Ask any parent, and they’ll tell you that raising little people is one of the best, most beautiful jobs you will ever have. First words, first steps, and first days of school leave you bursting with pride and tearful with joy. Watching your children grow and seeing their little personalities take shape is hands down one of the most awe-inspiring experiences you might ever have in life.
But the story doesn’t end there. There’s something else every parent will tell you if you keep listening: parenting isn’t all rainbows and fairy dust. From supermarket tantrums to bedtime battles to teaching life lessons, being a parent is as difficult as it is beautiful. There are times when, just once, you’d like to pass that dirty diaper, that letter from the principal, or that hard conversation to a partner, a teacher, or just about anyone else.
But you can’t. Being a good parent means tackling the tough stuff, including having “the talk” about drugs, alcohol, and addiction. But where do you start? When do you bring it up? What do you even say? While there are no universal answers to any of those questions, this guide will help walk you, the parent, through the process of educating your children about a subject that has the potential to impact their lives in a major way.
Start with Why
This conversation is going to feel impossible. You’re not going to want to do it. In fact, you’ll probably put it off at least once before you finally get up the guts to speak the first word.
Remembering why you’re having this conversation won’t make it easy, but it will steel your resolve. In this case, you are talking to your kids about addiction to educate them and protect them.
Teaching your kids what addiction is and how it happens may just help them avoid falling into it themselves. Per the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), “Research shows that kids who have conversations with their parents and learn a lot about the dangers of alcohol and drug use are 50 percent less likely to use alcohol and drugs than those who don’t have such conversations.” In short, stepping outside of your comfort zone is well worth it.
But education is about more than just prevention. According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 20 million people in the United States struggle with substance use disorders. The top three addictive substances are alcohol with 15.1 million instances, marijuana with 4 million, and opioids with 2.1 million.
Given those numbers, there’s a good chance that someone in your child’s life is an active user or an addict in recovery. It may be a parent, a grandparent, a sibling, or even a friend. You want your child to understand that addiction is a medical disease, just like cancer or diabetes, and this person is sick. As they grow and become more engaged in a society where some people still treat addiction as a moral failing, knowledge of the contrary will be comforting for a child who loves someone who is addicted or in recovery.
When to Start Talking
Put simply, you should start right now. Do it today, then again tomorrow, and every single day after that. While that sounds like a joke, it’s really not. You see, the conversation about addiction is actually about so much more than just drugs. It’s about empathy, forming good habits, expressing your emotions, making wise decisions, personal safety, and self-care. It’s never too early to start teaching your child any of those things.
Perhaps more importantly than even the statistics regarding the onset of drug use is the research around why people become addicted in the first place. While it’s not possible to determine who will fall prey to addiction, certain factors increase the likelihood, including mental health conditions, peer pressure, and trouble at school, work, or home.
So, yes, teach your toddler that it’s OK for him to feel sad or mad. Talk to your preschooler about being healthy and only putting things in her body that are good for her. Let your kindergartner know that if he is being bullied, he should say something to an adult. Encourage your tween to take a break from the school project that is stressing her out to do something that calms her or brings her joy. All of these things promote good mental health and positive relationships.
As an added bonus, talking early and often about sensitive subjects makes it easier to get serious about those subjects when the time comes. So, be relentless, be awkward, and be persistent in communicating with your child. As often as possible, keep your message positive and affirming. You may find that when it’s time to bring up the painful parts, your kids will be more likely to listen.
Practically speaking, when you first bring up the topic of substance abuse and addiction will vary. Most people begin talking to their children between the ages of 9 and 10, but the exact timing will depend on your specific circumstances. For example, if a family member or loved one is an active or recovering user, you may need to educate your children at a young age what paraphernalia looks like so they can avoid it. Similarly, if you lose a loved one to an overdose, the subject will come up naturally no matter the ages of your children.
What to Say
Once you’ve gotten up the nerve to bring it up, what do you say? Well, that will vary depending on your child’s age and your personal circumstances, but as a general rule, you should keep it simple. Aim to provide accurate, age-appropriate information and answer all of their questions. You can leave out harsh or mature details, but this is one instance where you shouldn’t try to shield your children by sugarcoating reality.
For young children up to age 7: Use “teachable moments” from movies, TV shows, or everyday life to explain addiction. For example, when you see a person smoking a cigarette, use that as a jumping off point for a talk about nicotine and how it affects the body. Depending on your child’s age and level of understanding, you can also discuss other types of drugs and creating healthy habits.
For kids ages 8 to 12: Start a dialogue with older kids by asking them questions. Ask them what they think or how they feel about drugs, and let them determine where the conversation goes from there. Don’t interrupt, don’t correct grammar or vocabulary, and listen more than you talk. This will help build an open, honest relationship where they feel safe and secure talking to you.
For teens and young adults: At this age, your child has likely already been exposed in some way to drugs, alcohol, or both. This is the time to be straightforward and provide practical solutions. Use local examples and/or your own history, as difficult as it may be, to highlight the dangers of addiction. Most importantly, provide your child with a punishment-free, judgment-free escape plan to use if they are ever in a dangerous or difficult situation involving drugs or alcohol. For example, The X-Plan allows a child with a phone to simply text the letter “X” to a family member. The person will then call the child, let them know there has been an emergency, and come pick them up.
If you are talking to your kids about a friend, family member, or other loved one with an addiction, it’s important to let your children know that they are not to blame for their loved one’s substance abuse issues in any way. The National Association for Children of Addiction (NACoA) suggests following the “Seven Cs”:
I didn’t cause it.
I can’t cure it.
I can’t control it.
I can help take care of myself by communicating my feelings, making healthy choices, and celebrating me.
In the end, no one is immune to drug abuse or addiction. Even if no one in your family struggles with a substance use disorder, your child will eventually encounter it. That’s why it’s so important to build a positive relationship with your child from an early age and, when the time is right, commit to educating them about what addiction is, strategies to avoid it, and how to help themselves or others who fall victim to it.