There is often a direct correlation between mental health and drug abuse. Just like we are great about caring for our children’s physical health, routine doctor visits, shots, etc, we have to be mindful of our children’s mental health as well. Part of that is making the choice to engage our children in conversations that can at times be difficult to have. Before having any conversations make sure you get clear on what your family values are around topics such as drugs and alcohol. The human brain does not fully develop until somewhere around the age of 25. Drugs and alcohol can have a lasting negative impact on your child’s developing brain. Anyone is susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse or addiction. With the rise in numbers of drug-related teen deaths it is important more than ever that you start talking and listening.

This guide is meant to walk you through starting points and tips for various age groups.

Elementary Age Kids

I encourage you to start these conversations as early as possible. Make sure you are in a calm, grounded state when you approach your child about this topic, you want to present as honest, and non-judgemental as possible. You might start by asking if your child has ever heard the words; drugs, alcohol, smoking and vaping. And ask what they know about drugs and alcohol? This is especially important if your child has older siblings.

Teachable moments can be key with this age group, if you are out in public and see someone smoking, use that as an opportunity to talk about smoking, vaping, and nicotine with your child. Talk about good drugs vs bad drugs. When you are giving your child cold medicine or prescribed meds take time to explain why we need this medication, why we only take the dose advised by a professional and even side effects. Asking a child to take note of if they feel a certain symptom or side effect is important because this teaches kids to tune into their bodies and pay attention.Which will be useful for paying attention to how they feel as well so that when hard feelings come up they turn to healthy coping strategies instead of drugs. Another good opportunity for generating dialogue is when you see something or hear something on the news or tv, related to drugs or alcohol. Explore the situation with them asking things like why do you think that person made that choice?

Always ask non-judgmental open-ended questions. The quickest way to ensure your kids don’t come to you when they have questions or concerns is to ask or make judgmental remarks about them or their friends. Showing the continual willingness to have hard conversations will encourage your child to have a more open dialogue with you, hopefully for years to come.

The sad truth is that there are drugs out there that even when used once can cause brain damage or lead to death. Having the conversation once isn’t enough. This needs to be an ongoing open dialogue where you are repeatedly speaking to your child about the importance of steering clear of drugs and alcohol.

During the elementary years focus on:

  • Teaching your children important of picking good friends
  • Increasing your child’s self-esteem
  • Teaching how to tune in and listen to their gut
  • Teaching self-control
  • Teaching self-compassion
  • During late elementary years role-play scenarios with your kids that helps them explore ways to say no to drugs and alcohol. 


Middle School Age Kids

This is a time of raging hormones and uncertainty.  By the time your kids have completed the first year in middle school they have definitely seen or heard about drugs and I can almost guarantee you they have seen someone vaping in the restroom at school. It is a good idea now more than ever to make sure you know who their friends are, the parents of friends, and to strengthen your communication with your child.

This age is perfect for diving deeper into questions that make them reflect. Through conversation or journaling I encourage you to explore these with your preteens:

-Why do you think people do drugs and drink alcohol
-Does the way that drugs and alcohol are shown on tv ever make you want to try them
-Have you ever been offered drugs or alcohol at school and how did you handle the situation
-Do you think it’s possible to control your drug or alcohol use so you don’t get addicted?
-Why is it okay for adults to drink and not kids? What do you think the drinking age should be?
-Is there a situation in which it is safe to try drugs or alcohol?
-What do you think it feels like to take drugs?
-Are some groups of people more likely to do drugs than others? Why or why not?

During the middle school years focus on:

  • Validating your children’s feelings
  • Teaching them to tune in and listen to their gut
  • Teaching self-compassion
  • Setting healthy boundaries and teaching them to do so
  • Saying no in a firm way
  • Teaching them to not be afraid of letting go of toxic friends
  • Setting healthy boundaries with social media and things they might be exposed to on social media


High School Age Kids

Ahhh independent and extra opinionated years. And now you have added the exciting yet terrifying mix of driving into your teenager’s skill set. Most parents talk about not drinking and driving or assume they don’t need to say anything because it’s a given that you don’t drink and drive. Don’t be that parent. Talk about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Consider a written contract that you have your child sign stating they will not drink and drive. Don’t be afraid of setting some serious consequences for your teen if they are caught drinking and or using drugs (especially if they are also driving!!)

Your teens are independent but that doesn’t mean you stop making an effort to get to know their friends and friend’s parents. 

During the high school years focus on:

  • LISTENING. Listen to what your kids have to say
  • Talking about the importance of not drinking and driving
  • Teaching them to say NO in a firm way
  • Talking to them about not being afraid to let go of toxic friends
  • Setting boundaries with social media and what they are exposed to on social media

I get it. No one wants to admit or believe their child is abusing drugs. Some parents think it will go away or their kid will grow out of it. Truth is no one knows how it will pan out for their child. My hope is that for you, your child lives the healthiest happiest life possible filled with love and support. And of course, the ability to say no to substances that harm them or worse can take their life.

Lastly, you are not alone. It takes a village. If you need help from a professional, reach out and seek help for your child or for parenting support. (Local resources at the bottom of the page)

In solidarity and support,
Haneen Ahmad, MSW, LICSW

Not all youth will develop substance abuse problems if they are exposed to these risk factors, but these factors are worth mentioning…

Not all youth will develop substance abuse problems if they are exposed to these risk factors, but these factors are worth mentioning…

Protective Factors:
-Parental involvement/supervision
-Self-regulation skills
-Reliable support and discipline from caregivers
-Positive peer relationships
-Extended family support
-High self-esteem
-Healthy coping skills and problem-solving skills
-Engagement and connections in two or more of the following contexts: at school, with peers, in athletics, employment, religion, culture
-Family provides structure, limits, rules, monitoring, and predictability
-Clear expectations for behavior and values
-Supportive relationships with family members

Risk Factors:
-History of addiction in the family
-Child abuse or neglect
-Early aggressive behavior-School failure
-Poor attachment with parents
-Socially isolated
-Bullying
-Substance using friends
-Lack of supervision
-Presence of a learning disability

Local Resources:
CrossPath Counseling
Friends of Youth
Youth Eastside Services
Eastside DBT