How to Talk to With Your Child About Drugs

Although such topics as the use of tobacco, alcohol and drugs are emotionally charged, they are a natural and necessary part of communicating process you have with your child. Clearly, the best time for such a conversation about drugs is when your child brings up the topic. As hard as this may be to believe, some children actually do this. For most parents, however, it’s not this easy and it may become your responsibility to raise the subject. You’ll want to pick a time and a place that make it possible for you and your child to be comfortable and undisturbed.

Remember that the purpose of this encounter is communication, so listen to everything your child has to say. Observe his or her nonverbal cues – they will let you know how he or she feels about having this conversation. Listening means paying special attention to what is said, both verbally and non-verbally.

Communicating with your child about drug use should not be a one-time occurrence or a one-way process. Conversations about tobacco, alcohol and other drugs are not like inoculations that can protect children for all time. Talk with your children often as they grown from preschool to adulthood.

Common Concerns

"I don’t want to be a hypocrite…"

What if you smoke, enjoy the occasional cocktail or experimented with drugs once yourself? This is a legitimate concern, but it should not dissuade you from communicating honestly with your child and sharing what experience has taught you. You don’t have to project a perfect image to be an effective communicator! We are all human, and this is in itself an important message.

"I don’t want to plant ideas in my child’s head…"

Are you concerned that you might inadvertently prompt your child to consider drug use when it wasn’t even in his or her mind to begin with? Don’t worry, discussions don’t suddenly make children users. In fact, you can safely assume that your child is already aware of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Discussing these topics clarifies information and lets children know your views – it doesn’t invite them to use these substances.

"I am uncomfortable with this role…"

There is nothing wrong with sharing your discomfort with your child. No doubt he or she already senses it. An admission from you reassures your child that your anxiety stems from within you, not from something he or she has said or done.

To make the task seem less overwhelming, you may want to share the responsibility for talking with your child with another nurturing adult in your child’s life. This will make it clear to your child that both of you consider this matter important.

At What Age Should I Discuss Drug Use With My Child?

Start with preschoolers

Children at this age are not drug users, but if we talk to them now, before the problem exists, we can have an impact when they are 10, 11 and 12. The foundation for all healthy habits, from eating nutritious foods to using proper hygiene to dressing appropriately for the weather, begins in the preschool years.

While drug use by for children this age may not be a concern, even young children hear about drugs. Unless adults take the time to help children sort through the messages they receive, what they think they understand about drugs may be far from reality. Moreover, because children who resist early drug experimentation are generally adept at problem-solving and self-help, parents need to ensure that the foundations for these skills are laid down during the preschool years.

Preschoolers regard the adults in their life as all-powerful. Perhaps at no other time in their lives is your approval as highly prized or your teachings as well received as during these early years of unconditional devotion. Remember that both as you talk with your children and as you consider what behaviors you model about the use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

Ask children what they think about a TV program or story-line. Discuss how TV/storybook characters are like and unlike people they know.

Discuss how violence and bad decisions can hurt people.

Realize that when you use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, you are sending a message endorsing your children’s use of these substances.

Give children honest praise for their attempts to take responsibility for their own good health.

School-aged children

The typical school aged child is eager to be independent and grown-up. School opens up a new world to children beyond the closeness of family. As children grow older, friends take on heady proportions, and children seemingly live or die based on their friends’ opinions. Acceptance can be everything. The advent of reading and writing skills will also make your child a global learner. Because peers and reading skills expand your child’s world, messages about tobacco, alcohol and other drugs may be conflicting with the one’s you give your child.

As you talk with school-aged children about drug use, remember that children have a hard time focusing on future consequences – the here and now is what is important to them. They do, however, understand the reason for rules and appreciate having limits in place. This applies to rules about bed times and homework and to no-use rules about tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

Without putting your child’s friends down, underscore your values and the importance of making decisions that are consistent with these values.

Talk with the parents of your child’s friends to determine if they are giving their children messages that are consistent with yours.

Let your child know what is allowable at home and school and what isn’t.

Young adolescents

Between the ages of 10 and 15, children typically move from having good feelings about themselves and their life at home and school to at least some feelings of insecurity, doubt and pressure.

With the many dramatic changes taking place within them, young adolescents look to one another for support. "The group" defines what they should wear, what music they should listen to and what activities should occupy their time. It can be very threatening for parents to see the peer group’s values assuming such importance in their child’s lives. Still, children do not relinquish their powers of thought. They approach problems systematically, try to see things from different perspective, have a marked sense of right and wrong and are ready champions of justice.

When looking at drug and alcohol use, parents must recognize that young adolescents are easily swayed by what their peer group feels is appropriate. Self-doubt can also make youth vulnerable to the "quick fixes" of tobacco, drugs and alcohol. However, with expanding social consequences, young people may view the refusal to use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs as a civic responsibility. Young adolescents are also concerned about their appearance. If they believe drug and alcohol use will impair their looks and health, they are unlikely to be tempted by these practices.

Don’t abandon your child to the peer group, even though you may feel this is what they want.

Base drug and alcohol messages on facts, not fears.

Emphasize how drug use affects the things that are important to young adolescents such as sports, driving, health and appearance.

Listening Strategies

  • Create a climate in which your child feels comfortable. Your non-verbal cues will send messages to your child, so consider the position of your chair, the tone of your voice, eye contact and facial expressions.
  • Give your child an opportunity to talk. Stop talking and give your child sufficient time to complete his or her thoughts and process what has been said.
  • Demonstrate interest by asking appropriate questions. Questions can help you clarify your child’s thoughts and suggestions. Be sure that you are interpreting what has been said correctly.
  • Listen to the complete message. Listen to the total message before forming a response.
  • Encourage your child to talk. Use door-opening statements ("You seem distracted today…" or "Tell me what is going on…") that invite a response.
  • Focus on content, not delivery. Avoid being distracted by your child’s poor grammar or manners. It is what is being said that is important.
  • Listen for main ideas. Try to pick out the conversation’s central theme.
  • Deal effectively with emotionally-charged language. Be aware of words or phrases that produce anxiety and trigger emotions.
  • Identify areas of common experience and agreement. Note similar experiences of your own or offer a shared point of view to communicate acceptance and understanding.
  • Deal effectively with whatever blocks you from listening. Be aware of personal blocks that may prevent you from hearing what your child is saying.