Talking about substance use with your kids? Make your conversations age-appropriate.
Starting early and keeping the lines of communication open as your child grows can make a big difference in preventing substance use.
Just as you would talk with your kids when they’re young about other critical safety issues that are important for them to know, begin these conversations early on, and tailor the information you give them to their age and stage of development. Whatever their age, let your children know you’ll be there for them, no matter what.
Determined, Demanding, Energetic, Challenging
At this age, kids are just learning about the world around them. They are exploring language and communication, and, of course, one of the first words they learn is ‘no’, and they will test it out on every occasion.
This is a great time to set the stage for healthy habits now that will remain with them as they grow.
- If your toddler is prescribed medicine for any reason, they need to know that it has come from a doctor, and it is made just for them. Even though they likely cannot read at this age, show them their name on the bottle. Tell them the medicine will help them to feel better but could make other people sick. Explain that only you (or their caregiver) can give them their medicine.
- If your child takes a vitamin that resembles a familiar character, or looks and tastes like candy, remind them that this is NOT candy, and they could get sick if they have more than one.
- Kids are curious – and are prone to pick up strange or colourful things thinking they are edible – tell them not to put anything in their mouth that doesn’t come from you.
- Remember, alcohol, cannabis products, household cleaners and medicines are harmful to a toddler. They should be locked away, securely out of reach.
Pre-school – Ages 3 – 5 years
Confident, Independent, Fantasy-driven, Self-Focused, Emotional
At this age, children are more aware of their surroundings. They love fantasy and make-believe, and tea parties and dress up. They will notice everything that is going on. If you have a child going through this phase of their development, you will need to get used to the questions, ‘why?’ and ‘how?’
Here are some suggestions:
- Focus on how good it feels to be healthy. “What can you do because you are healthy?” (play, run, jump, skip, play etc.) Remind your child how they feel when they are sick and cannot do these things.
- Explain that medicines can help us feel better when we are sick, but they can also hurt us when we are not sick. Remind them that only the person whose name is on the bottle can take the medicine, and only from a trusted adult, like you, your child’s caregiver or a doctor.
- Begin introducing the issue of responsibility. Ask your children to feed the pet every day, brush their teeth without being asked, put their toys away etc. Celebrate their good choices, mark them with colourful stickers and tell them you are proud of them for their good decisions.
- Show your child some dangerous cleaning products in your home and explain that they can be harmful to their body. Refer to the packaging labels with images such as fire hazard, poisonous, corrosive and explosive. Use words like ‘hurt’, ‘burn’ or ‘sting’ so they can identify with the danger. Be sure to place harmful products and all medicines somewhere safe they can never be accessed by young children.
- Since kids this age love fantasy, try using a puppet, doll, action figure or toy to explain things if your child is having difficulty engaging or understanding.
Elementary School – Ages 5 – 8 years
Likes Routines, Loves Family, likes to learn, Dislikes failure, Loves praise
This is a time when kids will go through a lot of changes. They may go from the unconditional parental love and devotion stage from a few months ago to a child who is at times, defiant, aggressive and resistant to rules. This is an important time to set and follow through with rules, increase opportunities for positive decision making, listen to complaints and try to find simple solutions together.
Here are some tips to help you start the conversation with your younger child:
- Introduce the word ‘Drug’. Explain the difference between when some drugs may be helpful and when they might be harmful for children.
- Explain how some drugs – like medicines that a doctor gives them are helpful and can make them feel better if they are sick. Explain that some kids need to take drugs/medicines every day to help their bodies work the way they are supposed to.
- Be clear that some drugs, like tobacco and alcohol, are not good at all for their bodies and can cause children to be very sick.
- Find those ‘teachable moments.’ If you are watching a video or TV and you see someone smoking or drinking, pause it and ask: “What do you think about what is going on in this show, game, video etc.?” Explain that sometimes the media can make things look cool or fun, when we know that using these drugs can be harmful to our bodies. “What are some of the things we do to help keep our bodies healthy?”
- For most kids this age this introduction is enough, and can even be overwhelming. If your child asks additional questions, answer them in simple but honest terms and do not add anything they don’t ask.
- Set clear safety rules and consequences. Involve your children in setting up some simple rules such as; “Never take medicine from anyone but me or dad” and “Come and tell me if you think someone in our family might be in danger because they are playing with a bottle that has the poison symbol on it.” Let your children know that the rules are there to keep everyone in the family safe.
- Celebrate good choices with praise, stickers, and privileges. Some kids this age like to be a part of the experience and respond well by putting their own stickers on a chart or calling a relative to share the good choices they have made.
- Avoid fear tactics. Kids this age can be very sensitive to things that they feel could harm their family. Be honest about your feelings concerning harmful substances but try to ‘explain’ rather than ‘lecture.
Middle School – Ages 9 – 12 years
Independent, Vulnerable, Emotional, Self-absorbed, Inquisitive
Tweens are engaging and interesting. This is a time when they may feel torn between the safety and security of family, and the excitement of being with friends.
Some kids may be more vulnerable to substance use and other negative behaviours. They may start to spend more time engaged in social media and other technology. They may become very ‘body conscious’ and they might experience peer pressure, low self esteem and a ‘roller coaster’ of emotions. As parents, what we say and how we say it will have an impact on their thinking, decision-making, risk taking and choices.
Here are some tips that may help you connect with your tween about substance use:
- Tone is everything. Think discussion, not lecture. Ask them calmly what they know about drugs and what they see most often in their school and community, and actively listen to what they say.
- Focus on smoking, alcohol, and cannabis, as these are most often the first substances tweens try. “What do they know?” “Where do they get their information?” “How would they know if it is reliable?”
- Communicate that you are concerned about substance use and be honest if you do not know all of the information. “To tell you the truth, I’m not completely up to date on all of the harmful substances out there. Maybe we can learn more together.”
- Research ‘unknowns’ or misconceptions about drugs together.
- Be aware of the impact on your own actions – your tween is watching you.
- Get to know your tween’s friends. Invite them to your home. Engage with the parents.
- Establish clear, realistic and attainable rules and consequences. Agree on the rules as a family. Follow through if they slip up. Consistency is important, especially when establishing safe rules around substance use.
- Celebrate good choices. Be genuine with your praise.
- Find healthy activities to do together as a family.
- Be aware of the impact on your own actions – your tween is watching you.
High School – Ages 13 – 18
Social, Emotional, Defiant, Passionate, Independent
This pivotal age is one of the most exciting and maybe even challenging for parents.
Teenagers are developing their own individuality, ideals and dreams. They may be passionate about a cause, an educational endeavour, a sport or anything else that interests them.
Here are some suggestions for talking with your teens about drug use:
- Pick a time when you’re doing something together to bring up substance use. Respect any refusal to talk calmly, and let them know you’re ready when they are. “Well, when you want to talk to me, I’m here.”
- Keep your cool, and don’t use fear tactics. Encourage mutual respect and honesty in your conversations by discussing, not lecturing. You listen – they listen.
- Alcohol, nicotine and cannabis are the most widely consumed substances by teens, and the popularity of vaping has increased. Spend extra time discussing these substances. “What are their opinions about using these substances?” “Why do they feel this way?”
- Get to know their friends and express any concerns in a non-judgemental way.
- Remind them of the importance of not taking any medication that is not prescribed to them and discuss opioids such as fentanyl and oxycodone. Talk with them about tainted street drugs that cause death, even the first time.
- Establish code words with them for any “I need help” or “Come and get me” situations that may save them from harmful conditions or negative peer responses.
- Get to know your teen’s passions and interests. Do something together to promote positive choices.
- Get to know their friends. Notice if the group of friends suddenly changes and talk to your teen about why this happened.
- Set up a volunteer experience for your teen – something they can do with you, their friends or a trusted adult. Consider helping at a soup kitchen, mission or neighbourhood community service centre. Talk about the experience with them.
- Work with your kids to help them develop strategies to use or things they can say to help them get out of uncomfortable or potentially harmful situations that might involve drugs and alcohol with their peers.
College and University level – Young adults – 19 -24
Helping your adult child prepare for a healthy life after high school involves giving them positive guidance while promoting their independence. This is a transitional time, they may be moving away from home or to another city to attend college or university. Chances are they already have some experience with substance use, and have already made their own choices.
Be respectful and listen to their choices before offering to share your perspectives.
Here are 5 suggestions for talking with a young adult child about drug use:
- Keep an open line of communication with young adult child, even as they leave home. Remind them they can always turn to you for help.
- Stay alert to possible mental health issues and encourage them to talk about how they are feeling. There is a strong link between mental and physical health issues, including stress and anxiety, and substance use.
- The most popular drugs on college campuses are alcohol, cannabis and vaping. Discuss the lower risk alcohol and cannabis guidelines with them. These recommendations can greatly help reduce the potential harms of alcohol and cannabis use to their health.
- Remind them that non-medical use of prescription stimulants, pain relievers and tranquilizers can have serious short and long term consequences.
- Talk about alcohol or cannabis impaired driving. Remind them to never to operate a motorized vehicle after consuming cannabis or drinking alcohol or get into a vehicle driven by someone who is impaired.
Click on the image below to download the pdf version of Age Appropriate Conversations guide: