Talking to Your Children About Drug Use

Talking to your kids about drug use is an important step to take as a parent. Learn how you can discuss it with your children.

The Facts: Alcohol and Drug Use Among Kids

Drug and alcohol use by children is a continuing concern in the United States.

Today, children as young as 9 years old view alcohol more positively. Roughly 10% of 12-year-olds have tried alcohol, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The total grows as high as 50% by age 15.

About 5,000 Americans under age 21 die each year from accidental injuries, car crashes, homicides, and suicides involving underage drinking. That’s according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Each day, as many as 3,300 children ages 12 to 17 try marijuana for the first time, according to SAMHSA. Close to 70% of high school students have tried alcohol by the time they’re seniors, and 50% have tried marijuana. Over 20% have used prescription drugs recreationally.

About 12.6% of high school students and 6.6% of middle school students have reported using tobacco products. That’s according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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Why Talking About Drugs and Alcohol with Your Kids Is Important

Essentially, your child’s “voice of reason” has not developed yet.

The brain develops gradually from when we are young until adulthood, usually around the mid-to-late 20s. The prefrontal cortex, which helps control impulsive behaviors and judgment, develops later than other parts of the brain.

Parts of the brain that control excitement for exploration and new things develop earlier. This can lead teenagers to become intrigued by unpredictable and dangerous behaviors like substance use.

Drug use at a young age also can have serious, detrimental effects on brain development. It can affect the brain’s internal reward systems, putting teenagers at higher risk of developing addiction. And drug addiction can have many other long-term health consequences, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol is important so they understand the risks of substance use.

How to Start a Dialogue with Your Kids About Drugs

The first step to starting a dialogue with your child about their drug or alcohol use is to remain calm and honest with your child.

Your conversation will most likely lead to some awkwardness and discomfort. But getting over this hurdle is important if you’re going to have an effective and healthy discussion.

Make sure that you appropriately address your child’s behavior. Tell them how you feel and what expectations you have for them.

Taking a stern but kind approach can positively affect the conversation and make your child more receptive to you. Empathy and compassion in a time like this is the best way to reach your child and understand their feelings.

Let your child say what they need to say. Don’t let their feelings and concerns go unnoticed. Listening can help create healthy boundaries and maintain a more positive relationship between parent and child.

Why Children May Use Drugs

Drug and alcohol use and addiction to these substances can result from many different factors.

In many cases, your family may have a history of addiction. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, genetics can play a significant role in developing alcohol use disorders. Talk to your child about their family history of addictive behaviors and other mental health issues that could contribute to their problems.

Mental health conditions can also increase the risk of substance abuse issues. Talk to your child to see if they’re abusing substances to cope with mental health conditions and behavioral and impulse control problems.

Your child may also use drugs and alcohol to cope with a traumatic event. There are many possible reasons for drug and alcohol abuse, especially in young people. You can contact a mental health specialist and your child’s primary care physician so they can get the help they need.

Establishing Consequences for Drug Use with Your Child

As a parent, you should look at drug and alcohol use while underage with the utmost care and concern. Though remaining kind and compassionate is important, addressing the consequences of your child’s behavior is, too.

Set limits and boundaries for your child. Having both fair consequences along with positive reinforcement can increase the likelihood that your child’s behavior will improve.

Proper attention to your child’s issues can address their issues with drugs and alcohol. It can also help keep them safe.

Consider some restrictions and limitations that can improve your child’s behavior while also preventing risk factors. These can include:

  • What after-school activities they can do, both in person and online. Monitoring your child’s activities can help keep them safe, but you should set boundaries for both of you. You can understand how to avoid becoming intrusive and to trust your child, and they can learn to respect your limitations.
  • When they can use their phone/computer and how they can use it. Make sure your child isn’t using their devices to participate in unsafe activities without overstepping.
  • Which friends your child can see and go out with, especially if you don’t know them. Ask your child if you can meet these people and find out where they go and what they do.

You should also make sure that the consequences of your child’s actions are clear and reasonable. Unfair punishments can lead to further issues and cause your child to act out even more.

Acknowledging good behavior is just as important as the consequences themselves. Positive reinforcement will go a long way as you and your child build trust. Monitor your child’s behavior but don’t overstep and betray their trust.

There’s a healthy line between looking out for your child and disrespecting their privacy. Remaining a kind and fair disciplinary figure is crucial, especially when it comes to harmful activities like drug and alcohol use.

Having a dialogue about these boundaries can combat drug and alcohol problems. In turn, it can help strengthen your trust and relationship.

Resources for Child and Teen Drug and Alcohol Use

Many resources are available to you and your child if they’re struggling with drug and alcohol use.

UPMC Addiction Medicine Services provides care for addiction throughout the regions we serve. Visit our website to find care near you.

Substance Misuse and Referral to Treatment (SMART) Choices at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a free support program. It’s available for those up to age 20 who have substance use concerns, as well as their families.

Each Pennsylvania county has a drug and alcohol office that can connect you to local resources. You can find the office for your county online.

There are many other state and national resources, including:

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is the hub of UPMC Behavioral Health, a network of community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors. Our mission is to provide comprehensive, compassionate care to people of all ages with mental health conditions. UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. We are here to help at every stage of your care and recovery.