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How to talk to pre-teens about drugs and alcohol

As a parent to a middle-schooler, you may not want to think about the way drugs and alcohol could start to show up in your child’s life, but talking to them about these subjects early and often can help give them the tools to stay safe. 

According to research, tweens try alcohol between 11 and 13 years old. Further, data suggests that kids are using drugs as early as the age of 15. However, in states where marijuana use is legal, the average age is likely younger. 

Here’s a guide to help get the conversation started. 

1. Figure out your own relationship to drugs and alcohol

What you say to your kids about drugs and alcohol is important — but what you show to them about drug and alcohol use is more important. If alcohol or other substances are openly consumed in your household, you want their use by any adults to reflect what you’re discussing and promoting with your kids. For example, it’s hard for kids to make sense of messages about moderation when they see adults get out of control. 

Culturally, especially for some parents, “wine-time” or the need for alcohol is a frequent joke. But kids might not perceive these conversations the same way. It’s a good idea to be mindful about the way alcohol is discussed at home. And if you’re a caregiver, spend some time considering your own relationship with drugs and alcohol. Here are some questions to ask yourself: 

  • Do substances energize or depress me? 
  • Can I stop using or do I regularly use more than I intended or get impaired?
  • Do I ever find myself hiding what I am using (or how much I am using)?
  • Have you ever chosen drinking alcohol or doing drugs over other activities? 

If your answers to these questions reveal that your own relationship with drugs and alcohol need mending, consider informing a mental healthcare provider, working with an addiction specialist, or talking to someone at the SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). 

After all, children with caregivers with substance issues are more likely to start using substances earlier, and more likely to become addicted than their peers. 

2. Take advantage of teachable moments

Maybe you’ll walk past a group of smokers on your way into the mall. Or you’ll walk in on your kiddo watching “Euphoria” with their older sibling. Maybe your relative will get drunk at the holiday party. If these — or similar — incidents happen, use them as an opportunity to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol, and the potential risks. 

Here are some ways you might bring it up:

  • I wonder why that character was doing “X.” What do you know about “X?” 
  • Have you learned anything about alcohol in school? 
  • I’d love to talk to you about how Uncle Tim acted at dinner the other night and answer any questions you might have. 
  • How does it make you feel when you see them vaping? 

On the other hand, don’t feel like you need to wait for an easy opportunity. It’s okay to talk about drugs and alcohol anytime to keep the topic open and free of judgment. Avoiding these conversations will not prevent your child from being exposed to drugs and alcohol socially. But practicing how to navigate those situations can be a game-changer. 

When you talk to your child, do your best to keep your tone curious. It can also be helpful to keep the terminology basic, so that they fully understand what you are saying. Avoid consequences or punishments if they talk about an experience they had, and you don’t approve of how they handled it. Suggest ways or small scripts they could use the next time. Even role play with them to help them remember what to say and feel comfortable doing it!

3. Start early if they know people who smoke or drink

If someone in your immediate family drinks or does drugs — in particular if it’s in excess — you’re going to want to start talking to your kid about the potential harm of drugs and alcohol sooner rather than later. 

Here, it can be especially helpful to explain the difference between drinking in moderation and addiction. While a middle-schooler likely will not grasp the way the neurotransmitters in the human brain work, they will be able to understand the ways that video games or Halloween candy can be addicting, and how you can use too much. 

The goal here is to educate your kids, and give them the tools to manage those tricky situations when they come up. Scare tactics are not generally a useful tool for keeping your little ones safe, although it is okay to be honest if someone in their life has had negative life changes or dies because of drugs and alcohol.

4. Lean on resources that might help you

If you’ve never searched “books about addiction” into your Amazon search bar, you might be surprised to learn just how many books there are about addiction that are age-appropriate for middle schoolers. 

Some of these books include:

Depending on your kiddos personality, as well as your own parenting style, you can read this book aloud to them, use it as a teaching guide, or have them read it independently.

Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team

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