Children are likely to be exposed to drugs and alcohol in some capacity at an early age. The best thing parents can do to prepare and protect kids is to educate them about the risks. The ways in which parents approach discussions about addiction will vary as children grow and change, but keeping the dialogue open is the best way to help them navigate peer pressure, addiction in the family, and other significant related issues they may face as they grow.
Statistics About Adolescent Drug and Alcohol Abuse
- By the age of 15, about 30 percent of teens have had at least one alcoholic drink.1
- By the age of 18, about 58 percent of teens have had at least one alcoholic drink.1
- Young people ages 12 through 20 consume more than 90 percent of their alcohol by binge drinking.1
- 4.3 million young people reported binge drinking at least once in the past month.1
- 861,000 young people reported binge drinking on five or more days over the past month.1
- In 2020, 47 percent of teens used an illegal drug by the time they graduated high school.2
- 87 percent of teens know someone who drinks, smokes, or uses drugs during the school day.2
- In 2018, nearly 30 percent of teens saw illegal drug use, with the most common place being on school property.2
- In 2018, there were 4,633 drug overdose deaths among young people aged 15 to 24.2
- 70 percent of youth who try an illegal drug before age 13 develop a substance use disorder compared to 27 percent of youth who try an illegal drug after age 17.2
- In 2018, 1.5 percent of all adolescents (or 358,000) had a substance use disorder and a major depressive episode in the past year.2
- In 2019, marijuana use via vaping among high schoolers significantly increased to 9 percent of 8th graders, 6 percent of 10th graders, and 14 percent of 12th graders.2
- In 2018, 0.3 percent of adolescents in the U.S. (159,000) aged 12 to 17 received addiction treatment, with 83,000 receiving treatment at a specialty facility.2
How Do You Teach Kids About Drugs and Drinking?
Teaching kids about drugs and alcohol isn’t as simple as having a single conversation. Instead, it’s a long-term process that spans many years of their life. Preventing kids from making harmful decisions regarding drugs and alcohol is more about maintaining a strong relationship with them than initiating a well-polished lecture about the dangers of drug abuse.
Although every child and parent is different, when it comes to drugs and alcohol, guiding children to make good decisions requires the following factors:
- Open and honest communication: Parents should be willing to talk with children about drugs and alcohol. Ask them to share their views about substance abuse and listen before jumping to any conclusions. Get to know the child’s friends and their parents and talk with them in order to gauge their household rules regarding alcohol and drugs. Share your own experiences with addictive substances and become a valuable resource for a child.
- Education: Parents should educate their children about the risks of drug and alcohol use by sharing accurate and age-appropriate details about the risks of substance abuse. Try not to sugar coat things or be overly dramatic. Simply give children the facts so they can use that knowledge to make good decisions.
- Support: Parents should make sure children know they are available to talk about anything. Set clearly defined boundaries within the household and teach kids how to say “no” if peers offer them drugs or alcohol. Build their self-confidence by encouraging them to make decisions based on their own interests and opinions instead of following the trends simply because their friends are.
- Modeling: Model good behavior by drinking responsibly and using medication only as prescribed by a doctor. Show kids what it looks like to communicate difficult emotions and feelings and manage stressful life circumstances without relying on addictive substances to cope.
At What Age Do You Talk About Drugs With Your Kids?
There is no perfect age at which parents should start a dialogue about drugs and alcohol with their kids, but it is important to start early. In fact, the earlier parents start talking to children about substance abuse and addiction, the better. Many parents start the conversation when children are as young as three years old.
Educating children about drugs, alcohol, and addiction is a long-term process that spans several years. As a child ages, the nature and context of the conversation should mature and will address developmental stages and age-specific challenges he or she is likely to experience.
Although it may not always seem like it, children really hear their parents. As a result, mothers and fathers have a significant influence on their child’s decisions. Choosing not to talk about drugs or alcohol won’t guarantee that a child will ignore these substances. On the contrary, that child is less likely to understand the risks of drugs and alcohol and be unclear about household rules regarding addictive substances.
Age-Appropriate Tips for Drug Education
Talking to children about substance abuse and addiction gives parents the opportunity to set clear rules and expectations about how kids should behave when it comes to drugs and alcohol. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some age-appropriate tips.3
- Ages 3-5:
- Share general tips on how to live a healthy life, such as how to take care of your body and yourself.
- Make sure children know substances like cleaning products and prescription medication can be dangerous.
- Give young children opportunities to make decisions. This could include letting them pick out what they will wear or giving them the chance to brush their own teeth (with supervision and help) or comb their hair.
- If a parent or older sibling is suffering from a substance use disorder, make sure the child knows that their addicted loved one’s behavior is not their fault and help them express their thoughts and feelings in a healthy way.
- Ages 5-8:
- Set clear household rules about addictive substances like alcohol and prescription medications.
- Children will spend much more time at school at this age, so get to know their friends and friends’ parents.
- Discuss the dangers of alcohol and drugs more specifically and give details about the physical, mental, and emotional risks of substance abuse.
- Encourage open and honest questions and communication.
- Use movies, TV, songs, and life experiences as learning opportunities to teach kids about the dangers and reality of drug and alcohol abuse.
- Teach kids effective problem-solving and make sure they understand the pitfalls of quick fixes that may be appealing.
- Ages 8 and up:
- As kids grow and gain more independence, they will start testing the limits more often. At this age, it’s important to set strict rules and boundaries regarding drugs and alcohol.
- Continue the ongoing conversation about drug abuse. Ask the child to share his or her views on drugs and alcohol and encourage questions.
- Teach kids how to say “no” if their peers offer them alcohol or drugs.
- Build the child’s self-confidence by encouraging him or her to make independent choices and engage in extra-curricular activities that pique their interest. Provide constructive praise and avoid harsh criticism. Instead, focus on their strengths and help them learn how to do things on their own.
- Supervise parties and make sure alcohol and prescription medications are not easily accessible at home.
- Use personal experience with drugs and alcohol to speak sensibly to kids about the risks. Be a valuable resource and source of support as they grow.
- All ages:
- Parents should strive to be good role models by aligning their words with their actions. Taking medication responsibly and drinking responsibly is essential because children watch what their parents do.
- Remain open and available to talk so that even if a child makes a poor decision regarding drugs or alcohol, he or she will feel comfortable coming to a parent for help.
- Encourage healthy, creative activities to reduce boredom and excess free time, such as hobbies, crafting, team sports, community events, or volunteer work.
- Encourage positive friendships.
- Look for ways to spend quality one-on-one time with children, such as taking a walk, having a tea party, or read together. This will provide more opportunities for parents to establish a strong relationship with each child and encourage communication.
10 Children’s Books That Talk About Addiction
Books are another excellent resource parents can use to start a conversation about substance abuse with kids of all ages. If you are struggling to find a way to bring up the topic or expand on it, here are some suggestions that are highly rated by parents.
Books That Talk About Addiction for Preschoolers
Books That Talk About Addiction for Elementary Ages
- Tall Tales by Karen Day
- Stoney the Pony’s Most Inspiring Year: Teaching Children About Addiction Through Metaphor by Linda Myers
- Mommy’s Disease by Carolyn Hannan Bell
- Bottles Break by Nancy Maria Grande Tabor
- Our Gracie Aunt by Jacqueline Woodson
- The Dragon Who Lives At Our House by Elaine Palmore
Books That Talk About Addiction for Teens
- Why Don’t They Just Quit? What Families and Friends Need to Know About Addiction and Recovery by Joe Herzanek
- Louis Undercover by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault
How to Tell If Your Kid Is Using Drugs: Top Warning Signs of Underage Drug and Alcohol Use
Sometimes, educating children about addiction isn’t enough to prevent them from using drugs or alcohol. However, being able to recognize common warning signs of child and teen drug and alcohol use can help parents recognize and identify substance abuse sooner rather than later. Mood swings are normal, especially during the teenage years, but according to The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, if they are paired with any of the following symptoms, parents may have cause for concern.4
What kinds of behaviors could indicate teen drug abuse or alcohol abuse?
- Suddenly abandoning long-time friends for a new friend group
- Losing interest in hobbies and activities that he or she once enjoyed
- Sleeping much more than usual
- Acting angry, aggressive, or depressed
- Consistently breaking rules or curfew
- Stealing money or valuables
- Isolating from loved ones
- Missing school or work
- Suddenly performing poorly at school
- Lying to parents regularly
What kinds of physical changes could indicate teen drug abuse or alcohol abuse?
- Rapid mood swings
- Sudden weight loss or gain
- Tremors and/or shaky hands
- Poor hygiene
- Frequent nosebleeds
- Frequent fidgeting
- Hyperactivity and/or difficulty focusing and concentrating on a task
- Watery or bloodshot eyes
- Large pupils or pinpoint pupils
- Puffy, swollen-looking face
- Track marks on arms or legs
- Wearing long sleeves in warm weather
If you think your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, sit down and talk with them or contact your doctor, an adolescent or child psychiatrist, or an addiction treatment professional for intervention assistance and advice on the next steps.
What Factors Contribute to a Heightened Risk of Addiction in Kids?
Several biological and environmental factors play a role in a child’s risk of developing a substance use disorder.
Biological risk factors for addiction include:5
- Age – The earlier a child uses drugs or alcohol, the greater their risk is for developing an addiction later in life.
- Genetics – Addiction runs in families. Having a family member who has suffered from a substance use disorder increases a child’s risk of becoming addicted if he or she chooses to use drugs or alcohol.
- Ethnicity – Different ethnic groups metabolize drugs at different rates, which can affect how sensitive a person is to a drug’s effects. Various cultural factors can also influence a child’s attitude or behavior toward drug and alcohol abuse.
- Mental illness – Disorders like anxiety or depression put children at greater risk for using an addictive substance and becoming addicted later on.
- Sensitivity to drugs’ effects – People have different sensitivities to the effects of drugs (similar to the way people experience the effects of caffeine). These differences affect the likelihood that a child will continue to use addictive substances.
Environmental risk factors for addiction include:6
- Availability of drugs – If addictive drugs are more available in a child’s home, school, or community, he or she is more likely to develop a drug abuse problem.
- Stress – Research has linked exposure to stress (particularly early in life) to drug abuse later in life. Examples of stressors include abuse, witnessing violence, a chaotic lifestyle, or poverty.
- Peer influences – Kids with friends who abuse drugs or alcohol are more likely to do so themselves.
- Home and family life – Children who live in a home environment with very little support or supervision have a greater risk of developing an addiction.
- Academic performance – Children and teens who perform poorly at school may suffer from lower self-esteem, which can contribute to drug abuse. Poor academic performance can also be a red flag that a kid is abusing drugs or alcohol.
What Are the Effects of Addiction on Children?
Even if a child or teen is not using drugs or alcohol themselves, parental or sibling addiction can have a profound impact on a child’s overall well-being. Research studies have indicated that addiction can have the following physical, mental, and emotional side-effects on children.7,8
Physical Effects of Addiction on Children
- Physical harm or trauma
- Anxiety-based illnesses (asthma, migraines, etc.)
- Self-harming behaviors
Mental Effects of Addiction on Children
- Poor academic performance
- Rebellion/lack of respect for authority figures
- Substance abuse problems
Emotional Effects of Addiction on Children
- Trust issues
- Social disconnection
- Lack of empathy or remorse toward others
Get Help With Family-Centered Treatment for Addiction
Educating children about the risks of substance abuse is an essential function of parents everywhere. However, parents who are struggling with addiction themselves will likely find it difficult to have productive conversations with their kids about drugs and alcohol.
Family-centered treatment for addiction can provide the help parents need to recover from their addiction(s) while also offering family programming and family therapy that will support children who have witnessed addiction in the family.
Far too often, children are the victims of substance abuse in the family, but parents who recover from their substance use disorders can grow to become very valuable resources and supportive influences in their children’s lives.
If you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol and you’re ready to make a change for yourself that will also benefit your children, call (512) 605-2955 to learn more about family-centered addiction treatment programs at Nova Recovery Center.