Want to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol? Don’t overthink it

Colorado Department of Human Services
Talking about marijuana Did you know that youth who have an adult they can talk to are less likely to use marijuana?* Here are some tips for talking to your children about marijuana:
  1. Set rules — youth with clear family rules are two times less likely to use marijuana.
  2. Be a good listener — don’t talk over or down to your child.
  3. Focus on the good — help young people make decisions that help them reach their goals.
  4. Learn more — use resources such as to educate yourself.
  5. Remind youth that most of their peers choose not to use. (Only one in five high school students in Colorado uses marijuana.)
  6. Tell them your opinions about youth marijuana use.
  7. Keep the conversation going. Your child’s friends, interests and activities are always changing. Communicate with them often about how marijuana can impact their life.


Parents can foster an open dialogue by finding low-pressure opportunities to talk with their children

By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by the Healthy Futures Initiative

When the subject of drugs and alcohol comes up in daily life — maybe during a TV show or while driving past a marijuana dispensary — parents shouldn’t remain silent. These situations are golden opportunities to open the door to an ongoing conversation about tough topics.

“It’s always important to keep an open dialogue with youth on drug, alcohol and sexual issues,” said Cary Brown, Outreach Coordinator for the Strengthening Families Outreach Program in Summit County. “Being proactive gives youth an understanding of what’s expected in their family and hopefully lets them know it’s OK to talk with adults about difficult situations.”

Opportunities present themselves more often than parents might recognize — after a gathering where someone may have had too much to drink, at a public event where a whiff of marijuana smoke drifts by, or after incidents at school. These potential conversation starters allow parents to breach topics well before they become disciplinary issues about their child’s own behavior, reducing the likelihood that kids will get defensive and clam up.

Parents can initiate conversations with open-ended questions like, “If your friends wanted to try marijuana, how would you handle that?” or “What do you think about alcohol and kids who use it?”

Establishing healthy norms

Since recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado in 2014, communities face the challenge of a more relaxed attitude toward marijuana use. While legal for adults 21 or older, marijuana remains a dangerous substance for children and teenagers, whose brains are still developing. Research shows the human brain is developing until a person’s mid-20s, meaning the legal age to consume marijuana and alcohol may even be too young to be considered safe.

Combined with the country’s rising opioid crisis, the subject of substance use is as front and center as ever.

“We try to remind parents that it’s happening so often that it’s not an extraordinary topic of conversation,” said Catherine Kirkwood Smith, a Communities That Care board member and the mother of two Summit High School students. “It’s not taboo like we need to talk about this subject in a separate environment.”

Communities That Care is a national program that helps communities implement evidence-based prevention practices that reduce levels of youth substance use. Many of the program’s community benefits are realized through the cumulative impact of individual conversations taking place between kids, parents and other trusted adults.

“It’s rewarding as a parent to see these conversations have an impact on your kids and the choices they ultimately make. Having the home conversations backed up in all aspects of their life — school, teams, clubs — then they see it’s not just parents talking to them about making healthy choices that set you up for success,” Smith said. “And when those conversations are happening in hundreds of homes across Summit County, that moves us all forward in establishing healthy norms for our community as a whole.”

Talking to your children

There isn’t a perfect way to talk to children about alcohol and drugs, but honesty has a big influence on children, according to and, two state websites that provide educational tools for parents, including advice for talking to children in specific age ranges about alcohol and drugs.

“It’s important to avoid passing judgment if a child or teen shares information about events, situations or choices that might be harmful to themselves or others,” Brown said. “You want to make sure that they know they’re always free to come to you if someone’s health or safety is at risk. In this type of situation, you might say something like, ‘I’m really glad you told me this. I know it might not have been an easy thing to bring up. What are your thoughts about the best way to address this situation?’”

Having short conversations more often is a great way to instill your family values into your children’s beliefs and thought processes, Smith said. Try open-ended questions such as the following:

“If there’s drinking at the party, what will you do?”

“What do you think about marijuana and kids who use it?”

“What are you and your friends looking forward to this year? How would getting into trouble for alcohol or drugs change those plans?”

For more specific ways to approach these conversations with your children, visit

Talking to children helps them prepare for all kinds of situations they might face. Choosing to be preventative rather than reactive helps children feel safe, Smith said, but it doesn’t mean children aren’t going to make poor decisions sometimes.

In those cases, Smith said parents should involve children in their decision about consequences or punishment, as well as talk to them about better choices they could have made.

Regardless of what, if any, consequences a parent chooses, the message should always be clear that a child’s safety is the most important guiding principle.

“The youth’s safety is paramount. For example, if a teen was to call a parent for a ride late at night, even after curfew, the parent should respond and reinforce that the teen has made the right decision by calling, rather than possibly riding with someone who is high or drunk,” Brown said. “The parent could then have a conversation about choices with the youth the next day. Parents and teens can also agree to have a safe phrase the youth could use in case he or she is in a situation where it’s hard to talk freely about their concerns. Parents can also support and encourage their kids to spend time with peers who don’t use drugs or alcohol.”

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