Talking to Your Kids About Drugs and Alcohol

It’s not always an easy conversation to have, but it’s essential.

Medically reviewed in January 2021

Updated on October 4, 2021

Shocking fact: Approximately 20.3 million people in the United States are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, according to 2018 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). That’s about 1 in every 14 Americans age 12 or older. Among those, an estimated 916,000 kids ages 12 to 17—or 3.7 percent of all adolescents—had a substance abuse disorder in 2018.

That’s right, even preteens struggle with addiction.

Statistics like these are a stark reminder that it’s crucial to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol. Pediatrician Tanya Altmann, MD, of Calabasas Pediatrics in Calabasas, California, shares some advice on how to broach the topic.

Sharecare: At what age should you start talking with your child about drugs and alcohol?

Dr. Altmann: Kids are less likely to use drugs when parents provide guidance and clear rules about not using drugs, don’t use drugs themselves, and spend quality time having meaningful conversations. I usually recommend parents start having the conversation with their kids about drugs and the dangers of drugs during the elementary school years. Even for preschool children, it’s not too early to teach them to take care of their bodies and make good decisions.

Sharecare: What are some things you should say when speaking to your kids about drugs and alcohol?

Dr. Altmann: Make sure you directly state what your house rules are regarding drug and alcohol use. Don’t leave space for wiggle room. But let your kids know that you are there if they have any questions or concerns.

Also, educate your kids about the harmful effects drugs and alcohol have on their brains, bodies, and their ability to learn and play sports. Teach your kids how to say “no.” Give them the words to use and role-play conversations they may have with their peers. They can say things like, “No. I’m not into that.” Or, “My parents would ground me forever, so I can’t.”

I usually tell my families that’s it’s ok to blame the parents or even me, their pediatrician, if it helps. Also, remind your child that real friends will never ask them to do something that is unsafe or that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Sharecare: Anything you should never say?

Dr. Altmann: Never give your kids an out or an excuse to try drugs. Don’t say things like, “everyone experiments.” Also, don’t praise other kids as being cool or popular because you don’t know what those kids are doing that your own children may try to emulate. Instead, praise your own kids for their hard work, good behavior, and integrity.

Sharecare: What are some clues that a child may have a drug problem?

Dr. Altmann: Warning signs of addiction may include behavior and physical changes. Behavior changes may include changes in mood, sleeping, eating, friendships, and school performance. Physical signs your child may be using drugs or alcohol include having bloodshot eyes, losing or gaining weight, tremors, slurred speech, and either smelling like smoke or wearing heavy perfume to cover it.

Sharecare: What steps should you take if you suspect your child has a drug problem?

Dr. Altmann: Talk to your pediatrician or an addiction specialist if you think your child may have a drug problem. They can help you figure out the best way to confront your child, get them tested and treated. There are many treatment options available depending on what your child needs.

Sources:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. August 2019.

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