You Are At: AllSands Home > Howto > Talking to child about drug use and alcohol
Every child in America has been told "Just say no" to drugs and alcohol. Yet each year thousands use drugs and alcohol for the first time. Why? Because most drug and alcohol awareness programs do not have credibility with children, and because as society bears more of the burden of educating children about substances, parents have stopped talking about that topic with their children.

A parent is the most trusted figure in a child's life, and is thus the most effective bearer of anti-drug and alcohol messages. Every parent should talk to their children about these topics, no matter how many other places a child has heard to stay away from drugs and alcohol. Indeed, a committed decision to raise the topic in the first place is the most important step.

Many parents have trouble breaking the ice, but this is no reason to give up. A good way to start the conversation is to start discussing a current news item that deals with the consequences of drugs or alcohol. Explain the situation, and ask your child what he or she thinks about it. Then begin discussing your own feelings and experiences.

The key in successfully talking with your kids about drugs and alcohol is to do so early, often, and seriously. It is never too early to start speaking to children, and many parents rightly tell their youngsters to avoid drugs and alcohol long before they will ever have an opportunity to try those substances. But these same parents make the mistake of not returning to the subject, as if it is a chore that has been completed. As a child gets older, increasingly deep and complex conversations about drugs and alcohol become possible. And increasingly deep and complex reasons are needed to prevent children from experimenting with or abusing these substances. Return to the topic each time you are able to offer your child a new insight, whether because they can understand more, or because you have thought of something new to add. And when you discuss the topic, do it seriously. Do not hesitantly suggest a discussion, and end it as soon as your child assures you that he or she is not using. Make it clear that you think it is important that the child is educated on the topic of substance abuse. Use it as a bonding experience and a chance to learn the thoughts and feelings of your child. Avoid needlessly authoritarian approaches, as well as timid and embarrassed ones.

Another key to effective communication with your children is honesty. After all, if you are talking to your kids about drugs or alcohol, you honestly believe that they are substances they should avoid. Clearly, there are reasons for this. You have no need to hide the truth in any way, and in fact you should use it to your advantage.

This is the mistake that many drug and alcohol programs make. Children are told that doing drugs will fry their brain like an egg on a stove. Later, they see friends try marijuana, and nothing catastrophic happens. Suddenly, every anti-drug and alcohol message that they have ever heard loses credibility. A better approach is to level with your children. If they catch you misrepresenting the truth about drugs or alcohol (and they will catch you) they will discard even the truthful and sound advice that you offer them.

Tell your children that drugs do feel good at first, and that people use them for that reason. But make it clear that there are short and long term health and legal consequences to drug and alcohol use, and that those consequences far outweigh any short term highs or benefits.

A useful tool to use in these discussions are actual studies about the effects of drug and alcohol use on the mind and body. Many can be accessed on the Internet or in medical journals. Most family doctors are glad to provide such information. Another effective technique is telling your children the stories of people that became addicted to drugs or alcohol, and what it did to their lives. Teach your children what going to jail is really like. Tell them how painful a death cancer can be. You can even let them talk to recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. Many treatment centers will provide the names of such individuals that would be willing to tell children about their experiences.

All of these are honest and effective techniques that will convince your child what you already believe about drugs and alcohol.

Once you've convinced them, teach them techniques to avoid substance use and abuse. Tell them how to deal with peer pressure. Explain when they will be likely to be tempted and reiterate why they should resist. Make sure they feel comfortable coming to you when someone confronts them with drugs or alcohol. Explain differences between drugs, and the potentially dangerous effect they have on others. Be sure that they have the self confidence to stand by their convictions, even if no one else seems to agree with them.

Finally, a parent needs to set an example that is consistent with discussions about drug and alcohol use. Appearing high or drunk in front of your child, or condoning others who get high or drunk, undermines any impact that talking to your child may have had. Be sure to address your own alcohol use if you drink for leisure or with dinner. Discuss portrayals of drug use, commercials advertising of alcohol, and other media portrayal of substances. Be sure to demonstrate why your discussion of drugs with your child is the correct way to think about drug and alcohol use, and why the media often promotes misleading views of that topic.

Having such an ongoing, honest, and serious dialogue about alcohol and drugs with your children, and setting a good example with your own actions are the best ways to insure that sound decisions are made when the conversations end, and the decision making begins.