How To Say It

Let's face it. Growing up just isn't what it used to be. Through music, movies and the web, kids today are hammered by adult ideas and images and pushed to make important choices at an age when most of us worried about getting a date or a driver's license. So, how does a busy, modern day parent keep up? One of the most important things you can do is spend time together and talk about important issues like drinking and drugs. Like any relationship, the relationship with your child needs to grow. What you say about drugs and alcohol is much different to a preschooler than a 10th grader.      

Find your child's grade and learn more about what you should include in your talk with them. 


Since the foundation for all healthy habits — from nutritious eating to face washing — is laid down during the preschool years, they are a great time to set the stage for a drug-free life.  The following three tips will help you work with your preschooler so that she'll grow up happy, healthy and drug-free.

Talk to your child about the joys of healthy living. Discuss how good you feel when you take care of yourself — how you can run, jump, play and work for many hours.  A great conversation starter:   "I'm glad I'm healthy because I can…"

Celebrate your child's decision-making skills.  Whenever possible, let your child choose what to wear.   Even if the clothes don't quite match, you are reinforcing your child's ability to make decisions.

Stress the need for your child to take personal responsibility for his own health, well-being and personal environment. Your instructions should be concrete, relate to your child's experiences, and stated positively.  Turn chores like brushing teeth, putting away toys, wiping up spills, and caring for pets into fun experiences that your child will enjoy. Break the activities down into manageable steps so that your child learns to develop plans.

Preschool Scenario

Giving your child a daily vitamin.

What to Say
Vitamins help your body grow.  You need to take them every day so that you’ll grow up big and strong like Mommy and Daddy—but you should only take what I give you.  Too many vitamins can hurt your body and make you sick.


Your kids are curious about medicine bottles around the house.

What to Say
You should only take medicines that have your name on them or that your doctor has chosen just for you.  If you take medicine that belongs to somebody else, it could be dangerous and make you sick.


Your child sees an adult smoking and, since you’ve talked about the dangers of smoking, is confused.  

What to Say
Grown-ups can make their own decisions, and sometimes those decisions aren’t the best for their bodies.  Sometimes, when someone starts smoking, his or her body feels like it has to have cigarettes—

K-3 Grade

5-to-8-year olds are still tied to family and eager to please, but they're also beginning to explore their individuality.  In addition, your grade-schooler begins to spend more time at school and with peers and to collect information (including messages about drugs and alcohol) from lots of new places.  It's very important to continue talking to your child about a healthy drug-free lifestyle and stress that of all the voices your child hears, yours should be the guiding force.

Here are 8 tips to connect with your child at this age:

  1. Keep your discussions about tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs factual and focused on the present.  Long-term consequences are too distant to have any meaning.  Let your child know that people who drink too much alcohol get sick and throw up, or that smoking makes clothes stink and causes bad breath.
  2. Talk to your kids about the drug-related messages they receive through advertisements, the news media, and entertainment sources.  Some TV shows or movies may even glamorize drug use.  Remember to ask your kids how they feel about the things they've heard — you'll learn a great deal about what they're thinking.
  3. Consider the following topics when discussing drugs with your child:  what alcohol, tobacco and other drugs are like; why drugs are illegal; what harm drugs can do to users.
  4. Set clear rules and behave the way you want your kids to behave. Tell them the reasons for your rules.  If you use tobacco or alcohol, be mindful of the message you are sending to your children.
  5. Work on problem solving by focusing on the types of problems kids come across. Help them find long-lasting solutions to homework trouble, a fight with a friend, or in dealing with a bully.  Be sure to point out that quick fixes are not long-term solutions.
  6. Give your kids the power to escape from situations that make them feel bad.  Make sure they know that they shouldn't stay in a place that makes them feel uncomfortable or bad about themselves.  Also, let them know that they don't need to stick with friends who don't support them.
  7. Get to know your child's friends — and their friends' parents. Check in by phone or a visit once in a while to make sure they are giving their children the same kinds of messages you give your children.
  8. Sign your kids up with community groups or programs that emphasize the positive impact of a healthy lifestyle.  Your drug-free messages will be reinforced — and your kids will have fun, stay active and develop healthy friendships.

Substances in your K-3 child's world can include:

Tobacco, Alcohol, Ritalin.


Your child has expressed curiosity about the pills she sees you take every day—and the other bottles in the medicine cabinet.

What to Say
Just because it’s in a family’s medicine cabinet doesn’t mean that it is safe for you to take.  Even if your friends say it’s okay, say, “No, my parents won’t let me take something that doesn’t have my name on the bottle.”

4-6 Grade

Your kids are on a quest to figure out their place in the world.  When it comes to the way they view that world, they tend to give their friends' opinions a great deal of power, while, at the same time, they're starting to question their parents' views and messages.  Your advice may be challenged — but it will be heard and will stay with your child much more than he or she will ever admit.

Here are 8 tips to help you help your preteen live a healthy, drug-free life:

  1. Make sure your child knows your rules — and that you'll enforce the consequences if rules are broken. This applies to no-use rules about tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs — as well as bedtimes and homework.  Research shows that kids are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules.
  2. Act out scenes with your child where people offer her drugs.  Kids who don't know what to say or how to get away are more likely to give in to peer pressure.  Let her know that she can always use you as an excuse and say:  "No, my mom [or dad, aunt, etc.] will kill me if I smoke a cigarette."  Explain why she shouldn't continue friendships with kids who have offered her cigarettes, alcohol or pills.
  3. Tell your child what makes him so special. Puberty can upend a child's self-esteem. Feelings of insecurity, doubt and pressure may creep in.  Offset those feelings with a lot of positive comments about his life and who he is as an individual — and not just when he brings home an A.
  4. Give your children the power to make decisions that go against their peers. You can reinforce this message through small things such as encouraging your child to pick out the sneakers he likes rather than the pair his four friends have.
  5. Base drug and alcohol messages on facts, not fear.  Kids can't argue with facts, but their new need for independence may allow them to get around their fears.  Also, kids love to learn facts — both run-of-the-mill and truly odd.  For drug and alcohol facts, visit our Drug Guide.
  6. Preteens aren't concerned with future problems that might result from experimentation with tobacco, alcohol or other drugs, but they are concerned about their appearance — sometimes to the point of obsession. Tell them about the smelly hair and ashtray breath caused by cigarettes.  Make sure they know that it would be hard to perform in the school play while high on marijuana.
  7. Get to know your child's friends — and their friends' parents. Check in by phone or a visit once in a while to make sure they are giving their children the same kinds of messages you give your children about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
  8. Help children separate reality from fantasy. Watch TV and movies with them and ask lots of questions to reinforce the distinction between the two.  Remember to include advertising in your discussions, as those messages are especially powerful.

Substances in your fourth to sixth grader's world can include:

Tobacco, Alcohol, Ritalin, Adderall, Inhalants, Marijuana.


Your grade-schooler comes home reeking of cigarette smoke.

What to Say
I know you’re curious and you wanted to see what smoking was like, but as you can see, it’s pretty disgusting and it probably made you cough and gag a lot.  Your clothes and your breath and your hair all stink.  Is that how you want to be known?  As the kid who stinks?


Your child is just starting middle school and you know that eventually, he will be offered drugs and alcohol.

What to Say
There are a lot of changes ahead of you in middle school.  I know we talked about drinking and drugs when you were younger, but now is when they’re probably going to be an issue.  I’m guessing you’ll at least hear about kids who are experimenting, if not find yourself some place where kids are doing stuff that is risky.  I just want you to remember that I’m here for you and the best thing you can do is just talk to me about the stuff you hear or see.  Don’t think there’s anything I can’t handle or that you can’t talk about with me, okay?


Your child tells you he was offered prescription drugs by a classmate—but said no.

What to Say
After praising your child for making a good choice and for telling you about it, let him know that in the future, he can always blame you to get out of a bad situation.  Say, “If you’re ever offered drugs at school, tell that person, ‘My mother would kill me if I took that and then she wouldn’t let me play baseball.’”

7-9 Grade

For parents, this is a pivotal time in helping kids make positive choices when faced with drugs and alcohol.  The average age kids try drugs for the first time in Arizona is 13.  “If your child is 13,” says Amelia Arria, senior scientist with Treatment Research Institute, “you should assume that he or she has been offered drugs or alcohol.”   But you can help your teen stay healthy and drug-free — and beat the negative statistics.  Kids who learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use.  So, most importantly, stay involved.  Young teens may say they don't need your guidance, but they're much more open to it than they'll ever let on. Make sure you talk to them about their choices of friends — drug use in teens starts as a social behavior.

Here are 5 tips to help you help your teen live a healthy, drug-free life:

  1. Make sure your teen knows your rules and the consequences for breaking those rules -- and, most importantly, that you really will enforce those consequences if the rules are broken.  This applies to no-use rules about tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, as well as curfews and homework.  Research shows that kids are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs if their parents have established a pattern of setting clear rules and consequences for breaking those rules.  [Guo, Hawkins, Hill, and Abbott (2001)] And kids who are not regularly monitored by their parents are four times more likely to use drugs (Metzler, Rusby & Biglan, 1999).
  2. Let your teen in on all the things you find wonderful about him. He needs to hear a lot of positive comments about his life and who he is as an individual — and not just when he makes the basketball team.  Positive reinforcement can go a long way in preventing drug use among teens.
  3. Show interest — and discuss — your child's daily ups and downs.  You'll earn your child's trust, learn how to talk to each other, and won't take your child by surprise when you voice a strong point of view about drugs.
  4. Tell your teen about the negative effect alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs have on physical appearance. Teens are extremely concerned with their physical appearance.  Tell them about a time you saw a friend or acquaintance get sick from alcohol — reinforce how completely disgusting it was.
  5. Don't just leave your child's anti-drug education up to her school. Ask your teen what she's learned about drugs in school and then continue with that topic or introduce new topics.  A few to consider: the long-term effects that tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs have on the body; how and why addiction occurs — including the unpredictable nature of dependency and how it varies from person to person.  Talk about maintaining a healthy lifestyle; making positive approaches to stress reduction; or setting realistic short- and long-term goals.

Substances in your seventh to ninth grader's world can include:

Tobacco, Alcohol, prescription drugs such as Ritalin or Adderall, painkillers, sleeping pills, Inhalants, and illicit drugs such as Marijuana, Ecstasy, Cocaine/Crack, Heroin, Mushrooms


You find out that kids are selling prescription drugs at your child’s school. Your child hasn’t mentioned it and you want to get the conversation about it started.

What to Say
Hey, you probably know that parents talk to each other and find things out about what’s going on at school… I heard there are kids selling pills—prescriptions that either they are taking or someone in their family takes.  Have you heard about kids doing this?

Your teen is starting high school—and you want to remind him that he doesn’t have to give in to peer pressure to drink or use drugs.

What to Say
You must be so excited about starting high school… it’s going to be a ton of fun, and we want you to have a great time.  But we also know there’s going to be some pressure to start drinking, smoking pot or taking other drugs.  A lot of people feel like this is just what high school kids do. But not all high school kids drink!  Many don’t, which means it won’t make you weird to choose not to drink, either.  You can still have a lot of fun if you don’t drink.

You’ll have a lot of decisions to make about what you want to do in high school and you might even make some mistakes.  Just know that you can talk to us about anything—even if you DO make a mistake. We won’t freak out.  We want you to count on us to help you make smart decisions and stay safe, okay?


Every time you ask your teen how his day was, you get a mumbled  “Whatever, it was okay” in return.

What to Say
Skip asking general questions like “How’s school?” every day.  Instead, ask more specific questions on topics that interest both you and your teen (“Tell me about the pep rally yesterday.”  “Are there a lot of cliques in your school?”  “Fill me in on your Chemistry lab test.”) You can also use humor and even some gentle sarcasm to get the conversation flowing. Try, “Oh, what a joy it is to live with a brooding teenager!” to make your child laugh and start opening up a bit.

10-12 Grade

When it comes to drugs, teens are a savvy bunch.  Drugs and messages about living drug-free have been part of their lives for years.  They can make distinctions not only among different drugs and their effects, but also among trial, occasional use and addiction. They've witnessed many of their peers using drugs — some without obvious or immediate consequences, others whose drug use gets out of control.  By the teen years, kids have also had to make plenty of choices of their own about drug use - whether they should give in to peer pressure and experiment with drugs, or go against some of their peers and stay away from drugs and drinking.

Here are 6 tips to help you help your teen continue to live a healthy, drug-free life:

  1. Don’t speak generally about drug- and alcohol-use— your older teen needs to hear detailed and reality-driven messages. Topics worth talking about with your teen: using a drug just once can have serious permanent consequences; can put you in risky and dangerous situations; anybody can become a chronic user or addict; combining drugs can have deadly consequences.
  2. Emphasize what drug use can do to your teen's future. Discuss how drug use can ruin your teen's chance of getting into the college she's been dreaming about or landing the perfect job.
  3. Challenge your child to be a peer leader among his friends and to take personal responsibility for his actions and show others how to do the same.
  4. Encourage your teen to volunteer somewhere that he can see the impact of drugs on your community.  Teenagers tend to be idealistic and enjoy hearing about ways they can help make the world a better place.  Help your teen research volunteer opportunities at local homeless shelters, hospitals or victim services centers.
  5. Use news reports as discussion openers.  If you see a news story about an alcohol-related car accident, talk to your teen about all the victims that an accident leaves in its wake.  If the story is about drugs in your community, talk about the ways your community has changed as drug use has grown.
  6. Compliment your teen for the all the things he does well and for the positive choices he makes.  Let him know that he is seen and appreciated.  And let him know how you appreciate what a good role model he is for his younger siblings and other kids in the community.  Teens still care what their parents think.  Let him know how deeply disappointed you would be if he started using drugs.

Drugs in your teen's world can include:

Tobacco, Alcohol, prescription drugs such as Ritalin, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Valium and Xanax, Inhalants, Marijuana, Ecstasy, Cocaine/Crack and Mushrooms


Your high-schooler comes home smelling of alcohol or cigarette smoke for the first time.

What to Say
“The response should be measured, quiet and serious—not yelling, shouting or overly emotional,” says parenting expert Marybeth Hicks. “Your child should realize that this isn’t just a frustrating moment like when he doesn’t do a chore you asked for; it’s very big, very important, and very serious.”

Say, “I’m really upset that you’re smoking/drinking. I need to get a handle on how often this has been happening and what your experiences have been so far. I get that you’re worried about being in trouble, but the worst part of that moment is over—I know that you’re experimenting. The best thing you can do now is really be straight with me, so for starters, tell me about what happened tonight…”


Your teen has started to hang out with kids you don’t know—and dropped his old friends.

What to Say
It seems like you are hanging with a different crowd than you have in the past. Is something up with your usual friends?  Is there a problem with [old friends’ names] or are you just branching out and meeting some new kids?  Tell me about your new friends. What are they like? What do they like to do? What do you like about them?


As you prepare your child for college -- and continuing after you've dropped him off at the dorm -- you can help guide him to a healthy experience.  And you don't have to tread on his independence to do it.  "You don't show up every weekend and make his bed.  You let him know you have his back," says Amelia Arria, Senior Scientist at Treatment Research Institute.

Wrapping Up High School

  • Ideally, you've already been talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol during middle school and high school.  Research shows students who drank in high school are three times more likely to begin heavy episodic drinking in college [Weitzman, Nelson & Wechsler (2003)].
  • Don't buy into the myth that allowing teens to drink around you will help them deal with alcohol issues when they're on their own.  Research shows that no matter who they drink with in high school, "they'll sustain and increase their drinking level" in college, says Arria.

Off to College

  • Make sure you keep an open line of communication with them. "It's not all about the topic of drinking and drug use," says Arria.  "It's about maintaining that really supportive relationship."  Your child needs to know that if any problems or difficult situations arise, she can turn to you for help.  Be an at-home resource for your college student.
  • Don't want to come across as over-protective?  "I do think the quality of the parent-child relationship has to change, but I don't think [parents have] to back off," says Arria. "Rather than asking about her friends, you might be asking about her classes and what she's interested in."
  • Stay alert to possible mental health issues.  "Between the ages of 18 and 25 are when a lot of things pop up, if they haven't already in adolescence, like anxiety disorders," says Arria.  There is a strong link between mental health issues and the use of drugs and alcohol.  Just in case something does happen, make sure you know what campus mental health resources are available to your child.

Prescription Drugs in the Dorms

While the most popular drugs on college campuses are alcohol and marijuana, non-medical use of prescription stimulants, analgesics (painkillers), and tranquilizers is on the rise.  While some parents turn a blind eye because they think the drugs may help their child do better in school, this is something you definitely want to disapprove of.  Keep in mind:

  • Abusing painkillers is like abusing heroin because both drugs' ingredients (both are opioids) are very similar.
  • Many pills look pretty much the same, but depending on the drug and the dosage, the effects can vary greatly from mild to lethal.
  • "Non-medical use of prescription drugs is actually associated with decreased academic performance, not an increase," says Arria.  She adds, There also seems to be a strong relationship between the use of other drugs and non-medical use of prescription stimulants."  Researchers believe that students get into a cycle of spending a lot of time with friends, doing drugs and drinking, instead of going to classes.  Then they turn to prescription stimulants to help them get through.  The combination does not work.

Drugs in your college-aged child’s world can include:

Tobacco, Alcohol, prescription drugs such as Ritalin, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Valium or Xanax, and illicit drugs such as Marijuana, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Heroin. Inhalants, Marijuana, Ecstasy, Cocaine/Crack, GHB, Heroin and Mushrooms.


Your adult child is moving to her own apartment or into a college dorm.

What to Say
I know you’re off to start your own lif,e but please know that I’m always here for you.  I respect that you’re old enough to make your own choices, but if you ever want another perspective on things, give a shout.  I’ll try my hardest to help you out without judging you for your decisions. Sound good?

Amelia Arria, senior research scientist at the Treatment Research Institute, also suggests: There are certain things that you can count on in lif,e and one of the things you’re going to be able to count on is me.  As your parent, I am always here for you.  Remember, I am your support. I’m the one who can guide you.