Talking with Kids About Alcohol & Drugs

The issue of drugs can be very confusing to young children. If drugs are so dangerous, then why is the family medicine cabinet full of them? And why do TV, movies, music and advertising often make drug and alcohol use look so cool?

We need to help our kids to distinguish fact from fiction. And it’s not too soon to begin. National studies show that the average age when a child first tries alcohol is 11; for marijuana, it’s 12. And many kids start becoming curious about these substances even sooner. So let’s get started!


Listen Carefully

Student surveys reveal that when parents listen to their children’s feelings and concerns, their kids feel comfortable talking with them and are more likely to stay drug-free.


Role Play How to Say “No”

Role play ways in which your child can refuse to go along with his friends without becoming a social outcast. Try something like this, “Let’s play a game. Suppose you and your friends are at Andy’s house after school and they find some beer in the refrigerator and ask you to join them in drinking it. The rule in our family is that children are not allowed to drink alcohol. So what could you say?”

If your child comes up with a good response, praise him. If he doesn’t, offer a few suggestions like, “No, thanks. Let’s play with this video game instead,” or “No thanks. I don’t drink beer. I need to keep in shape for basketball.”


Encourage Choice

Allow your child plenty of opportunity to become a confident decision-maker. An 8-year-old is capable of deciding if she wants to invite lots of friends to her birthday party or just a close pal or two. A 12-year-old can choose whether she wants to go out for chorus or join the school band. As your child becomes more skilled at making all kinds of good choices, both you and she will feel more secure in her ability to make the right decision concerning alcohol and drugs if and when the time arrives.


Provide Age-appropriate Information

Make sure the information that you offer fits the child’s age and stage. When your 6 or 7-year-old is brushing his teeth, you can say, “There are lots of things we do to keep our bodies healthy, like brushing our teeth. But there are also things we shouldn’t do because they hurt our bodies, like smoking or taking medicines when we are not sick.”

If you are watching TV with your 8 year-old and marijuana is mentioned on a program, you can say, “Do you know what marijuana is? It’s a bad drug that can hurt your body.” If your child has more questions, answer them. If not, let it go. Short, simple comments said and repeated often enough will get the message across.

You can offer your older child the same message, but add more drug-specific information. For example, you might explain to your 12-year-old what marijuana and crack look like, their street names and how they can affect his body.





Establish a Clear Family Position on Drugs

It’s okay to say, “We don’t allow any drug use and children in this family are not allowed to drink alcohol. The only time that you can take any drugs is when the doctor or Mom or Dad gives you medicine when you’re sick. We made this rule because we love you very much and we know that drugs can hurt your body and make you very sick; some may even kill you. Do you have any questions?”


Be a Good Example

Children will do what you do much more readily than what you say. So try not to reach for a beer the minute you come home after a tough day; it sends the message that drinking is the best way to unwind. Offer dinner guests non-alcoholic drinks in addition to wine and spirits. And take care not to pop pills, even over-the-counter remedies, indiscriminately. Your behavior needs to reflect your beliefs.


Discuss What Makes a Good Friend

Since peer pressure is so important when it comes to kids’ involvement with drugs and alcohol, it makes good sense to talk with your children about what makes a good friend. To an 8-year-old you might say, “A good friend is someone who enjoys the same games and activities that you do and who is fun to be around.” 11 to 12-year-olds can understand that a friend is someone who shares their values and experiences, respects their decisions and listens to their feelings. Once you’ve gotten these concepts across, your children will understand that “friends” who pressure them to drink or smoke pot aren’t friends at all. Additionally, encouraging skills like sharing and cooperation—and strong involvement in fun, healthful activities (such as team sports or scouting)—will help your children make and maintain good friendships and increase the chance they’ll remain drug-free.


Build Self-esteem

Kids who feel good about themselves are much less likely than other kids to turn to illegal substances to get high. As parents, we can do many things to enhance our children’s self-image. Here are some pointers:

  • Offer lots of praise for any job well done.
  • If you need to criticize your child, talk about the action, not the person. If your son gets a math problem wrong, it’s better to say, “I think you added wrong. Let’s try again.”
  • Assign do-able chores. A 6-year-old can bring her plate over to the sink after dinner; a 12-year-old can feed and walk the dog after school. Performing such duties and being praised for them helps your child feel good.
  • Spend one-on-one time with your youngster. Setting aside at least 15 uninterrupted minutes per child per day to talk, play a game, or take a walk together, lets her know you care.
  • Say, “I love you.” Nothing will make your child feel better.


Repeat the Message

Information and lessons about drugs are important enough to repeat frequently. So be sure to answer your children’s questions as often as they ask them to initiate conversation whenever the opportunity arises.


If You Suspect a Problem, Seek Help

While kids under age 12 rarely develop a substance problem, it can—and does—happen. If your child becomes withdrawn, loses weight, starts doing poorly in school, turns extremely moody, has glassy eyes—or if the drugs in your medicine cabinet seem to be disappearing too quickly—talk with your child and reach out for professional assistance. You’ll be helping your youngster to a healthier, happier future.

Stress and Alcohol Facts

How does stress influence drinking patterns?
Research and populations surveys have shown that persons under stress, particularly chronic stress, tend to exhibit unhealthy behaviors. Stressed persons drink more alcohol, smoke more, and eat less nutritious foods than non-stressed individuals. People drink in response to various types of stress, and the amount of drinking in response to stress is related to the severity of the life stressors and the lack of social support networks.

Can alcohol reduce the symptoms of stress?
While some research studies show that alcohol in low doses may lessen the body’s response to stressors, paradoxically, many studies show just the opposite effect- that alcohol actually increases the stress response, by stimulating production of the same hormones the body produces when under stress. These observations are particularly interesting given that most people report that they drink alcohol to reduce stress, and the explanation for this apparent contradiction remains unknown. It may be that the mild arousal effect of the stress hormones is not entirely unpleasant. Genetic variations in the ways our bodies respond to stress also likely play a role in how alcohol affects our bodies in stress situations.

Does stress cause alcoholism?
There is little evidence that stress leads to the development of true alcohol dependency, or alcoholism. However, stress is strongly associated with alcohol abuse- the misuse of alcohol as self-medication “therapy” for life stressors. Stress may also be associated with binge drinking in students and other populations. In already established alcoholics, stressful experiences may lead to relapse of the disease.

How do I know if I am addicted?
The U.S. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence has put together a questionnaire to help people decide if they have a drinking problem. Included in the 26-item questionnaire are the following two questions:

  1. Do you occasionally drink heavily after a disappointment, a quarrel, or when the boss gives you a hard time?
  2. When you have trouble or feel under pressure, do you always drink more heavily than usual?

Answering yes to these questions is a warning sign for the early stages of alcohol dependence.

How can I get my drinking under control?
If you are using alcohol to alleviate symptoms of stress, try some healthier alternatives to help manage stress and reduce its symptoms. Exercise, improved nutrition, and relaxation and meditation techniques have all been proven effective in stress control and have other physical and mental health benefits as well. If you know you have a drinking problem, About Alcoholism Guide Buddy T offers advice in his article, “So you’ve decided to stop drinking.”

Other helpful resources:
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Web site includes online access to Alcohol Alerts, a series of publications about all aspects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism.

Recommended Reading:
Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp. This thoughtful and insightful book gives an honest and brutal account of one woman’s struggle with alcoholism and provides background information about the disease of alcoholism, its causes, effects, and treatment options

Drug Abuse and Dependence


Drug addiction (dependence) is compulsively using a substance, despite its negative and sometimes dangerous effects.

Drug abuse is using a drug excessively, or for purposes for which it was not medically intended.

A physical dependence on a substance (needing the drug to function) is not always part of the definition of addiction. Some drugs (for example, some blood pressure medications) don’t cause addiction but do cause physical dependence. Other drugs cause addiction without physical dependence (cocaine withdrawal, for example, doesn’t have symptoms like vomiting and chills; it mainly involves depression).


Drug abuse can lead to drug dependence or addiction. People who use drugs for pain relief may become dependent, although this is rare in those who don’t have a history of addiction.

The exact cause of drug abuse and dependence is not known. However, the person’s genes, the action of the drug, peer pressure, emotional distress, anxiety, depression, and environmental stress all can be factors.

Peer pressure can lead to drug use or abuse, but at least half of those who become addicted have depression, attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or another psychological problem.

Children who grow up in an environment of illicit drug use may first see their parents using drugs. This may put them at a higher risk for developing an addiction later in life for both environmental and genetic reasons.


Treatment for drug abuse or dependence begins with recognizing the problem. Though “denial” used to be considered a symptom of addiction, recent research has shown that people who are addicted have far less denial if they are treated with empathy and respect, rather than told what to do or “confronted.”

Treatment of drug dependency involves weaning off the drug gradually (detoxification), support, and stopping the drug (abstinence). People with acute intoxication or drug overdose may need emergency treatment. The treatment depends on the drug being used.

Understanding Addiction in Laymen’s Terms

Addiction summed up is: Compulsive behavior despite negative consequences

Many researchers believe that addiction is a behavior that can be controlled to some extent and also a brain disease.

And since some testing with functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) found that all addictions tend to cause nearly the same reactions inside the brain, there could be one type of control model for addiction health-related issues. In other words, just as there is one disorder or disease labeled asthma, there would be one for addiction, covering all addictions; gambling, smoking, overeating, drugs, etc. Then one main treatment strategy or plan could be used to treat all addictions.

How addiction works in a nutshell is like this. The brain, the center of the body’s nervous system, handles addiction by increasing dopamine levels in response to increased reactions from behaviors, also referred to as compulsions, like gambling or over eating, and / or in response to increased repeated substance abuse, like from cocaine or alcohol. And this addiction affects the three functioning processes of the nervous system; sensing, perceiving and reacting. How? Let’s take a quick peak…

Dopamine, the chemical transmitter to the “pleasure center,” the place where survival instincts like eating and reproduction focus in the brain, activates cells individually or energizes them. Each energized cell in turn energizes another cell, and so on down the line, resulting in a spontaneous or systematic process of ecstasy or elation.

The problem is the brain doesn’t realize what it is that is causing the ecstasy reaction. So when this flutter of activity increases the creation of dopamine for the negative behaviors and substances like drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc., it neglects the natural survival instinct reaction mechanisms, replacing them with the ecstasy instead.

Note that also, depending upon the addiction, nervous system functions are altered. So sensing, perceiving and reacting functions of individuals are impeded. For example, alcohol is a depressant and slows down all of these functions. So a drunk driver facing an immediate collision will in all likelihood react slower than a healthy, alert driver. And whether or not the addictive substances are inhaled, going into the lung system; or injected, traveling via the blood system; or swallowed, entering the digestive system, also affects different bodily reactions, responses and overall health.

One long-term effect is an increased tolerance level with dopamine reaching out into other brain areas that cloud judgment and behavioral considerations and choices. And ultimately depression results, even amidst opposing or negative stimuli, like the negative effects of narcotics on behaviors and on the body / mind and like trying to withdrawal or discontinue use.

Note: other long-term effects can include changing of the brain’s shape and possible permanent brain damage, depending upon the addiction and length of compulsive activity. And other health problems like cancer from cigarette smoking can result.

Is Nicotine an Addictive Drug?

Nicotine. It’s a colorless to pale yellow, oily liquid with the formula C10H14N2.

Nicotine sulfate has been used as an insecticide.

According to an authoritative chemical reference, nicotine has an “acrid burning taste.” That could explain why tobacco companies have long touted nicotine as a source of flavor in smoke.

But despite claims to the contrary, some tobacco executives have privately called the chemical addictive.

Anti-tobacco campaigners are convinced that nicotine is addictive. But they say it might not be so bad in and of itself if it were not delivered in a deadly vehicle like cigarette smoke. But by addicting a person to a deadly brew of chemicals, they say, nicotine contributes to 400,000 deaths per year in the United States alone.

Is nicotine addictive in the sense that heroin, cocaine and alcohol are addictive?

The Food and Drug Administration has answered this question in the affirmative, forming the basis for rules restricting marketing and sales of cigarettes to minors. Among other things, these would prohibit tobacco billboards within 1,000 feet of schools, eliminate most cigarette vending machines and require the tobacco companies to foot the bill for an ad campaign warning children against the dangers of smoking. In the proposed rule, the campaign was budgeted at $150-million annually, but a figure was not included in the final rules.

Clearly, the answer to whether nicotine is addictive depends on your definition of addiction, or “dependence,” which the psychology industry often prefers, since it carries fewer negative connotations. According to the bible for classifying psychiatric disorders (see “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual…”. “The essential feature of Substance Dependence is a cluster of cognitive, behavioral and physiological symptoms indicating that the individual continues use of the substance despite significant substance-related problems” (p. 176). Furthermore, “nicotine dependence and withdrawal can develop with use of all forms of tobacco…” (p. 242).

Hallmarks of Addiction

University of Vermont professor John Hughes, an expert on nicotine dependence, says the scientific consensus is that “the core of the issue [over dependence] is the loss of control over use. The drug controls you — you don’t control the drug.”


  • You’re not able to stop using it when you decide to
  • You use the drug despite clear evidence that it is harming you
  • There are clear withdrawal symptoms — including, in the case of nicotine, depressed mood, insomnia, irritability and difficulty concentrating

According to these standards, says Hughes, who is past president of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, “there’s no doubt that nicotine produces addiction.” He also cites anecdotal evidence about the strength of the compulsion for nicotine — or tobacco smoke containing nicotine. “If you put people in a position where it’s hard to get, they will go to great lengths to get cigarettes. From World War II, there are records of starving people trading food for cigarettes in concentration camps.”

But is nicotine really addictive in the same way that heroin, cocaine and alcohol are addictive?

Not exactly… Still, Hughes acknowledges that nicotine differs from such drugs of abuse as alcohol, heroin and cocaine.

Most obviously, it doesn’t cause intoxication, so you can’t tell whether someone is on it. Public discussions of nicotine addiction, he says, often get “confused” on this score — with a bit of help from tobacco companies, which fear having their product branded “addictive.”

Although the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General did not dwell on the addictive nature of nicotine until its 1988 report on smoking and health, University of California cardiologist Stanton Glantz charges that the cigarette companies have long known about the drug’s capacity for hooking smokers. “The evidence that nicotine was addictive was convincing to Brown & Williamson in 1963,” he says, referring to internal documents he described in the newly published book The Cigarette Papers.

Although the tobacco companies have insisted that addictive drugs all produce intoxication, and therefore nicotine does not qualify, Hughes counters that “intoxication is not the center of the problem. Dependence — the inability to stop – is at the core.”

Ironically, Hughes says this inability to intoxicate could actually boost nicotine’s potential for causing dependence, since “you can take nicotine many times and still work, still function.”

Oddly, the numbers show that nicotine is more likely to entrap users than addictive drugs that do cause intoxication. “If 100 people experiment with alcohol or cocaine, about 10 percent will become addicted,” Hughes says, versus 20 to 25 percent of those who take nicotine. “So experimenting with nicotine is more likely to lead to dependence. Yet we have it reversed in our cultural norms,” which stigmatize alcohol and cocaine more than cigarettes.

Hughes points to yet another reason why nicotine is likely to produce dependence, particularly among the young: the drug’s ability to “do so many things in so many situations.” Since many of these effects – controlling hunger, concentration, anger and mood – are exactly what many adolescents seek, and since this “drug can do this every single time, quickly and reliably, it’s no wonder kids take up smoking.”