Talking to Younger Children about Drugs and Alcohol: Early Intervention Tips

hands with cigarettesAs a parent, it may seem like it’s too soon to be talking to your pre-adolescent children about drugs and alcohol, but they could already be in a critical developmental stage for decision making and could already be learning about drugs and alcohol from:

  • viewing TV,
  • talking to their peers,
  • or watching you.

Research indicates that parental intervention is an important supplement to other types of drug and alcohol education and can strengthen and lengthen the impact of the lessons being taught (Beatty 591). Opening the door for tough conversations with children when they are young also encourages them to come to you for help when they need it in the future.

When to Start?

In an article published in Cognitive Therapy & Research, psychologists from Louisiana State University assert that most programs for drug and alcohol use and prevention start in the fifth grade or later.

However, children’s expectations about drug and alcohol use and its effects begin to take shape earlier; by third and fourth grade children begin setting expectations of whether they will consume alcohol or restrain from doing so as they mature (Copeland 522). That means that around ages nine and ten, children may start to internalize messages about smoking and drinking that could lead to future alcohol and drug use.

When they eventually enter drug and alcohol education programs, the focus is likely to be on teaching negative outcomes associated with substance use, but “this program has been found to be minimally effective in altering perceptions about tobacco and alcohol use behaviors in adolescents” (Copeland 522).

What these findings imply, then, is that there is a need both for programs that address more than just negative outcomes and for starting drug and alcohol education earlier.


Meet Kids Where They Are

If your school does not offer drug and alcohol education for younger children or if you don’t think what they offer is sufficient, you can start the conversation yourself. One way of beginning the discussion is by asking your children what they already know about drugs and alcohol.

Starting slow and meeting younger children where they are can help create an open space for them to come to you with questions while also preventing you from moving too fast or sharing too much too soon.

For example, you might ask:

    1. Do you know what cigarettes or alcohol are?

    2. Do you ever see people smoking or drinking? What do you think about that?

    3. Do you and your friends ever talk about drugs and alcohol? What do they say?

    4. What do you think is a smart decision about using alcohol?

    5. Do you have any questions?

Finding out what your children have already heard or seen and creating a space for them to ask questions can help you find teachable moments in which to talk through good decision making skills together.

While your children trust you as an authority, you can empower them to make good choices by talking through their thought process together.


Empower; Don’t Scare

Because many drug and alcohol education programs focus on the negative outcomes of substance use, it is important not to resort to scare tactics. Try to shape the conversation around decision making and your children’s overall well-being and make sure that they do not feel that their choices will impact their value in your eyes.

  • Engage your children in conversations about their goals and dreams and how their decisions can help achieve them.

    For example, if your child wants to play soccer on the high school team, will smoking cigarettes help or hurt his opportunity to do so? Also, what actions can he do to get into shape and learns skills that will help him get on the team?

  • Emphasize the power they have to make good decisions, not just about drugs and alcohol, but in all aspects of their lives. Involve your children in an open conversation to help build trust, connection, and self-esteem. Studies repeatedly connect low self-esteem to drug and alcohol use (Sharma 1).

  • Encouraging your children to think critically about decisions and to trust in your guidance and acceptance can promote successful communication in the future.


Lead by Example

Children learn a great deal about habits and decisions from the adults around them. Your decisions and attitudes about smoking, drinking, and other drug use have a big impact on how children perceive drug or alcohol use and its outcomes. Lead by example whether you’re modeling abstinence or moderation, and remain open for questions.

By Saint Jude Retreats, helping people with substance use problems make choices in their lives that lead to positive and permanent change while enhancing the quality of their lives. Its program is secular, educational, believes in personal responsibility, and embraces the science of neuroplasticity and Cognitive Behavioral Education (CBE) methodology.


Works Cited

Beatty, Shelley E., Donna S. Cross, and Therese M. Shaw. “The Impact Of A Parent-Directed Intervention On Parent-Child Communication About Tobacco And Alcohol.” Drug & Alcohol Review 27.6 (2008): 591-601.

Copeland, Amy, et al. “A School-Based Alcohol, Tobacco, And Drug Prevention Program For Children: The Wise Mind Study.” Cognitive Therapy & Research 34.6 (2010): 522-532.

Sharma, Malloj. “The Construct of Self-Esteem in Alcohol and Drug Education.” Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education Aug. 2013: 3-6.





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