How to Answer the “Did You Use Drugs?” Question

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The idea of my kids experimenting with drugs gives me the heebie jeebies. I was recently at a community pool for my children’s swim lesson. It was 8:15 in the morning, and the jacuzzi was filled with teens (one of which was naked) smoking, drinking, and passing a joint. I do not want my kids to be in this scenario in ten years, which is why it’s so important to have an open dialogue about drugs now. But how do we begin? And what do we say, exactly? They’re still so young, and well. . . innocent. Do we even want them to know that such a thing like drugs exist? Breezy Mama turned to Steve Pasierb, President of The Partnership at for answers.

At what age should we start having the “no drugs” talk? How do we begin this?

Conversations about drugs and smoking and drinking need to be happening midway through elementary school and really ramp up in volume prior to your kids entering middle school.  Middle school is the key time when kids can start to change their thinking about drugs.  Parents will say that their child is too young and they need to wait to talk until they’re teenagers or headed to the junior prom, but waiting for high school is simply too late.  Middle school can be when kids are first meaningfully exposed to drugs or drinking.

And, it’s not about having a single big scary ‘drug talk’ and you’re done; rather it’s about a series of small conversations with your kids, helping them understand you are against smoking, against drinking and against drug use as a risk to their health and future.  Start simple in elementary school and increase both in frequency and specificity as your kids get older – and keep on talking right into college where binge drinking is a huge problem.

One great way is to take something in the news, or popular culture, and use it as a conversation starter or to simply ask your kids what they think about it.  Then, have the discipline to listen to what they’re saying.  Listening will help you shape future conversations. Ask if they know if anybody at school is using drugs or drinking.

We have to accept the fact that our kids are exposed to drugs in social media, popular culture and in peer groups, so as a parent you have to weigh in, set that ‘no-use standard’ and keep talking, asking, listening, and then talk some more with them.

Two powerful facts to keep in mind: ninety percent of all adult addictions start in the teenage years.  And, kids who report ‘learning a lot’ about drugs from their parents are up to half as likely to use as kids who don’t get that from the adult(s) who’s raising them.

Recently, my kids asked “what that person had in his mouth” (a cigarette) which was followed by, “Why do they like to smoke that?” I really didn’t know how to answer, so I just said, “because they like it” quickly followed with a “but don’t you try it.” What would have been a better response?

Kids as young as age three or four may become curious when seeing adults smoke and start asking about cigarettes. Respond in a way that makes them understand that it’s not a healthy decision that can lead to a lifetime of problems.

You can say something like: “Grownups make decisions and sometimes those decisions aren’t the best for their bodies. When someone starts smoking, his or her body starts feeling like it has to have cigarettes. They are addicted to the nicotine.  And that makes it much, much harder for him or her to quit.  I want to be sure that does not happen to you to and that you never start smoking.

Marijuana is so prevalent in our society—you see plants on drawings, Bob Marley smoking it on t-shirts, and it’s always in the news. Many parents seem to accept it, perhaps even smoke it themselves, though it’s illegal. How do we tell our children not to try it?

Teens are exposed to so many social influences that make it seem to them like everyone is using or it’s acceptable to use. Just because any drug seems harmless doesn’t mean it’s without serious risk.  Parents should take an active approach in communicating openly, and frequently with their kids about the dangers of marijuana, and the myths and facts associated with the drug.

There’s the classic commercial from The Partnership at where the dad finds his child’s drug paraphernalia and is asking him where he learned to do drugs. The child shouts back, “From you! I learned it from watching you!” If a parent has experimented with drugs, how do they answer the question, “Have you ever tried it?”

For many parents, a child’s “Did you ever use drugs?” question is a tough one to answer.  Unless the answer is no, most parents stumble through an answer and leave their kids feeling like they haven’t learned anything — or even worse, that their parents are hypocrites.

You don’t owe your kid an explanation or a detailed account of all you might have done in your youth.  Honesty really is the best policy and it’s best to be honest and be brief – and the conversation doesn’t have to be awkward.

You can use it to your advantage by turning it into a ‘teachable moment’.  Something like: “I took drugs because some of my friends used them, and I thought I needed to do it in order to fit in. I was wrong.  In those days, people didn’t know as much as they do now about all the bad things that can happen when you take drugs. It was a mistake and I wish I hadn’t done it.

What signs should we watch for if we think our child may be doing recreational drugs?

Knowing what to look for is important when it comes to determining whether or not your child is using drugs or alcohol.  It is important to keep an eye out for behavioral issues and an abrupt change in behavior.  This can include changes in relationships, loss of inhibitions, changes in networks of friends, loud or obnoxious behavior and more.  You may also notice changes in personal appearance, including a messy, careless appearance or poor hygiene.  If your child’s personal habits, home- or car-related issues, health issues, school issues or work issues change abruptly or in a negative way, these can all be indicators that your child is using drugs.

But also, trust your gut. We’ve heard this from parents with a kid in addiction treatment so many times: they suspected something early on or knew their kid was experimenting and didn’t want to believe themselves or hoped it was just a passing teen phase.  If you think or know your child is using, you have to step in.  Think about it just like any other health risk your child might be facing.  Be proactive and protect your family’s health.

When I was in elementary school, I remembered a group of kids who would sniff Binaca, the breath freshener. Kids may not be doing recreational drugs, but instead may be experimenting with over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Are there different signs to watch out for?

Today’s teenagers are more likely to have abused prescription & over-the-counter meds than a variety of illicit drugs, like Ecstasy, cocaine, crack, meth, and heroin. And many parents might be surprised to know that they’re accessing these drugs in the comfort of their own homes or from the homes of friends and family members; it can be as easy as opening a cupboard, drawer, or medicine cabinet.

Because these are legal substances, many kids – and even some parents alike – have a false sense of security about abuse of medications.  But the sobering truth is that when Rx drugs are diverted and misused for anything other than their intended purpose, they can be just as harmful and even deadly as illegal street drugs.

It’s important to educate yourself about medications that kids are commonly abusing, communicate with your kids on the subject and dispel the notion that medicines can be safely abused.  Lastly, it’s important to safeguard the medications in your home by learning which can be abused, limit access to them and keep track of quantities – and make sure your friends do the same.

Parents, if you notice the disappearance of prescription or over-the-counter pills from your home, it may be time to talk to your child about the dangers of abusing these medications.

Many high-schoolers and college-aged children drink—what are signs that it is out of control?

“First, let’s not think that drinking at any level is okay for children and underage college students – or that there is some safe way for them to engage in that risky behavior as long as they are not behind the wheel of a car and the underage drinking is not ‘out of control.’  Again, research shows that ninety percent of all adult addictions start in the teenage years.  The earlier your kid engages in substance abuse, the worse the outcomes can be and the harder it becomes for them to stop using.

If you’ve noticed significant changes in your teen– like changes in personal appearance or personal habits, grades dropping, loss of inhibition or drastic changes in mood or personality, if you notice that he/she is hanging out with a new group of friends or if your teen has suddenly lost interest in favorite hobbies or pastimes – don’t be afraid to come right out and ask direct questions like, ‘Have you been drinking or using drugs?’ While no parent wants to hear a ‘yes’ response, you should be prepared for it. Decide in advance how you’ll respond to a ‘yes.’ Make sure you reassure your child that you’re looking out for his or her health and well-being, and that you only want the best for their future.

We’ve all read that to be a good parent, we need to set limits. What are these limits?

It is true that parents need to set limits and we all know that kids want freedom, but setting clear distinct rules for your kids provides a concrete way to help them understand what you expect and helps them learn self-control. Don’t just assume that they know you don’t want them to drink or do drugs. Teens don’t deal well with gray areas, so when they’re offered alcohol or drugs, you don’t want any confusion in their minds that this is something that you’re going to have a major problem with. We know that ‘disappointing their parents’ is a reason why many kids choose not to use drugs or drink.

You don’t want to be a nag; but if you do discover drug or alcohol use, all bets are off. The time has come to set tighter limits and clear consequences. Setting firm consequences for when your rules are broken actually helps your teenager, making it clear what they are to do and not to do – you can set a ‘no-use policy’ in your home, for example. And though it may not always seem like it, establishing rules is a way of showing you care.

Should we explain to kids in detail what drugs to stay away from? Or do we keep it general?

Make it clear that there is no safe or appropriate level of illicit drug use, that prescription medicines can potentially be every bit as deadly as street drugs when misused or abused and that drinking any alcoholic beverage is something you as a parent will not condone.

What’s the average age that kids start experimenting with drugs? Which drug do they typically try first? What are the most common drugs that a teen will experiment with?

Research shows that the average age of first use is around 14, which means many kids start younger, while others wait longer before they experiment.  That’s why adults need to be talking early and need to keep on taking.  While most kids will start with alcohol or marijuana, today prescription drugs are also available to our kids at a very young age.  Kids see less harm in taking a pill, so there is very real risk to be found right in the medicine cabinets in our own homes.

Anything you’d like to add?

Yes, I’d like to reiterate that the key theme in everything we’ve talked about is the power of parents and really… any adult raising a child has real power.  Parents and caregivers have the power to educate their kids about the risks of substance abuse and prevent it from happening in the first place. I also want to stress that parents should intervene when they know a child is experimenting or find appropriate treatment if a child has developed a problem with drugs or drinking. And, that there is a very small window between middle school and the teen years when, IF a child does not smoke, does not use drugs and does not drink to excess, they are very unlikely to ever develop a problem with these substances later in life. What a great gift to give to our children’s future and long term health!

We want parents and families to know that The Partnership at is here to help them.  Our Toll-Free Parents Helpline at 1-855-DRUGFREE is a resource where specialists can answer parents’ questions and help them make a plan or find resources in their local community.

Online at is a wealth of information, tools and opportunities to connect with other parents in similar situations — all designed to help you understand you are not alone in preventing, intervening in or finding treatment for drug and alcohol use by your kids.

We need to look at drug use and childhood drinking is an adolescent health issue, and a preventable one at that.  An adolescent health crisis.  One with effective help, real solutions and hope.

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About Steve Pasierb, President of The Partnership at Steve joined the Partnership in 1993, was named to the Board of Directors in 2000, and became president in October 2001. His current duties include staff leadership, Liaison to the Chairman and Board, outreach to the drug demand reduction and addiction treatment fields, government relations, serving as chief spokesperson as well as strategic direction and fiscal responsibility for the organization.

He leads an effective, research-based national nonprofit whose mission is to help parents prevent, intervene in and find treatment for drug and alcohol use by their children. He is a frequent commentator in national and local news media on issues including the changing landscape of drug use in America, effective prevention strategies for families and the role/value of addiction treatment and recovery.   In the eight years prior to becoming president, Steve directed the Partnership’s State/City Alliance Program which forms public-private partnerships to operate comprehensive drug abuse prevention programs.

Steve holds a M.Ed. degree with honors in communications media and a B.S. in criminology.  He is a member of the national Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi for scholarly distinction.  He currently serves on the board of directors of the Treatment Research Institute, affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania; the advisory committee of Darkness To Light, a national child sexual abuse prevention organization based in Charleston, SC; and, on the board of directors of Partnership for a Drug-Free Iowa located in Des Moines, IA.  He is a member of the organizing committee of Advertising Week in New York City.  Previously, Steve served on the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) based in Washington, DC and on several other charitable boards and committees in both the fields of advertising and substance abuse prevention. In November 2003, Steve was honored by the American Advertising Federation and elected to the national Advertising Hall of Achievement.

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To enter, tell us in the comments section below if you’ve had the “drug talk” with your child. One reader’s comment will be chosen at random. Good luck! For more information on Teensavers, click here.

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  1. Yes, I have had the “drug talk” with my kids. When we see drugs/cigarettes/alcohol in movies and/or on TV we always try to talk about it. What it is, some reasons why people might smoke/drink, what it does to your body/mind, some potential consequences of smoking/drinking. Right now my kids think smoking is the worst thing in the world! I like it that way. 🙂 Thank you for the article. This is definitely something we have to keep talking about and reinforcing with our kids. As my daughter nears middle school I think it will be good to role play with her so she can practice saying “no” and feel comfortable doing it should she find herself in a situation where she is being offered drugs or alcohol. First day of school for us! Yay!!! Have a good week everyone.

  2. I have had the “drug talk” also, unfortunately it was necessary at a young age. Excellent article, thank you for posting it.

  3. I thought Steve’s comments were really good but there are a couple of additions that would be helpful to parents. I blog at on teen parenting and alcohol abuse.

    First off, if you have addiction in your family, it’s absolutely imperative that you tell your kids about it at as young an age as you are comfortable with sharing that information. When I was researching my book Delaying that First Drink: A Parents’ Guide, the majority of people that I talked to who had started drinking and doing drugs in middle or high school had addiction in their immediate families. The genetic link to addiction and the possibility that your child may have a similar issue should be part of the discussion.

    Secondly, elementary school and middle school curriculums are veherently anti-smoking when it comes to cigarettes. When my daughter and son were 7-8-9 they were convinced that if you smoked cigarettes you would die. They are older now but they still believe that. Marijuana may only be psychologically addictive, but it’s still smoking and reinforcing that link can really help.

    Third, kids who are going through major family problems are much more likely to use drugs or drink because they want to escape. I know because I was one. So if you’re getting divorced or a parent dies as my mom did, or there’s major trouble in your home, you should talk to your kids not just about what’s happening, but about ways to cope that do not involve substance abuse.

    Finally, I think there’s nothing wrong with talking to your kids about your own alcohol and drug use. I would talk about the downside but I wouldn’t shy away from saying that you did a lot more than you should have if that is the case. Many parents of teens grew up in the 1970s where the rules and the understanding of all addictive substances were very different. So were the penalties for illegal drug use, drunk driving, etc. Now we have much more scientific knowledge and we also have much tougher laws.

    Please join us on Facebook as well at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science Inside Alcohol Project.

  4. I think we should start telling our kids about drugs and why not to use them in elementary school. It is unfortunate that we have to talk to them so young, but the problem is out there and they need to be informed before middle school. In middle school it is amazing how many kids are already experimenting with some type of drug.

  5. I had the talk several times and I make a point to meet and know my childs friends and their parents. I also set examples by not using alcohol myself not even at parties, sadly two weeks ago I found out my teen tried alcohol and another friends house because they had left over alcohol from a party the parents had, I NEVER thought my child would have tried alcohol especially at 15, my heart broke, but it does happen, and it happened so I am making him responsible for his actions, he knows I love him but drinking alcohol is not allowed and he has lost some of the freedom he had earned

  6. Yes! I begin using drugs at an early age in school. And became a drug addict and a acoholic. Drugs caused me to experience the degradation of hell. I tell my story in my memior “Lust of a dope Fiend.”

    Jerome Livingston


  1. […] your teen will ask you if you ever used drugs? And just what is the right age to start talking? Check out for an informative Q&A with Steve Pasierb, President of The Partnership at for answers that empower parents to […]

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