Resources / For families

Substance use: How to keep conversations real, ask the right questions, and know when it’s time to seek more support

Adults listening to a talk
Brightline Logo Mark Orange
Brightline team

Apr 24, 2024

By nature, kids are curious. That innate curiosity is good — it’s what leads kids to try new foods, go from crawling to walking, make friends, and learn about the world. 

And yes, there will come a time when they get curious about substances. 

The more connected young kids are to friends and screens, the more they are exposed to substance use. Friends might experiment with it, shows highlight it, social media glamorizes it, and reporters bring us the darker sides including arrests, accidents, and overdoses.

Kids as young as nine years old can start to be influenced into viewing alcohol and drug use in a positive way. So the earlier you start the conversation at home, the better. If you let your family values guide you, you’ll be able to land on what to say and when. Read on to learn how to get this challenging but vital discussion started.

Keeping an open door, family values, and house rules

The less kids understand about substance use, the more curious they’ll be. And if you’re not talking with them about it, they’re learning about it from their friends and society by default. 

Keeping the door open to honest conversation not only normalizes the subject, it gives them a safe space to ask questions and feel big emotions like fear, envy, confusion, or sadness.

What if your child: 

  • Is scared that they won’t be one of the “cool” or “popular” kids if they don’t use substances?

  • Thinks that if their best friend is doing it and they aren’t, the friendship won’t survive?

  • Is worried about friends who are using drugs or alcohol but doesn’t want to say anything for fear of being labeled a snitch?

Honestly, those fears can all become their reality, which makes it even scarier to make choices that are different from their friends. If the fears above do become reality, rather than caving in to the behavior, it might be time to help your kids redefine the kinds of friends they’re looking for at this point.

Making friends and making choices are just part of growing up, and they can teach some valuable life lessons. Your kids can learn to make decisions that they know are right for them without judging others for their choices. They can also understand that part of friendship is being honest with each other, talking about differences, and accepting one another anyway. Sometimes interests and actions will take friends in opposite directions, and that’s okay, too.

Letting your family values guide you is one way to keep your house rules aligned with what’s most important to you. For example, if your primary values are safety and honesty, your house rules might be ones that prioritize telling the truth even when a mistake has been made or a rule has been broken (e.g., if your child went to a party without permission but knows to call you for a no-questions-asked sober ride home rather than put themselves in danger). 

But whether your values lead you to set firm or flexible boundaries around substance use, the most important thing is to talk about them with your child so there is no confusion about expectations and consequences. 

Bringing values into focus and having conversations about substance use with your kids isn’t always easy. It can feel scary or overwhelming, which can lead to avoiding the topic altogether. For guidance on how to get clear on what you want, and how to talk about this vital issue with your family, reach out to Brightline. 

How to ask open-ended questions

Social emotional learning (SEL) is how people develop the skills they need in life — including those that can help them make the right choices for themselves about substance use. These skills include social awareness, responsible decision-making, navigating relationships, self-awareness, and self-management. 

One way to help develop your child’s self-awareness and self-management is to role play with them. Start the conversation with a “What if…” question. For example, “What if your best friend told you they drank alcohol?” or “What if the ‘popular’ kids at school offered you drugs or alcohol?” 

Being accepting of their responses — even those you didn’t expect to hear — is key to keeping the conversation flowing. Asking open-ended questions (ones that can’t be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’) can help, too. Things like, “How do you feel about your friend smoking weed?” or “What is the worst thing that could happen if you said no? What if you said yes?” can help prepare them for an uncomfortable situation. 

Helping your child develop self-esteem is also a powerful way to help them stand up for what they believe is right for them, even if their decision isn’t the most popular one. Highlighting positive aspects of themselves is a good way to keep their self-esteem at the forefront of their decision-making. 

Saying “Tell me a few things you love about yourself.” then asking “How do you think using drugs or alcohol might change those things?” can help them understand potential causes and effects before actually being faced with it.

How to answer the tough questions

While these conversations are helpful, they can also come with some curveballs and hard-to-answer questions. Be prepared to get some pushback from your kids. 

Because they see and hear about substance use everywhere, they may be somewhat desensitized to the true impact of it. You might hear “What’s the big deal?” and “Trying it once doesn’t mean anything.” Talk openly about the risks that are involved — even the first time drugs or alcohol are used. Share an age-appropriate amount of information about any relevant family history with the abuse of substances. Don’t be afraid to set ground rules and expectations together — when they have input, they’re more likely to adhere to the decisions.

If alcohol or drugs are used in your home, it can add another layer of false familiarity with substances for your kids. Questions might be more confrontational, like “I see you do it all the time, why are you telling me no?” 

Staying calm and being real with them will have the most impact. A response like “I hear you. I’m not perfect, but I’m also an adult. I know my body and I understand what I’m doing and why.” can separate your actions from theirs. 

Three situations where more support can help

  1. If you’re not sure what to say to your child or you feel what you are saying isn’t being heard, Brightline coaches are here to support. Reach out for help with what to say, how to respond, and the signs to look for if you’re worried your child is already using substances.

  2. Secondly, if your family has gone through trauma and you feel your child may be in a more vulnerable state (dealing with grief, withdrawing, looking for ways to numb pain), your approach may need to shift from prevention to early intervention. Your Brightline coach or therapist is here to help you create a plan.

  3. And lastly, if you know your child is already using substances, we encourage you to seek our support today. When kids test the substance waters — or dive right into the deep end — it is usually the result of an underlying issue. Your child might be trying to avoid big feelings they don’t know how to handle like worry, sadness, or loneliness. They might be struggling with low self-esteem, boredom, or standing up for themselves in their friend group. We can help you and your child discover and address the root cause.

The bottom line when it comes to substances? Talk about it. And if you can’t find the right words or need support, talk to us first. We are here for coaching, therapy, or further evaluation.