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Having Open Conversations Can Save Lives

By Patti Richards

No matter how hard parents try to protect their children from the effects of drug and alcohol use, the current national drug epidemic makes open conversations at earlier ages necessary. Talking about drugs with your children may feel like you’re robbing them of their innocence, but providing age-appropriate information is the best way to ensure the lines of communication stay open as they grow.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, children who have open conversations about the dangers of alcohol and drug use are 50 percent less likely to abuse substances and develop addiction than those who don’t.1 Having the right tools in your parenting toolbox is an important part of the process.

Father talking to son

Age-Appropriate Information

The fear of “getting it wrong” often makes parents nervous about introducing the right information about substance abuse at the right time. But what you tell them about the dangers of drugs and alcohol now can empower them to say “no” in the future.

The key is to offer information in an age-appropriate way, rather than overload them with terms they can’t yet understand. Parents magazine offers the following guidelines for age-appropriate conversations about substance abuse:

Ages 3 to 5:

  • Emphasize healthy living. Remind your child that healthy bodies get to do fun things like run, jump and play.
  • Give your child some decision-making power. Simple choices now — what shirt to wear, what snack to eat — let her know she has the ability to make decisions.
  • Encourage responsibility for her own health. Make helping with simple tasks and personal hygiene a fun part of each day.
  • Teach your child about dangers around her. Point out things like cleaning products and other items with warning labels. Tell her never to put anything in her mouth unless mom, dad or a trusted caregiver say it’s okay.

Ages 5 to 8:

  • Share your feelings about alcohol and drug use. Make sure the information you give is factual and something they can relate to. For example, smoking makes your breath and clothes smell bad.
  • Talk about drug messages in the media. When you see messages that glorify drug and alcohol abuse, use that opportunity to reinforce the anti-drug message in your home.
  • Set clear house rules about drinking and drug use, and monitor your own behavior. The best deterrent for substance abuse is your own good example.
  • Get to know your children’s friends and their parents. Meet friends’ parents before your child plays at their house. Make sure they share your standards for drug and alcohol use.

Ages 8 and up:

  • Set clear consequences. Make sure they know the rules with regards to drug and alcohol use.
  • Teach your children to say “no” to drugs and alcohol. This is especially important when they’re with friends and you’re not there.
  • Build your child’s self-esteem. A child with good self-esteem is less likely to experiment with a substance.
  • Provide meaningful activities. Choose activities that let teens and tweens express themselves in healthy and positive ways.
  • Encourage good decision-making even when it goes against what his or her friends are doing. Kids who learn to say “no” the right way have more courage to say “no” when confronted with drugs or alcohol.
  • Keep conversations in the now. Emphasize how drug use can keep your child from hanging out with friends or going to an important function.
  • Separate fantasy from reality. This is especially important in the areas of body image and consequences for bad choices. Watch TV and movies with your children, pointing out things that may seem real to them but aren’t.2

Addicted Family Members

According to the National Association for Children of Addiction, more than 18 million children live in households with family addiction, and more than 43 percent of adults in America have been exposed to alcoholism within the family.3 Important conversations at early ages with the children of addicted parents, grandparents, siblings or even aunts or uncles can do more to stop generational addiction in its tracks than any other program.

Carole Bennett, MA, for Psychology Today recommends honesty. Being honest lets children know they are respected and their opinion is valued. In addition to honesty, parents should:

  • Pick a comfortable time to talk when both parents participate.
  • Talk to children separately if there are large age gaps, but don’t come across as if you’re sharing a secret.
  • Stay calm. If you’re anxious, they will be too.
  • Ask children if they’re confused, scared or upset about anything they see or hear from or about the addicted loved one.
  • Allow them to ask questions, voice concerns and make suggestions they think might help.
  • Make sure they know you’re not looking for them to inform you about their loved one’s behavior.4

If your children seem upset or in need of further guidance, consider family counseling as part of your plan to deal with the fallout of a loved one’s addiction.

Finding Help for Addiction

If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, we’re here for you. Call our toll-free helpline 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about the treatment options that may be best for you and your family.


1 Wilcox, Stephen. “Talking With Children.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, July 25, 2015.

2 Broadwell, Laura. “Talking to Your Child About Drugs.Parents, June 11, 2015.

3 “Frequently Asked Questions.” National Association for Children of Addiction, Accessed October 11, 2017.

4 Bennett, Carole. “How to talk to your children about their siblings addiction.” Psychology Today, October 28, 2013.

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