At some point, adults who care for children will have to decide if and when they will talk to them about drug and alcohol use. No matter how much we want to protect our children, it’s hard to shield them from the world’s harsh realities. Among those realities is that there are children, tweens, and teens who drink and do drugs, and there’s a good chance your child may know who they are. 

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS), 86% of teenagers know someone in their peer group who smokes, drinks, or uses drugs during the school day. Another truth is that young people have easy access to addictive substances through friends, family members, strangers, their environment, such as at school, and the internet. It is possible that a child could be using substances, and their parents may not even know it. If you have a child, preteen, teenager, or young adult in your life that you care about, you probably will want to have an age-appropriate chat about drugs and alcohol. 

Why Kids Use Drugs and Alcohol

There are many reasons why young people use alcohol and drugs. Some give in to peer pressure and try to fit in. Some seek an outlet as they feel pressure to succeed in academics and extracurricular activities. Some young people have low self-esteem and try alcohol or drugs to build themselves up to do what they want to do, while others are looking for the next thrill. It is common for young people to turn to addictive substances as they manage diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In some cases, children are exposed to alcohol, tobacco, and drug use early in their lives, as the people around them use these substances. Genetics and environment are both thought to increase a child’s chances of abusing substances at an early age and possibly developing an addiction. Whatever the reason, you want your children to be prepared and know what is going on. They will encounter peers who use drugs and alcohol, and they may even be in a situation where they may want to try these things. We encourage you to talk with them as soon as it is appropriate to do so.

Explaining Drugs and Alcohol Use to Your Child

You may be wondering if it’s the right time to talk with your child about substance abuse and addiction. But remember, there’s a good chance your child will encounter someone who is using substances in school or other places where their peers are. Parents are viewed as instrumental in helping their children learn about substance abuse and prevent them from engaging in it.

Per the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, Inc., “research has shown that kids who have conversations with their parents and learn a lot about the dangers of alcohol and drug use are 50 percent less likely to use alcohol and drugs than those who don’t have such conversations.”

We recommend the following tips for talking with your child about drugs and alcohol:

Keep your child’s age in mind as you tell them about drugs and alcohol:

There is much to say and share, but consider what information would be appropriate for your child according to their age. It could be too much or too little, depending on how young or old they are. If you are comfortable with it, you can start talking with your kid about drugs and alcohol when they are in elementary school, perhaps the second or third grade. You can review the basics of what drugs and alcohol are and how they affect the body and mind.

Some experts recommend that you keep things simple and do not minimize or overexaggerate the effects of drugs and alcohol. You can choose the details you’ll disclose, but as you talk with your child, you will naturally know what gaps to fill so that your child will know the right information. Your goal is to establish trust with your child and help them understand the risks that come with these substances. Talking with them can also help you figure out what they know and if you can correct erroneous information they have learned from their classmates or someone else.

Learn as much as possible about drug and alcohol addiction

It’s important that you can answer your child’s questions or provide perspectives about addiction as you can influence their outlook on substance abuse. You and/or others in the family may be the only people they personally relate to who can be honest about drug and alcohol addiction and recovery. Before you decide to talk with your child, you may want to learn all you can about drug and alcohol abuse and addiction. This can help you answer their questions and concerns, and if you don’t know the answer, you both can research it together.

As you go about your journey to learn more about addiction, you can share resources that you find helpful with your kids. The Partnership to End Addiction website offers resources that help parents learn more about drugs and alcohol, and vaping, which has grown in popularity among teens. It also offers guides on treatment services for young people who need help with a substance use disorder.

Plan a good time to talk with your child 

It will help you and your child to choose a time to talk about substance use when you’re not tired or distracted. You could choose to take them to a coffee shop or their favorite spot for lunch to make the chat less intimidating. Sometimes a casual conversation will go farther than a discussion with an undertone of a lecture, which we don’t recommend. 

Another opportunity to talk about drugs and alcohol with your child is when you see it come up, such as in a movie, a television show, or on the evening news. If you see someone in the media using drugs, alcohol or smoking, you can discuss it with your child in a language they can understand and explain how these habits affect the body. 

Avoid judging; keep an open mind

The world is a lot different from the time you were growing up. Children today face many challenges, and they are exposed to issues at earlier ages due to the influence of social media and the internet. Remain calm and open to learning about what your child is experiencing and understand that they will have questions.

It is easy to fall into feeling protective of your child, which can come off as judging them or even not listening to them. Try to avoid that and ask questions. Being curious about their perspective can make this a learning experience for you both. 

Allow your child a safe space to speak honestly

It is important that your child knows they can come to you to talk about things they are concerned about. You can actively listen and then ask open-ended questions to gauge how they are feeling and thinking. Parents and guardians can be sounding boards for children and teenagers by just allowing them to share openly about what they have been feeling and listening to them without judgment. If you learn that your child has tried substances, these honest conversations can begin the healing that needs to take place and reveal a need for substance abuse counseling as well as mental health counseling.

Clearly state your values and firmly establish your rules

Your child should know exactly where you stand on substance use and abuse. As a parent or guardian, you should have expectations that you make clear to your child. Let them know that you do not want them engaging in alcohol or drug use and that you trust them to make the right decisions for their health and well-being. Also, be clear about your boundaries and the consequences if they cross them. Be prepared to follow through on them in the case that they do.

Trust them and let them be accountable for their actions

Let your child know that you are there for them and that you trust them to make the best decisions for themselves. Give them all the tools they need to make the right choices, and you can always be a support for your child and guide them in the direction they should go. Ultimately, it is up to them.

Learning More About Youth Substance Abuse and Addiction

teen drinking

In the following sections, we will give an overview that shows why talking with your kids about alcohol and drug use is important. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on substance use trends among youths are still being determined, but the medical community largely views substance abuse among minors as a significant health issue in the U.S.

Children and Alcohol Use

Overall, alcohol, a depressant that slows down the central nervous system, is the most widely used, widely accessible, and widely abused drug in the United States. Unfortunately, teenagers are among those using this substance despite being under the legal U.S. drinking age of 21. There are grave consequences for this decision that could last for a lifetime. 

Per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), any amount of alcohol teens drink increases their chances of being in a car accident. The federal agency cites data saying that in 2018, 24% of drivers ages 15-20 were drinking before they died in fatal traffic crashes. Impaired driving and underage drinking are against the law.

Also, the agency highlights data from the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey that shows how common it is for some students to drink alcohol. Within 30 days before the survey, 5.4% of high-school students said they had drunk before they drove at least one time. An alarming 16.7% of high-school students reported they had been a passenger in the vehicle of someone who had been drinking at least once before responding to the survey.

The 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health also highlights trends in underage drinking among adolescents. It says 24.6% of survey respondents in the 14-15 age group reported having at least one alcoholic beverage in 2019 (Table 2.6B). During that same year, 7 million people between the ages of 12 and 20 reported that they had more than “just a few sips” of alcohol in a one-month period. (Table 7.1A).

Binge-drinking among adolescents of particular concern

A troubling drinking habit among alcohol users who are in adolescence, the period between childhood and adulthood, is binge drinking. This drinking pattern involves having four or more alcoholic drinks in a two-hour period. For women, having more than four drinks is considered binge drinking; for men, it’s five or more drinks. Per the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 14% of high-school students binge drank, which put them above the legal blood alcohol content level of 0.08%.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) writes, “More than 90 percent of all alcoholic drinks consumed by young people are consumed through binge drinking.” It is common for underage drinkers to drink more alcohol than people who are of legal age, according to the NIAAA. 

Binge drinking is dangerous to anyone, regardless of their age. Another danger of binge drinking is alcohol poisoning, which can lead to death. Drinking more alcohol than the body can handle will overwhelm it, causing a person to lose consciousness and possibly never awake again. 

The NIAAA also shares more data that shows why it’s important to talk to children about alcohol use:

  • Nearly 30% of teens have had at least one alcoholic drink by age 15
  • Roughly 58% have had at least one alcoholic drink by age 18
  • People ages 12-30 drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States

Alcohol Use on the Developing Brain 

Talks about alcohol use among underage drinkers should cover the substance’s adverse effects on brain development. Drinking alcohol during one’s early years can disrupt their brain’s growth, changing how it learns and processes information permanently. The brain does not reach its full maturity until age 25. It’s not until later that the frontal lobe of the brain is more developed, which is why older people are less impulsive and more capable of making better decisions. Repeated substance use is damaging, as it overwhelms the brain’s dopamine receptors and programs the brain to prioritize drug and alcohol use as a life-sustaining activity, like eating and drinking.

Until then, adolescent drinkers, whose frontal lobes are still developing, are more likely to be more impulsive, make irrational decisions, and take dangerous risks, such as engaging in unprotected sex or getting behind the wheel impaired. The adolescent brain is wired to seek out new experiences, but the ability to tell if that’s a sound idea or not is not always a concern of a person open to exploring the world on their terms.

Adolescence, a time when a young person is experiencing mental, physical, and emotional changes, will only be more challenging once substance use enters the picture.

Children and Drug Use

Drug use among adolescents is another area of concern that parents and guardians will need to address. Behind alcohol, adolescents commonly use marijuana and tobacco, per data the CDC highlights. As with alcohol, drug use affects the developing brain negatively. With each use, it will likely get harder for a substance user to stop, and this usually leads to substance use problems down the road and the development of health problems that last into adulthood, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and insomnia.

Data Show Adolescent Drug Use Is an Ongoing Issue in the U.S.

Per the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows, roughly 17% of youth between ages 12 and 17 used illegal drugs in 2019. Illicit drugs are not all they use; 6% used someone else’s prescription medication. This means that legal drugs prescribed by a doctor and those sold over the counter are not off-limits to a child looking to abuse them. Many substance users, including those underage, abuse drugs with alcohol, so this is another danger to be aware of.

Many different dangerous drugs make it into the hands of children. Some of them are the widely known ones, such as opioids, such as OxyContin or heroin, benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Ativan, and stimulant drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine. But there are others to be aware of, too, such as:

  • Bath salts
  • Cold and cough medicine (DXM and codeine syrup)
  • Inhalants
  • MDMA (ecstasy or Molly)
  • Salvia
  • Synthetic cannabinoids (K2, Spice)
  • Steroids
  • Tobacco, nicotine, and vaping (e-cigarettes)

Youth overdose deaths have been up since 2015

No matter what drug it is, legal or illegal, drug use can lead to addiction and death. Overdose deaths among adolescents have increased in recent years. Health officials took note of 2015 when drug overdose deaths spiked in general. Per the CDC, there were 3.7 deaths for every 100,000 teenagers that year. 

It also reports that of the overdose deaths among males and females that year, 80% of them were unintentional, while nearly 14% of them were death by suicide. Most of the overdose deaths were linked to heroin and the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more potent than morphine.

In 2019, health officials saw more deaths in young people ages 15-24. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that 4,777 drug overdoses occurred in this age group that year. 

The reality is that using drugs and alcohol is a gamble at any age, but it is especially dangerous for young people who are still growing up. Not every child or adolescent who tries drugs or alcohol will go on to abuse substances and develop a life-threatening addiction. But for those who do, this will be a hard road with twists and turns that could end up being fatal.

Experts agree that talking about drugs and alcohol with children is an effective way of preparing them for these times. As the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) notes on its website, drugs affect everyone, even children under age 5. Many children age 5 and under have been accidentally poisoned after coming into contact with prescription medication and illicit drugs. Poison control centers throughout the U.S. have received more calls about accidental poisonings for young children involving fentanyl,

Warning Signs of Drug and Alcohol Use Among Children, Teens

While it is possible to hide a drinking or drug use problem, there are things that can signal when underage substance use is going on. If you suspect something is wrong, you may notice any of the following, which could be a warning that you should investigate further:

  • Sharp mood swings (lack of patience, short-tempered irritability)
  • Appearance changes (bloodshot eyes)
  • Different hygiene habits or lack of hygiene
  • Noticeable odors on their clothes or breath
  • Slurred speech or rapid speech
  • Delayed reaction times
  • Poor motor coordination
  • Tiredness, changes in energy level
  • Energy levels that are higher than usual
  • Memory issues
  • Poor focus or concentration
  • Poor academic performance
  • Changes in friends group
  • Increased withdrawal from family, friends
  • Poor judgment or increased risk-taking behavior
  • Little to no interest in hobbies, extracurricular activities
  • Different eating or sleeping habits, patterns
  • Drug paraphernalia
  • Legal problems

What to Do If You Think Your Child Is Using Drugs or Alcohol

You will have to explore the reason why your child is acting noticeably different, but if you do discover that they have used or are using drugs and or alcohol, you should address it immediately and explore the possibility of seeking professional treatment at an accredited facility that helps people with substance use disorders.

While it can be hard to accept that your child has a problem with drinking or drugs, just know that it is OK to feel this way. You will need time to process it. You will also need to focus on finding the best help for your child. Reach out to a local substance abuse treatment provider you can trust or a referral service that can help you. You can also call your insurance company for help with finding a treatment center.

A facility that specializes in helping youths overcome substance abuse and addiction is ideal. It will be able to direct you to the programs and services you will need to ensure your child gets the best treatment for their unique needs.

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