The ‘other’ talk: talking to children and teens about drugs and alcohol

No family is impervious to issues around drinking and drug taking. Any young person can fall into trouble, no matter how good their upbringing. It doesn’t mean parents have done a bad job. But there is one thing that can help keep kids on the right track, and that’s a household where they can openly talk to their parents or carers about their issues, questions or concerns.

Like many topics that we cover here at SEA, drugs and alcohol are two concepts you can and should start talking to your young person about from when they’re still a child. The conversation becomes deeper, more complex and more important when they’re a teen, sure, but you can be laying the groundwork from when they’re about four years old. Plus, the earlier and more you talk, the more likely that they’re going to make healthy and safe decisions once they’re presented with a risky situation.

Before you jump into the chat, this is one of those topics that benefits from really knowing the facts, particularly before talking to teens. You might want to have a read up here and here

From 4-7

When your child is between four and seven years old, you can start introducing the idea of safely taking drugs by explaining what medicines you take to your child and why. One example could be if you have a headache and take paracetamol: explain what its use is, why you need to be careful with how you take it and why you don’t take it all the time. Modelling good behaviour around drinking and drug taking throughout your child’s development will also help you to lead by example.

This is a perfect time to start looking out for ‘teachable moments’ when drugs and alcohol come up in television they watch, such as when someone is smoking a cigarette or having a glass of wine. You can explain what these things are, why people do them, what the basic risks are, and that they’re only for adults. Be specific about the effects of the drug, but also keep it simple.

If your child ever asks about hard drugs, don’t evade their question – but you can also add that whatever said drug is highly addictive and greatly harms our bodies. Some kids on the older end of this scale might occasionally see addiction portrayed in media, and you can use these moments to chat about addiction and what that looks like as well.

From 8-12

Once your child is between eight and 12 years old, the conversation can become more in depth. Continue doing and talking about all of the above, such as finding teachable moments in the media and talking about your own coffee, paracetamol, alcohol, etc intake. But at this point you can also open up the conversation by asking them what they know already, what they’ve heard elsewhere, and what their thoughts and values are on drugs. This gives you an opportunity to correct any misinformation and offer your own values by way of discussion.

At this age too you can open up dialogues about more mature things they might see in the media, such as drug scandals in sports or portrayals of addiction. This also provides good opportunities to talk about social consequences of drug taking, as well as the physical.

Even if your child seems disinterested or isn’t asking questions, that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready to hear and aren’t taking on board what you’re saying. And if you ever overstep the mark in how much you tell them, don’t worry, kids generally take on board what they’re ready to hear and filter out the rest. Also, having conversations about drugs and alcohol at this age while kids are still relatively open and willing to talk about touchy subjects will make it easier to re-engage in these topics once they become teenagers. This might also be a good age for role playing how to turn down drugs, again before they become harder to reach.

From 13-18

At this age, between 13 and 18, teenagers will at least know of people who are drinking or drug taking (and many will at some point start experimenting themselves). They might have more specific questions about drugs and alcohol, and if they come to you with these, great! Don’t be afraid to get into nitty gritty conversations. Some teens might ask you about your own drinking or drug taking; it’s important to offer your values and not to be completely dishonest, but they also don’t need to know everything. 

Be clear about your expectations and how you’d like them to behave in situations of drugs and alcohol, as well as your own values. However, the conversation shouldn’t be simply ‘don’t do this’, but rather imploring and encouraging teenagers to think about whether they want the consequences that come from drinking and drug taking, especially on their brain. You can remind them that the brain is still developing until a person reaches 25, and binge drinking at this age will do a lot of harm. At the end of the day you can’t stop them from drinking or taking drugs entirely – so treat them like the adults you want them to become.

All this being said, we don’t want young people thinking they can’t come to us if they do mess up. Let them know that, no matter what happens, no matter what they take or how much they drink, they can always call you or turn to you for help or a lift home without retribution. One parent we’ve heard of laminated ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ cards for their teenagers to use if they needed. They could call, get picked up and no questions asked. Or you might like to come up with a code word they can text you, no questions asked, and you’ll come and pick them up immediately. It’s important to remove barriers so your young person knows they can reach out for help if they or a friend need it.

This is when you should also get into the deeper legal and social ramifications of drugs and alcohol, such as drink driving, sentences for buying or selling drugs, drug induced psychosis (and legal issues if they supply the drug that caused it) and how being under the influence can affect consent and judgement. This last point is particularly important and needs to be talked about in depth, hand-in-hand with the other chats at this age about consent. Chat about why these things might be either illegal or socially unacceptable, and what their options are as well.

Don’t forget either to dispel the myth that most young people use drugs. Many, even most don’t, and teens should know this. If your teen starts going to parties as they get older, offer them excuses they can use to say no to substances (‘oh my parents are crazy, they make me do random drug tests’ is one).  You might also want to have a chat with them about how they shouldn’t ever pressure other young people into drinking or drug taking, and never make them feel uncool or weak for saying no. Lastly, talk about how they have a responsibility to look after their friends and peers if they ever become too intoxicated or drug-affected – including calling you or their friends’ parents, even if they think it’ll get them into trouble. It’s never worth risking someone’s safety or life in this way.

Another thing parents can to do is to try and stay up to date with new drugs out there, their street names and how different drugs affect the body (as much as you can, it can be tough for us oldies, we know). This will help you offer them the right information. But it’s also always okay not to have the answers; just let your teen know you’ll find out and come back to them. One example that parents might not know everything about is vaping as it’s become incredibly popular with young people and is an important one to talk about.

Lastly, we need to keep an eye out for signs that our teens might be doing drugs or drinking excessively, such as withdrawing from their social circles or lacking interest in things they used to enjoy. But don’t presume this is because of drugs or alcohol either.

In general, we want to talk about drugs in a way that doesn’t make them sound glamorous or fun, but also doesn’t over exaggerate the harms.  

Getting the conversation started:

Explain that people take drugs to change their physical or psychological state in some way. Some are legal (like paracetamol, coffee or alcohol) or illegal. Talk about how drugs can be natural (such as tobacco or cannabis) or manufactured (such as paracetamol or ecstasy).

Explain the difference between the different types of legal drugs, from everyday drugs (like coffee) to recreational drugs (like alcohol). Talk about the different reasons why people take drugs, such as:

  • to treat illness
  • to feel relief from pain
  • to feel ‘up’ and energetic
  • to feel relaxed and calm
  • to fall asleep
  • to deal with anxiety

Your child is likely to have questions, and that’s a great way to delve deeper into the conversation. Ask them what their opinions and values are, and what they would do in certain situations that might involve drugs. Asking questions about what they already know is also a good way to open up a dialogue.