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How to Talk to Teens About Drugs and Alcohol

Hint: Skip the hysteria and use facts.

“Drugs and alcohol will damage your health.” Getting this important message across to students is critical to their success in school and life. But how can you get young people to hear this?

As National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week wraps up, we share some insights from Stacy Sterling, DrPH, MSW, MPH, a staff scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research who is part of the Kaiser Permanente Drug and Alcohol Research Team.

Sterling says it is critical to be direct and authentic with young people. “You have to present a compelling argument that is not condescending, that is genuine and that is real,” she says. “Use concrete information about what substances do to your brain, with evidence-based arguments and a more subtle approach than ‘This is your brain on drugs’.”

Sterling also stresses the importance of having the conversations where young people are — whether at home, in the doctor’s office or at school.

Talking to children early on is good, including finding teachable moments for elementary school-age children and even tweens. A clear message about drugs and alcohol use can set the tone for a child’s future behaviors.

Additional tactics to keep in mind:

  • Do your research, and use facts to dispel myths.
  • Be straightforward, not condescending.
  • Avoid scare tactics.
  • If possible, ask other young people to share their personal experiences with drugs and alcohol.
  • Be interested in young people’s goals, and connect their goals to the choices they make about drugs and alcohol.

Sterling says it can be especially effective to discuss pros and cons, tying together behaviors and goals. Linking the choice to use drugs or alcohol with the possibility that using can sidetrack or sabotage their ability to achieve personal, athletic or academic goals can work well. For instance, how does a young person weigh smoking weed versus being on the track team?

“The exercise of mapping out the consequences of decisions has shown to be really effective for teens, connecting behaviors — harmful behaviors such as excessive drinking or marijuana use — to the young person’s goals,” said Dr. Sterling. “Get them to ask themselves questions that inform decision making. What do I get from drinking? What are the bad things?”

‘Shatter the myths’

Here are a few common myths disproved with some hard facts that can be used in discussions to help effectively educate the next generation about the risks that come from drug or alcohol abuse, based on the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Drugs: Shatter the Myths.”

Myth #1: You cannot form an addiction to marijuana.

Reality: Marijuana is addictive. About 1 in 11 people who use marijuana become addicted and the chance of becoming addicted is different for every person.

Myth #2: Smoking marijuana as a teen cannot lead to long-term effects.

Reality: Studies have shown that regular cannabis users show neuropsychological decline over time. Teens who smoke a lot could lose IQ points, and abusing drugs can throw your brain’s pleasure meter out of whack. Marijuana products of today are also much stronger than they were years ago.

Myth #3: Vicodin only relieves pain and is not as harmful as other drugs.

Reality: Prescription pain medications can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people die from overdoses of prescription pain relievers, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, than from heroin and cocaine combined.

Myth #4: Heavy drinking early in life will not lead to a lifetime of heavy drinking.

Reality: There is a real chance that heavy drinking at a young age can lead to addictive behaviors. About 40 percent of people who start drinking before the age of 15 end up becoming alcoholics.

Myth #5: Beer is not as harmful as liquor.

Reality: One beer is equal to one glass of wine, which is the same as one shot of liquor. Teens might believe that drinking beer is not as bad as drinking hard alcohol, but serving for serving, the amount of alcohol that affects the brain is the same.

A week to recognize the importance of talking to kids: National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week

National Drug & Alcohol Facts Week is a week-long observance each January connecting teens and experts to counteract myths about drugs and alcohol. You can join the conversation on social media and look for the hashtag #NDAFW.

The week includes thousands of community-based events throughout all 50 states and in 10 countries creating a safe place without judgment or lectures for teens to ask questions about drug and alcohol use.

This year, there is a new online resource offering classroom activities and year-round lessons on drugs and alcohol. Check it out at

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