Talking to Your Kids about Substance Abuse at Every Age

by Joseph Byrum

As a parent, you want your children to grow up to lead happy and healthy lives. This, of course, includes protecting them from drugs and alcohol. You can always encourage your kids to make positive life choices, but you’ll want to address the issue of substance use differently depending on their age.

Ages 2 to 4: When your children are very young, it is important to talk to them about being healthy and making healthy choices. Encourage them to exercise, eat well, and get plenty of sleep. You can also tell them to avoid dangerous substances in their environment such as cleaners, medications, or anything toxic they could get into.

Ages 5 to 8: This is a great age range to set clear rules and expectations with your children about substances. If you drink or smoke at home, make sure that they know these substances are especially dangerous to them at their age. You can also explain the difference between using and misusing medicine.

Ages 9 to 12: At this point, your child is now a preteen who craves some level of independence. Set and enforce your rules and expectations. Children in households that have established boundaries are less likely to use substances. This age in a child’s life tends to bring insecurity and pressure. You can also check in with your child’s friends and their parents to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Ages 13 to 18: The teen years are a crucial period for all children and their parents. Teens begin to hear more and more about substance use from their peers and they can begin to feel pressured. As a parent, you should speak openly with your child about substance use. Make it clear that you disapprove of underage substance use but listen to how they feel about the issue. Instead of a one-time big talk, reiterate to your children often. Encouraging your teen to come to you if they ever need to talk helps build trust with them.

Ages 19 to 25: Your child is now a young adult and may be living on their own now. Even though they have “left the nest”, they still benefit from parental guidance. If your child is attending college, make sure they are aware of all the different kinds of drugs that can be on campus. You can also keep an eye on your child’s mental health and be sure they are aware of the mental health resources on campus. Reassure them that you’re there to support them.

If you’re a parent, talk to your child about substance use. Be understanding and give your children the facts. Set clear boundaries and expectations and make sure your children know that you disapprove of underage substance use.


Joseph Byrum is the coalition coordinator for the Piney Woods Substance Abuse Coalition. If you are a community leader interested in preventing youth substance abuse, email