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Talking with Your Child about Drinking and Drugs

How do I prepare to talk about drinking?
It is natural for parents to worry about the risks children face today. Abusing drugs and alcohol, often called substance abuse, is one of those risks.

Kids and adults turn to drugs and alcohol for the same reasons. Some do it because of pressure from friends. Others are trying to relieve stress or emotional pain in their lives. Some people do drugs to rebel or act older than they are. Keeping these reasons in mind can help you to help your child avoid substance abuse.

Think about how your child might react to what you want to say and how best to respond to your child's questions and feelings. Then choose a time to talk when both you and your child have time and are feeling relaxed.

Keep in mind that you don't need to talk about everything at once. In fact, you are likely to have a greater impact on your child's drinking by having a number of talks about alcohol use throughout his or her teen years. Think of this discussion with your child as the first part of an ongoing conversation. And remember, make it a conversation, not a lecture. Kids, especially teens, hate to be lectured.

Let kids speak their mind, and respect their opinions. Talking about their feelings helps them to cope. No matter what the age of your children, they are more likely to talk with you about alcohol or other drug use as well as other important issues if they feel you really listen.

What should I say?
Try asking them what they have learned in school about drugs or alcohol. Talking about a TV show that has this issue in the plot can be a good starting point too. Keep in mind that scaring kids does not keep them from drinking or using drugs. You should help them understand the real risks of drug and alcohol use. Discuss how substance abuse can:

  • keep them from getting good grades in school
  • negatively affect athletic ability
  • put teens more at risk for unplanned sex, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases
  • cause accidents when driving, bicycling, or swimming
  • increase violent behavior
  • lead to arrests, fines, and possibly loss of a driver's license
  • worsen feelings of loneliness or depression and lead to attempted suicide

Brainstorm with your teen about ways that he or she might handle tough situations, and ways you can support your child. For example: "If you find yourself at a home where kids are drinking, call me and I'll pick you up -- and there will be no scolding or punishment." The more prepared your child is, the better able he or she will be to handle high-pressure situations that involve drinking or drugs.

What else can I do?
Remember that children learn more from watching parents' behavior than from all your lectures put together. Don't tell your kids stories about your own drinking in a way that sends the message that alcohol use is funny or exciting. Don't let your child think that alcohol is a good way to handle problems. For example, don't come home from work and say, "I had a rotten day. I need a drink." Show your children that you have other, healthier ways to cope with stress, such as exercise, listening to music, or talking things over with your spouse, partner, or friend.

Take a careful look at your own use of alcohol and other drugs. If you suspect you have a problem, get help. Show your children what responsible behavior looks like.

If you need advice about how to talk to your child about drinking and drugs, or think your child may already be abusing alcohol or drugs, talk with your health care provider, school nurse, religious leader, or local treatment center.