All children are eventually exposed to drugs ‒ prescription medication, alcohol and tobacco, and sometimes illegal drugs too ‒ or to messages about drugs.
They need adults to explain what drugs are, how drugs can help or harm us, and what drug use is illegal. Children who aren't properly informed are at greater risk of engaging in unsafe behaviours and experimenting with drugs.
You can start talking to your children about drugs from when they are in primary school (the ADF suggests any time from 8 years old, but respond to your child’s cues – they may need to talk sooner than this). By talking with your children about drugs, you can equip them with information and skills that they will need when they are first faced with alcohol and other drug use.
Another benefit of starting the conversation early is that you create an environment of sharing information. You are showing your child that you are happy to talk about drugs and peer pressure ‒ no topic is ‘off limits’. And you are also showing that you have useful information to help your child understand the risks of drug use.
If you feel you don’t know the answers, or don’t know enough, you are not alone. Many parents feel lost in knowing where to start the drug conversation and what to cover.
This article will help you feel more confident in talking to your kids about drugs.
Getting ready to talk about drugs with kids
To feel more confident about starting the conversation with your child, find out more about drugs. The following websites are great resources:
- ReachOut clearly describes the different types of drugs (stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens).
- The Other Talk provides facts and evidence for you to explain drugs to your child.
- The Australian Government’s National Drug Campaign has useful responses to teenager’s reasons for using drugs.
Then prepare what you will say.
Think about what you think your child will ask. Have answers for those questions.
In particular, your child is likely to ask whether you have used drugs. You do not need to tell your child details about your experiences with alcohol and drugs.
Explain what you think is a responsible use of legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol and prescription and over the counter medicines. Prepare what you will say to your child about when it’s okay to drink. The Australian alcohol guidelines state that the safest approach is to avoid alcohol until a person is 18 years old.
Make sure your behaviour matches what you say. Your child will learn from your example – so teach them responsible behaviour by:
- not drinking excessively
- not drink driving
- showing that you can have fun and relax without drinking
- declining a drink if you don’t feel like it or you’ve had enough.
Think about what is age appropriate information for your child.
Tips for talking to children aged 4‒7
- When you use medicine in the house, talk about why you are using the medicine, how it can be used by only the person who is unwell, and how sticking to the correct dose is important (that is, we can’t take too much).
- Repeat simple information about the dangers of drugs, smoking and alcohol, but also about the benefits of nutritious food. In other words, take a two-pronged approach: some things are not good for our body, and some things are great for us.
- If your child sees someone smoking in a movie or on television, talk about smoking, nicotine dependence and the effects of smoking on your lungs.
- You can explain the concept of dependence by talking about how too much of something can be bad for us and use the example of lollies, and how this is bad for our teeth and weight.
- If your child sees someone drinking heavily in a movie or on television, talk about alcohol, alcohol dependence and the effects of excessive drinking on your health.
- Be specific about the effects of a drug, but keep it simple. You can talk about a person getting very angry, for example, rather than a person attacking their family.
- If your child asks for more information, give it to them.
- Talk calmly and use terms that your child can understand.
Tips for talking to children aged 8‒12
- Begin by asking them what they think about drugs. If you ask in a casual, non-judgmental way, your child is more likely to be honest with you.
- If your child is uncomfortable talking to you about drugs, or seems disinterested, let them know that you are ready to talk whenever they are. They will come to you with questions eventually.
- Pay attention to their concerns and questions. Don’t say that any ideas or questions are silly: be open to all questions, whether they are detailed or general.
- If your child shows they have false information, gently give them the correct information. Explain that they may come across more wrong information, but they can check everything with you.
- Be aware of drug-related news that your child may hear, such as drug use by professional cyclists or footballers. And check that your child understands what has happened, and the outcomes of the drug use.
Tips for talking to children aged 13‒17
- Be aware that your child may know other kids who use alcohol or other drugs. So, be prepared to answer more specific questions about drugs.
- Try to encourage your child to think about drug-related issues (such as drink driving) and allow them to share their thoughts and develop their views. For example, you might ask them what might be the negative outcomes that might happen if someone drives while drunk (such as injury or death to the driver, a passenger or pedestrian, and criminal charges for the driver).
- Consider making a written or verbal contract containing the family rules about going out or using the car. As part of the contract, let your child know that it is ok to call you if the person responsible for driving has been drinking or using drugs.
- Be clear about your expectations of your child. The idea is to be completely upfront about how you want your child to behave in situations that involve alcohol and other drugs.
- Stay up to date with drug street names and how different drugs affect our body, so you can give out the right information. If you don’t have the answers, let your child know that you will find out what they want to know.
Talking to kids – starting a conversation about drugs
Plan a quiet time with your child when neither of you will have other distractions. You may go for a walk, plan a milkshake at a café, or chat in the car on the way home from school.
You can start the conversation with some basic information.
Explain that a drug can be natural (such as cannabis or tobacco) or manufactured (such as ecstasy or ice). Let your child know that every drug changes our physical and psychological state in some way.
Explain that drugs fall into four groups:
- freely available substances such as coffee or tea
- legal recreational substances such as cigarettes and alcohol
- over the counter and prescription medication
- illegal drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, ice and ecstasy.
Explain that people use drugs (or medications) for different reasons:
- to treat illness
- to feel relief from pain
- to feel ‘up’ and energetic
- to feel relaxed and calm
- to fall sleep.
From this information, your child will probably have questions. Let the conversation flow from those questions.
In other words, let the conversation go in whatever direction your child wants to take it. You can always come back to your prepared information on another day.
Stuck for an answer about drugs?
You may not have all the answers to your child’s questions. They may ask about a drug that you never heard of, or drug side-effects that you don’t know, or drug-related statistics that you don’t have.
This situation is a chance to research drugs together. If you already know some reliable websites, look for the information online. By looking together, your child knows you are happy to help them, and the conversation is open and honest.
If your child doesn’t want to bother looking for answers, then do the research yourself. If you don’t supply the answers for your child’s questions, then someone else probably will, and their information may be wrong.
In other words, you can keep more control of what your child knows about drugs by being their main source of information.
Further, by talking to your child, you can at least learn more about what is happening in their life. And, by talking with you, your child can work out their choices and make healthy decisions.
There is no script for talking to kids about drugs.
Stick to the facts; don’t make drugs sound glamorous or fun. By explaining how drugs affect our bodies and our minds, you have a good chance of discouraging your child from wanting to try drugs.
Your child doesn’t have your experience, so they may not understand the true harm of drug use. In fact, they may take a while to really understand the risks.
Your child is probably still working out who they are, and who they want to be, so you need to explain how drugs interfere with a person’s sense of self.
Other people (particularly peers) will talk to your child about drugs, so it is important to learn what your child knows and clear up any misconceptions.
Your child will form attitudes about drug use from what they see at home, among their friends and in the media.
Where to get help ‒ parents
Where to get help ‒ kids