Talking with Kids About Recreational Drug Use

Yolanda Evans, MD, MPH, FAAP
Associate Professor
University of Washington Department of Pediatrics & Seattle Children’s Hospital

Clinical Director
Division of Adolescent Medicine

Parents talk with their kids about a wide variety of topics related to safety. Everything from brushing teeth, to the dangers of texting and driving. Talking about drug use is a topic that can be challenging to approach. We want our children to understand the risks while at the same time create opportunities for them to be comfortable coming to us with questions.

There is strong evidence that supports the benefits of parents talking with their kids about recreational drug use. Children do listen to their parents. They also learn by example. When parents disapprove of behavior, this influences the choices kids make. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has resources for parents and caregivers that offer examples of conversation starters, tips and facts on prevention, and resources for families if youth are using drugs.

Here are some things for parents to consider when having a conversation about recreational drug use:

  1. Have the conversation. Parents should start talking about expectations early. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Around 60% of high school students have ever drank alcohol and 36% have used marijuana. Children will likely be exposed to recreational drug use and parental input matters.
  2. Send a clear message. The research on the effects of substance use on the developing brain is clear: alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs negatively affect the brain. Encourage parents to have a firm stance that they care about their child’s health, so they want them to avoid using drugs.
  3. Establish parents as a trustworthy source of information. When a child asks questions (Why are drugs bad? Did you try alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs when you were a teen?), parents should be prepared. SAMHSA, NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse), and Healthy Children all offer resources, facts, and tips for parents to provide age appropriate, accurate responses. Parents should reply honestly and state the risks, which will boost the child’s trust in them as a reliable resource.
  4. Parents can show they are paying attention. Acknowledge the drug references in a television program watched together. Comment on books they are reading. Have a dialogue around favorite songs when risky topics come up. In subtle ways, parents can show they are involved in their day to day life and want to talk with their children about their experiences.
  5. Help children navigate ways to avoid drug use. Don’t stop at talking about the risks of recreational drug use. Help your child think through how they’ll respond when invited to try drugs.

Parents are important in the prevention of recreational drug use. Talking about drugs does not have to be awkward. Pediatric health care providers can advise parents to use conversations in daily life (such as riding in the car or talking about favorite TV shows) to offer information, strategies to avoid using, and send a clear message on their stance. As pediatricians, we are an excellent resource to help parents start the conversation about the prevention of recreational drug use.