-blog/want-help-adult-family-member-friend-drug-alcohol-problem-7-suggestions/ accessed on June 13, 2017
 Start Talking!, Parents, Grandparents & Caregivers: You have a voice in drug prevention, http://starttalking.ohio.gov/TakeAction/ParentsGrandparentsCaregivers.aspx accessed June 14, 2017