This blog post was co-written with Ashley M. Stuck, MSSW, CSW.
With a national drug epidemic affecting more and more families, parents may be increasingly concerned about keeping their kids safe. But helping kids understand addiction can seem like a challenge! Parents and their kids often feel awkward about talking frankly about substance use. While you might feel like you have a responsibility to have that discussion with your kids, not everyone knows how or where to start.
(In case you missed it, read our previous blog post about why you should be talking to your kids about addiction, and how the holidays might be a good time to do it.)
For parents who need some help clearing away the obstacles to discussing drug use and addiction with their kids, we’ve compiled a list of 12 helpful tips. Read on for a short, practical guide to helping kids understand addiction.
12 tips for parents helping kids understand addiction
- Recognize that your kids will hear about drugs from a variety of sources, whether it’s on the school bus, in the classroom, in the media, or from friends and peers. But there’s a lot of misleading information out there. Talking directly to your kids about drug use and addiction can ensure that your kids get an informed perspective from a trusted loved one.
- Do some prep before talking to your kids! You don’t need to be an addiction expert, but you should familiarize yourself with how addiction is a brain disease and the kinds of negative consequences that result from substance abuse and addiction.
- Need help finding accurate information about addiction? You might consider looking for educational resources from credible organizations like community health centers or a local Al-Anon/ Alateen chapter. Online, you can find accurate information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Emphasize openness and dialogue. One of the biggest anxieties kids might have about talking about drugs with parents is that they will feel judged or suspected of doing something wrong. Make sure your kids know you’re on their side and that you really want to hear their opinions. Then stay focused on providing accurate information instead of moral judgment.
- Give your kids room to tell you what they already know or believe about drugs and alcohol. Start with an open-ended question like, “What kind of stuff do you know about drugs you can get addicted to?”
- It’s OK if you don’t know the answer to a question about addiction that your kid asks. Emphasize that you’re just as curious about finding an answer as they are, then consult professional sources like those previously listed. It’s better to find the right answer instead of guessing.
- One of the things that might draw kids toward experimenting with drugs is the mystique of drug use, which is often created through an absence of factual information. Having fact-based conversations about the negative consequences of addiction can do a lot to dispel that mystique.
- Emphasize understanding the consequences of drug abuse and addiction. Make sure that you and your kids know how drug use can stunt their mental and emotional growth. Talk together about how addiction has negative consequences for physical health, relationships, hobbies and interests, school and work, and finances.
- Be aware if your kid is resistant to the conversation and attempt to understand why they feel that way. If your kid feels too awkward having an addiction education conversation with their parents, ask if they would feel more comfortable talking to another responsible adult you trust.
- Parents of older teens and young adults may find it appropriate to talk about how their family’s beliefs and values inform their thoughts about drugs and addiction. Grown-up kids who have moved away for college or work might feel more sure of their own position on drug use if they know what their family thinks about it.
- If you think there’s something going on in your kid’s life—like experimentation with substances, active use, or even an addiction—remain supportive. Your kids may be more receptive to thinking about seeking treatment for a problem if they feel supported rather than judged.
- Let your kids know that you are always available to talk about these topics with them. Emphasize that your #1 concern is for their health and well-being.