How to Talk to Your Kids About Substance Abuse

At GameChanger, our mission is to prevent drug abuse before it happens.

It’s a big task here in West Virginia, the state leading the nation in prescription drug abuse.

Nationally, data shows drug use among 8th graders increased by more than 60 percent between 2016 and 2020. And more than 5 percent of 12th graders included in the same study abused opioids other than heroin.

Given the statistics, it’s not a matter of “if” your child will encounter drugs—it’s a matter of when.

As a parent you may be wondering where to begin when it comes to talking to your kids about substance abuse. How much detail is too much? Should you instill fear or stick to the facts?

There’s no foolproof way to start the conversation, but we do have some tips to help you begin.

5 ways to talk to your kids about drug use

If you’re not sure how to begin the conversation, start here. These are five tips you use when discussing drug use with your child or teen.

Keep it age-appropriate.

Talking about substance abuse with your 8-year-old is different than chatting with your 15-year-old.

If your child is in the 8- to 12-year-old range, keep it simple. It may be difficult to explain certain concepts about drugs in a delicate way, so take your time.

Ask what they’ve heard about drugs, alcohol, and tobacco. You may be surprised to find out what all they already know.

Without scaring them, try to explain why drugs are harmful. “They can hurt your body, your mind, and your friendships.” Listen to how your child reacts and answer any questions they may have in an age-appropriate way.

If you’re preparing to talk to your pre-teen or teenager about drugs, you can be a little more frank when discussing the consequences.

Chances are your teen already has peers who are experimenting with harmful drugs, pills, or other substances. If they haven’t been offered drugs already, assume they will at some point as they approach adulthood.

Teens are not always receptive to a parent’s lectures. Tread carefully and try not to be judgmental. Explain that it only takes five days to become addicted to pain pills, and that the consequences of any addiction are:

  • Getting in trouble with the law
  • Losing friendships and relationships with loved ones
  • Losing sports and academic opportunities
  • A changing physical appearance
  • Being sick (and in some cases, death)

Find the “teachable” moments.

Talking about drug use doesn’t have to happen during a formal, sit-down conversation.

If a tv show character is abusing alcohol or drugs, talk about it. Chances are your child is curious to know what’s happening, too. Explain in an age-appropriate way how the substance negatively affects the character’s body, behavior, and relationships.

You can chat with your child or teen on the way to soccer practice, while prepping dinner, or as you get ready for bed. It may feel less like a lecture in these informal settings, which increases the chances they’ll be willing to listen.

If there’s a family history of substance abuse, talk about it.

When it comes to addiction, genes matter. In fact, the American Psychological Association (APA) explains at least half of a person’s susceptibility to drug or alcohol addiction is linked to genetic factors.

Be mindful of this as you discuss the realities of drug use with your child. If your teen is fully aware of drug abuse in the family and has seen its consequences firsthand, he or she may come to the conclusion not to start using in the first place. Giving the facts and allowing your teen to use reasoning and draw their own conclusions may have more of an impact in the long-run.

Explain not all drugs are created equal.

It can be hard for your child to understand that some addictions start from completely legal, prescribed medication.

If your child is old enough to understand, explain the difference between illicit drugs, alcohol, and opioids. Call attention to the fact that while doctor-prescribed painkillers may seem harmless at first glance, they can have drastic, lifelong effects when abused. Help them understand the different ways addictions can start and how even those with no intention to become addicted may develop the disease after an injury, surgery, or illness.

Make a plan.

Work together to come up with a plan for when your child or teen is offered prescription drugs or other substances.

Come up with scenarios in which your teen is offered drugs and help strategize different ways to say “no” and walk away. Let your child come up with their own “code word” to text you if they find themselves in a situation they need out of. Empower your child or teen to advocate for their own life and choices by putting some of the planning and footwork in their control—and make sure you follow through with their plan.

Finally, help your child come up with a game plan if their close friend succumbs to drug addiction. Explain that while it’s not your child’s responsibility to “fix” the friend, it’s smart for your child to set boundaries and reach out for help on their behalf.

About GameChanger

Created in 2018, GameChanger is a student-powered movement with focus on substance misuse prevention among youths. We connect students, educators, and communities with education, training, coaching, and support services to prevent opioid and other drug use before it starts.

Visit our resources to learn more.

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