How to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol

a family sits on their couch for a serious discussion


In this article:

  • The best time to talk to kids about drugs and alcohol is when they're between the ages of nine and 13.

  • Teens are likely to be exposed to drugs and alcohol in their teen years and form their own opinions.

  • Ongoing, honest and casual conversations are key to connecting with teenagers about drug and alcohol use.

  • A Swedish pediatrician says one of the most powerful things parents can do is set a good example when it comes to alcohol use. 

No one likes to be told what to do. That’s particularly true for teenagers. Nothing will bring out a stomp of the foot or a roll of the eyes faster than a parent attempting to tell their teen to do something. When you’re trying to get your kid to put their plate in the sink, that kind of reaction is just annoying. But when you need to talk to your teen about important topics — like what to do when drugs or alcohol are around — what can you do so they will actually listen?

Mark Bouchard, M.D., a pediatrician at Swedish Primary Care in Issaquah, says that the key to talking to teens is honest and ongoing conversations.

“Talking about drugs and alcohol doesn’t just happen once,” he explains. “It’s a conversation that happens many times throughout a teen’s high school and even college years. That open dialogue helps build trust among kids and parents, too. Kids know they aren’t going to be judged or blamed and parents feel more comfortable talking about these types of hard topics.”

When to start the conversation

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children start to become aware of alcohol between the ages of 9 and 13. That, Dr. Bouchard shares, is a good timeframe to start having conversations about alcohol and drugs.

“It’s important to talk to your children when they first become aware of drugs and alcohol and before they start to develop their own thoughts and ideas,” he says. “If you wait until your kids are teenagers, then they will have likely formed their own opinions — and may be harder to persuade.”

Why teens drink

Another reason to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol before their teen years is because they will almost surely be exposed to them at some point. It could be on TV or social media, or in person at a party. The important thing for parents, guardians and caregivers is equipping kids with information that will empower them to make the right choice.

It’s understood that teens are often prone to making risky choices, like experimenting with drugs and alcohol. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that teens’ neurodevelopmental processes, brain development, in short, play a central role in these decisions.

“As teens enter puberty, their brain begins to rewire — so to speak,” Dr. Bouchard explains. “They become more motivated to seek out behaviors and situations that release ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain, like dopamine. For teens, those types of behaviors typically revolve around asserting independence, trying new things and doing adult-like activities — like drinking,”

Curiosity, anxiety, depression and peer pressure are also major factors

The recent COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped teens’ mental health, either. Anxiety and depression are at an all-time high among the age group. While the impact of the pandemic on underage drinking hasn’t been established, some studies report that underage drinking has stayed the same, while other studies have found an increase in prescription drug misuse.

“Rates of anxiety and depression have increased throughout the pandemic. Social restrictions have led to a surge in mental health disorders for adolescents and children of all ages,” says Dr. Bouchard. “Early studies on drinking and drug use were completed in the first months of the pandemic. It will be interesting to see if, and how, those rates may change as the pandemic has continued over the last two years — and they don't seem to be slowing.”

Regardless, if you haven’t talked to your teen about drugs and alcohol, now is the time.

Four tips for talking to kids about drugs and alcohol

Starting conversations around drugs and alcohol can feel awkward and uncomfortable. That’s why we asked Dr. Bouchard about the advice he shares with parents of adolescents and teens on how to start — and continue — the conversation.

1. Be age appropriate.

The first rule of thumb when talking to your children about anything (including drugs and alcohol) is to use age-appropriate language. For example, you may just want to stick to general information and statements for a nine-year-old, like “Alcohol is unhealthy. It can even make you do embarrassing things without realizing it.

Conversations with teens can be a little more detailed about the true effects of alcohol on the body. You can — and should — discuss how dangerous drinking and drug use can be. Talk about the physical effects, like how the body’s reaction time slows drastically, making getting behind the wheel a potentially deadly mistake. Point out the perils of binge drinking and the real effects of alcohol poisoning. And don’t forget to discuss the reality that alcohol can (and will) make you do things teens will most likely later regret.

Sometimes, stories in the news, on social media or on TV shows can lend themselves to this type of dialogue, which brings up Dr. Bouchard’s next piece of advice. 

2. Keep it casual.

One of the best ways to engage with adolescents and teens about drug and alcohol use is to talk about it when it comes up naturally — like in a movie or a conversation about an upcoming party. Not only does this make it easier for everyone to talk about, but you can approach it from a non-judgmental standpoint. After all, you’re talking about something a fictional character is doing — not what you think your child is up to.

Having casual conversations can also keep the dialogue more relaxed, which ultimately makes kids feel more comfortable discussing tough topics.

3. Have it more than once.

“The conversation around drugs and alcohol will be most meaningful if it is continuous,” explains Dr. Bouchard.

“The more you and your teen have these types of talks helps keep the door open for questions or concerns they have about alcohol, drugs or really any issue,” he shares. “It also emphasizes that it’s a serious topic for you and your family — and one they shouldn’t take lightly.”

Dr. Bouchard encourages parents to talk to teens and adolescents when it comes up naturally and other times, such as:

  • When your child is going on a trip with friends
  • Before your teen goes to a party
  • Before you all head to a family event where alcohol is present
  • Before going to middle school, high school, or college
  • When they first get their driver’s license and when they’re in cars with other young drivers
  • Any time your child is making decisions with peers and adults are not present

“It may not seem like a fun conversation to have with your teen, but it is an important one,” says Dr. Bouchard. “And while they may be rolling their eyes or protesting with great disdain that you’re initiating the conversation, remember that they are listening. Your words will come back to them when they are offered a drink.”

4. Practice uncomfortable situations.

We can all remember how much we wanted to fit in when we were teenagers. Chances are your child feels the same pressure. That’s why an important part of talking about drugs and alcohol is giving them the tools and support they need to say no. Here’s how:

  • Encourage your child to find friends who share their interests and values.
  • Role-play scenarios where your child can practice saying “no."
  • Set up a plan to help get your teen out of unsafe situations. The X-plan is one popular method of giving kids an out when they need it. It involves texting a simple “X” to a designated adult. The adult then calls the teen to tell them there has been an emergency and they need to be picked up immediately.
  • Remind them that they can always call or text you if they need you — no matter what.

Be a good role model

Finally, Dr. Bouchard reminds parents that their actions are just as important as their words.

“Your attitudes and beliefs strongly impact your child’s behavior,” he says. “If you are honest and act as a good role model, then your child will likely want to act the same and make good decisions.”

For parents, that means drinking responsibly, answering questions honestly and, of course, never drinking and driving.

Together, these steps will help foster a strong, open and honest relationship with your child — one that they will work to emulate. And when they do make a bad choice (as we all do from time to time), they will be confident they have a strong support system.

Find a doctor

If you have questions about children and substance abuse contact the pediatrics department at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Additional resources 

Helping kids face change and uncertainty

Try Dry January

How to talk to your child about vaping

Put distractions in the ‘back seat’ and stay safe on the road

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

Our philosophy for well being is looking at the holistic human experience. As such, the Swedish Wellness & Lifestyle Team is committed to shining a light on health-related topics that help you live your healthiest life. From nutrition to mindfulness to annual screenings, our team offers clinically-backed advice and tips to help you and your loved ones live life to the fullest.

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