Establish and maintain good communication

Get into the habit of talking with your child everyday. It doesn’t matter what the topic is, when your child talks with you, show real concern and interest in what she’s saying. Ask questions about her hopes, fears, likes and dislikes. If you establish a close and open relationship with your child at an early age, it will be easier for her to come to you when she has a problem.

Talk Early, Talk Often - Knowing What to Say and When to Say It

It’s never too early to start talking with your children about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. Most of us don’t realize how early our children face difficult situations regarding drugs. Kids often hear about drugs as early as preschool and kindergarten and begin to wonder what these substances really are.

When children enter middle school, drug use goes up dramatically. They’re suddenly little fish in a big pond and they want desperately to fit in. Children are likely to see older students using alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. These students often seem self-assured, popular or “cool” and your child may be tempted to try drugs too. It is vitally important to have laid a solid foundation of understanding about the effects, dangers and consequences of using drugs before they reach the difficult first year of middle school.

So when should we first discuss drugs with our kids and how much information should we give them? The following guide will help you decide when and what to say to your elementary school child about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.


It may seem premature to talk about drugs with preschoolers, but the attitudes and habits they form at this age affect decisions they make when they’re older. Although they’re old enough to understand that tobacco is bad for them, they’re not yet ready to take in complex facts about drugs.

  • Provide guidelines like playing fairly, sharing toys and telling the truth so children know what kind of behavior you expect from them.
  • Point out harmful substances commonly found in homes, such as bleach or cleaning products and read the warning labels out loud. Explain that not all “bad” drugs have warnings on them, so they should only eat or smell food or a prescribed medicine that you, a grandparent or a babysitter gives them.
  • Explain that prescription medications are drugs that can help the person they are meant for, but can harm anyone else, particularly children.

Kindergarten through third grade (ages 5-8):

Now is the time to begin to explain what alcohol, tobacco and other drugs are, that some people use them even though they are harmful and the consequences of using them.

  • Discuss how anything you put in your body that is not food can be extremely harmful. Explain how drugs interfere with the way our bodies work and can make a person very sick or even cause them to die.
  • Explain the idea of addiction- that drug use can become a very bad habit that is hard to stop.
  • By the time your children are in third grade they should understand:
  • how foods, poisons, medicines and illegal drugs differ;
  • how medicines prescribed by a doctor and given by a responsible adult can help a sick person but are harmful if misused;
  • why adults may drink but children may not, even in small amounts- it’s harmful to children’s developing brains and bodies.

Grades four through six (ages 9-11):

At this age, children can handle more sophisticated discussion about why people are attracted to drugs. This age group can be fascinated by how drugs affect a user’s brain or body. Explain how anything taken in excess- whether it’s cough medicine or aspirin- can be dangerous. Before leaving elementary school, your children should know:

  • the immediate effects of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs on different parts of the body, including risks of coma or fatal overdose;
  • the long-term consequences- how and why drugs can be addicting and users lose control of their lives;
  • the reasons why drugs are especially dangerous for growing bodies;
  • the problems that alcohol and other drugs cause not only to the user, but the user’s family and community

Middle School (ages 10-14):

The transition from elementary to middle school can be especially troubling for many kids. This is the time when many kids meet new friends, are exposed to new situations and are offered alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.

This is the most important time for parents to engage their children about alcohol and drugs and set clear no-use rules. Most kids will know the dangerous effects of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs by this age. It's important for parents to make sure kids know how to say no and get out of tough situations when they're offered these substances.

High School (ages 14-18):

Teenagers often express little interest in talking to their parents and seek to express their own independence. But at this age, it’s still important for parents to set clear rules and expectations. Parents need to know who their child’s friends are and what they’re doing after school and on weekends. Finding out these details of your child’s life isn’t always easy and many teens will complain. But by staying involved in your child’s day to day life, you’re showing you care and taking a big step towards keeping him or her safe and drug-free.

Creating Positive Communication with your Child

Good communication is a key ingredient in helping your child choose healthy and safe activities. You should get in the habit of really talking to your child every day to learn about her hopes, fears, likes, dislikes and special talents. The more you know about your child, the easier it will be to guide him towards positive friends and activities and away from alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. If you establish a close relationship with your child early in his life, it will be easier for him to come to you later on when he faces more difficult problems.

Answering the Tough Questions

Has your child ever asked you a question that you didn’t know how to answer?  Or, were you afraid to answer?  At some point, your child will ask you whether you have ever smoked, drank or used drugs.  These are situations that parents must be prepared for.  When responding to these important questions that could impact your child’s views, keep these things in mind:

  • Tell the truth.  If the answer is “no” explain to your child the reason why you made that choice or how you stood up to the pressure from others after you made your decision.
  • On the other hand, if the answer is “yes” give your child reasons why you feel you made a mistake and why you wish you had not done it.  For example, it made you feel out of control, you messed up in sports, you didn’t do your homework or it let your friends down.
  • Also explain to your child that today there is a lot more known about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs.  It is essential to stress that these are unsafe things that have many negative effects.

It’s not easy to admit to doing things you aren’t proud of and you don’t want your kids to think its okay to experiment with alcohol, tobacco or other drugs.  But if you’re honest and reveal why you think it was a mistake and how it hurt you, your kids will be more likely to listen to you and make better choices.