Talking to Your Kids About Drug & Alcohol Use

Starting the Discussion About Drug and Alcohol Use with Your Kids

Parents face a tough dilemma about substance use: we may want our children to abstain from alcohol and drug use but what do we do if they are not? Besides the effects of substance use on the developing brain, teens using substances may face very serious consequences.

Parents should communicate clearly and early that avoiding alcohol and drugs completely is the best decision for their child’s health. There is no standard approach that guarantees successful dialogue with your child about substance abuse, but the principles below may be helpful.

Mom and Dad talking to son
mom talking with teenage daughter

Make Your Rules and Values Clear

Many parents use phrases like “Be Smart” or “Make good decisions.” To a parent, they think they are telling their child not to drink or do drugs. The child may interpret this as “don’t drink enough to black out.” Being clear and specific on your rules and values eliminates miscommunications and confusion down the road.

Resist Lecturing

It’s in a parents’ nature to want to impart their wisdom and learned life lessons on their children – and try to prevent them from making the same mistakes they may have made. Teens often view this as lecturing and shut down. Consider asking questions that may facilitate a conversation. Ask, “What do you know about marijuana?” or “So you’ve heard that marijuana is safe because it is natural. Do you think that is correct?” Try and listen to their response. You don’t need to agree with what your child says, just make it clear you are listening.

Explore the Why

If you uncover that your child has used substances try to uncover the why. Was this to “fit in” with a group of friends, or was it to reduce anxiety or relieve stress? Being curious about the reason can help your child feel less judged. It also may give you insight into your teens underlying struggles – and point to issues that may need professional support. Finding out the frequency of substance use can also help determine if professional help is needed to support behavior change.

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Know When to Intervene

Engaging with adolescents on the topic of substance use can be a delicate dance. We want to encourage openness and honesty, and we also want them to get clear messages that help to keep them safe. Teens who use substances recurrently and/or who have had a problem associated with substance use may be on a trajectory for developing a substance use disorder. It is a good idea for them to have a professional assessment.

Consider Family History

Much of the underlying vulnerability to developing substance use disorders is passed down genetically. Exposure to substance use in the home is also a major risk factor. Both may affect children with a first- or second-degree relative (like a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle) with a substance use disorder. While we know from studies that the genetic heritability of addiction is strong, it is also complex, passed on through a series of genes and generally not limited to a single substance. In other words, children who have a relative with an opioid use disorder may themselves develop a cannabis or sedative use disorder. Honest conversations about unhealthy substance use, addiction, and the family risk of substance use disorders can help provide teens a good, solid reason for making the smart decision not to start using in the first place.


Discovering Substance Use in Your Child

Discovering your child is using drugs or alcohol is likely to stir up a lot of fear and emotion. The best way to find out what’s going on and to help is to start talking to your teen. The approach to this conversation can help set the tone and avoid the conversation turning into a confrontation.

Mom talking with teen daughter


  1. Set the stage. Set yourself up for success by creating a safe, open and comfortable space to talk.
  2. Get on their level, literally. If your child is sitting, sit with them.
  3. Put panic or anger aside. Keep reminding yourself to speak from a place of love and listen to your child.
  4. Watch your voice. While you may want to scream and yell, this will likely push your child away.
  5. Listen as much as you talk.
  6. Express how much you care. Explain the reason why you are asking questions is because you want them to be healthy, safe and happy.


  1. Don’t start a conversation with your child when they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  2. Don’t be on your cell phone or distracted. Avoid interruptions while you’re talking.
  3. Don’t yell or discipline. First, find a calm way to have the discussion, offering emotional support.
  4. Don’t take criticism personally or get defensive.
  5. Don’t overreact. Focus on what you want for your child in the future.
  6. Don’t ask yes or no questions. Ask open-ended questions to encourage dialogue with your child.

Find Help

Find Additional Resources for Crisis Help, Support Groups and Substance Abuse Treatement.

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