How to talk to your kids about drugs

The ‘just say no’ days are over

A lovely friend of mine from Yorkshire recently asked me how to talk to her son about drugs.

She looked a bit startled that she was even asking the question. What should she say to him? And what shouldn’t she say?

He’s been in secondary school for a couple of years and has suddenly grown into a young man, almost without anyone noticing.

There are so many types of drugs, and the effects you see in the media can look very scary. It’s easy to find the subject overwhelming and not really know where to start.

I’ve worked in drug and alcohol treatment for twenty years and have two children so I have a good idea of how to approach the subject.

It’s completely natural to want to protect your child. It’s really easy to say ‘please don’t do that’ and when they’re small — that’s sometimes what’s needed.

But as kids grow into teens, that doesn’t work as well. Teenagers innately take risks — it’s part of the way they learn about the world.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, the ‘just say no’ campaigns that I and other parents from my generation grew up with completely failed for this reason. Tell a teenager no, and they’ll likely do the opposite.

Most people I speak to say they just want their kids to be happy. This includes feeling able to talk to them when something is up. But if you draw a line in the sand your child is going to be scared about coming to you if they have a problem.

So, when it comes to drugs, don’t make it a big talk. Short regular chats show it’s ok to talk you about these issues. Choose an informal setting like a car journey or a walk and keep an open mind, kids don’t want to talk if they feel judged or preached at. And be realistic about what you may hear. You may get an answer you don’t like, but don’t panic.

As parents we want to get our kids to a place where we can trust them to make sensible decisions for themselves, while also knowing they can always talk honestly to Mum or Dad. That can certainly sometimes feel like a leap of faith and may cause some parents anxiety that they aren’t doing enough.

But my experience has taught me that children like to have access to information while being given room to make their own choices. The ‘just say no’ approach only breeds dissent and doesn’t give children the information to make safe choices.

Being a parent is bloody hard work. It’s hard to know whether you’re doing the right thing and sometimes it can feel stronger to take a zero tolerance approach.

But kids are bound to come into contact with drugs and alcohol at some point. Having an open, honest chat with them means they are far more likely to make sensible decisions when they do.


Addaction are running a campaign to encourage parents to talk openly and honestly with their kids about drug use. The Addaction website has more information about the campaign including 7 tips to help you ‘have the chat’.

Parents who want extra advice, support or encouragement can use Addaction’s free and confidential web chat service, staffed by trained advisors.