When you’re ready to go beyond just say no: How to talk to kids about drug use

talking to kids about drug use
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Knowing when and how to talk to your kids about drugs, whether they may be using or not, is difficult. It takes courage to bring up student substance abuse risks – a challenging topic for many. Here are some tips to help make that conversation a little more comfortable.

By the Numbers

Let’s begin with some surprising numbers. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), 97% of high school students say that classmates drink, use drugs, or smoke. One in five 12- to 17-year-olds reports that more than half of their classmates drink alcohol and 18% say that most of their classmates use drugs.[1] Drugs are easy to come by, with 44% of high school reporting they know a classmate who sells drugs and 52% reporting that there is a place on school grounds or near the school where students go to drink, use drugs or smoke during the school day.[2] While these numbers seem alarming, and they are, most actual rates are much lower. One of the benefits of collecting data with Pride surveys is that you can show how these very high rates of perceived norms about classmates do not reflect the actual reported norms. This can be used as a teaching tool and a conversation with students about how many of them are not using drugs or alcohol. For example, Pride Surveys 2015–16 national survey results also shows around 42% of high school students use alcohol, and around 25% say they have used some sort of illicit drug.[3]

This problem isn’t limited to illegal substances. Almost 50% of teens believe that prescription drugs are safer than illegal street drugs.[4] The United States represents 5% of the world’s population and 75% of prescription drugs taken. 60% of teens who abuse prescription drugs get them free from friends and relatives.[5]

What Parents Can Do

If you haven’t already had a conversation with your kids about drugs, now is a great time to begin. First, don’t worry that asking about drug use may lead kids to try illicit substances. A UW Social Development Research Group study, published in the October issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health found no evidence that children will use the substance just because you asked.[6]

While there is no magic formula to preventing kids from trying drugs, parents can make a difference by being clearly anti-drugs. CASA learned that teens whose parents would not be extremely upset if their parents found out they smoke, drink or use marijuana are 8.5 times likelier to say it’s okay for teens their age to use pot as compared to teens who say their parents would be extremely upset (34% vs. 4%).

Parents have a strong influence on their teens, even if it doesn’t always seem that way. Talk openly with your children about the negatives of drug use and the positives of not experimenting. Remember to be a role model – even if that means being honest about your past drug or alcohol use and what you learned from those experiences.

When it comes to talking to children ages 8-12, KidsHealth recommends discussing drug use in an open non-judgmental way by asking them what they think about drugs.[7] Partnership for Drug-Free Kids suggests using headlines and celebrity addiction stories as teachable moments with your teens to show the consequences of alcohol and drug use.[8] In both cases, keeping an open dialogue in a safe, supportive environment is key to digging into this tough topic.

The Good News

The findings of a 2015 survey conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, found that teen drug use has decreased for some substances, including cigarettes, alcohol, prescription opiate pain relievers, and synthetic marijuana.[9] The survey measured drug use and perceptions among students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades.

First Steps to Reduce Substance Abuse in Your School

Student substance abuse has been a national issue for decades because of its impact on schoolchildren and learning. While adolescents are not the only demographic to deal with drug use, “data repeatedly shows that students and youth more commonly use alcohol and drugs than any other age group.”[10] Student drug use surveys provide essential information about the pervasiveness and destruction associated with substance use among school-aged youth and offer schools and decision-makers a wealth of information. It’s essential to evaluate the current state of substance abuse in your students to help your school create appropriate programs and assess their efficacy over time.

For over thirty years, Pride Surveys has been helping schools collect data on teen substance abuse perceptions and drug use trends in their communities through scalable survey products
. We offer multiple drug free community survey options as well as student risk perception surveys designed to help assess teen substance abuse and risk, including our student surveys for grades 4-6grades 6-12, and our supplemental surveys like the Drug-Free Community Survey Supplement. Please contact us online or call (800) 279-6361.


[1]  “National Survey on American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens.” Retrieved on 18 October 2017 at https://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports/national-survey-american-attitudes-substance-abuse-teens-2012

[2]  “National Survey on American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens.” Retrieved on 18 October 2017 at https://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports/national-survey-american-attitudes-substance-abuse-teens-2012

[3] “Pride Surveys Questionnaire for Grades 6 thru 12 Standard Report: 2015-2016 Pride National Summary.” Retrieved 18 October, 2017 at http://www.pridesurveys.com/customercenter/us15ns.pdf?24559c

[4] “International Statistics.” Retrieved on 18 October, 2017 at http://www.drugfreeworld.org/drugfacts/prescription/abuse-international-statistics.html

[5] “11 Facts About Teens and Drug Use.” Retrieved on 18 October, 2017 at https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-teens-and-drug-use

[6] “Testing the Question-Behavior Effect of Self-Administered Surveys Measuring Youth Drug Use.” Retrieved on 18 October at http://www.jahonline.org/article/S1054-139X(17)30327-0/fulltext

[7] “Talking to Your Kids About Drigs.” Retrieved 18 October, 2017 at http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/talk-about-drugs.html.

[8] “Preventing Teen Drug Use: How to Talk With Your Teen.” Retrieved on October 18, 2017 at https://drugfree.org/article/how-to-talk-with-your-teen/

[9] “Drug Use Trends Remain Stable or Decline Amongst Teens.” Retrieved on October 18, 2017 at http://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/news-releases/2015/12/drug-use-trends-remain-stable-or-decline-among-teens

[10] “Student Drug Use.” Retrieved October 18, 2017 at  http://www.ccsa.ca/Eng/topics/Monitoring-Trends/Student-Drug-Use/Pages/default.aspx

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