Conversation Starters: How to Talk about Addiction with Students of All Ages

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Nurture a young person's interest in seeking trusted sources of health information by validating their questions about alcohol and drugs.

Data from our Student Attitudes and Behavior Survey shows that students who talk about substances with adults are less likely to drink alcohol and use drugs compared to other students. In fact, these conversations are one of the most effective prevention methods against the use of alcohol and other drugs, and parents and teachers can promote healthier lifestyles during these talks.

It can be challenging to hold a nuanced conversation that balances both our respect for a student’s maturity and our desire to guide them. In this article, we will provide a few suggestions for you to initiate conversations about alcohol and other drugs starting from a young age and continuing through their middle school and high school years.

Preventing Alcohol and Drug Use Starts in Elementary School

It's never too early to talk about health. Kids are naturally curious, and they have many questions about the world and how it works—and they trust you to guide them and answer those questions.

You can nurture a young person's interest in seeking trusted sources of health information by validating their questions about alcohol and other drugs. Start by saying, "That's a really great question" and "Let's talk about it" before beginning your response.

When you affirm a student for asking their question and then wholeheartedly agree to discuss it with them, they'll feel rewarded for speaking up. They'll get the message, too, that talking about alcohol and other drugs is not taboo. And in the event that they don't understand a part of your response, a student praised for initially asking a question is more likely to seek the clarification they need. 

Beginning the Conversation about Substance Use

You may be wondering how to have conversations about alcohol and other drugs with elementary students, or how prevention could be effective at such a tender age. But there are a wide variety of healthy ways to communicate. Try beginning with these age-appropriate themes.

Start by Defining Health

As young people grow, they would benefit by understanding what health is, why it's valuable and how to make healthy decisions. Helpful conversation starters on this topic include asking children:

  • What does it mean to be healthy?
  • What does it feel like to be healthy?
  • What things do you do to stay healthy every day?

We can teach students that a healthy life is naturally rewarding, and health is built through daily habits and decisions. We can show them how some habits, like brushing their teeth and napping, will keep them healthy and happy. And we can talk about a healthy diet that nourishes the body, which will help them to contextualize alcohol and other drugs. All these conversations will help them to understand what health looks like and how they have control over their bodies and minds.

Avoid Moralizing Language

Try identifying students’ healthy actions during the day by acknowledging their choices with health-based language like "Wow, what a healthy choice you made today by:  

  • ...eating those carrots."
  • ...washing your hands."
  • ...taking a break to calm down."
  • ...cheering up your friend."

Whenever you can, avoid moralizing language about a child's "good" or "bad" choices. If a child makes an unhealthy choice, you can ask "What is a healthier choice for right now?" and then guide them toward the alternative.

By sticking with health-based language, you'll equip young people to see alcohol and other drug use from a health perspective.

Promote Healthier Highs

Kids already enjoy play, adventure and comfort. We try to remind kids that substance-free pleasures are healthy highs that can naturally reward them. And when kids enjoy healthy highs, they’re less likely to resort to alcohol or drug use.

Help your students create an ever-evolving healthy highs list. Ask kids what makes them giggle, relax or feel on top of the world. Their choices could include many different items like:

  • Spending time with pets or in nature
  • Eating their favorite foods
  • Playing games or sports with friends
  • Giving and receiving hugs from family
  • Immersing themselves in stories through reading or movies
  • Listening to, playing or dancing to music.

Help your students get really specific about their own healthy highs. Post their lists somewhere visible. Then the next time a child is having a difficult day, they can refer to their list to give themselves a natural boost. Young kids will then learn a safe way to identify their emotions and change how they feel.

Point Out Healthy Adults

Preventing future alcohol and drug use requires that young children know how to seek out and establish healthy relationships with trusted adults. Connections with caretakers, educators, coaches, family friends, counselors and other adults can be protective for children.

Ask children which adults they look up to and trust. Help them understand the value of trusting an adult who can support them. Just as important, help students grow their own circle of trusted adults by brainstorming who else could join their healthy adult team. If possible, help them add a few trusted adults who you know have healthy relationships to alcohol and other drugs. The more trusted adults in a child's life, the more opportunities they will have to benefit from child-adult prevention conversations—and the better protected they will be against risk factors.

Having a Lifelong Conversation about Health

To protect children against future alcohol abuse or other drug abuse,* we need to give them not only the language to define and understand health, but also to equip them with the tools to achieve it. These early conversations about alcohol and other drugs will empower kids and help them to create healthy, lifelong patterns.

Effective prevention discussions start early and last a lifetime. We encourage you to converse with your elementary students and teach them about alcohol and other drugs from a health perspective. A smoking prevention program can help students engage in conversations and critical thinking. As a trusted, willing adult, you can be an invaluable protective factor against addiction.

Continuing the Conversation about Substance Abuse with Middle Schoolers

Middle schoolers are freedom- and identity-seeking. They require your attention and guidance, but they want to have a say about when and how they receive it. At this age, middle school students also start to look to friends and social media for advice. As heavy media consumers, they report exaggerated beliefs about substance use based on exposure to media and misinformation from peers. It is important to explore with students the healthy reality that 78 percent of middle schoolers have never had a whole drink of alcohol, and even fewer have used marijuana or other drugs. 

Beyond correcting false perceptions, you may wonder how to start prevention conversations with middle school students, especially when they'd like those conversations to be on their own terms. Here are a few methods we like to use.

Share the Facts with Students

Tweens value information. Be honest with them about important alcohol and other drug facts to empower them to make their own healthy decisions. Consider sharing the following information:

Addiction is a disease. Like heart disease or diabetes, addiction is a chronic health condition that runs in families. Children with a family history of addiction are more likely to develop a substance use disorder, but knowing about one's family history can be a protective factor against early and risky use. 

Any use equals risk. Alcohol or other drugs can be addictive and pose serious health risks, especially for still-developing teens. The "worst" drug for someone is the one that causes them the gravest problems, and that substance can be a legal drug, like alcohol, or even a medicine used in improper ways. 

Substance use changes the teen brain. Use during the developing years can drastically change connections in the brain, vastly increasing the risk of addiction or lifelong health problems. Adolescent brains are more dopamine sensitive, making substance use more appealing to them despite its many negative consequences. Nearly all people with the disease of addiction used alcohol or other drugs before their brains developed into adulthood.  

Most tweens do not use. The most common choice among middle school students is non-use. In fact, 84 percent of tweens and teens surveyed all around the world by FCD Prevention Works tell us it is easy to make friends at their schools without using alcohol or other drugs.

Teach Them about Boundaries

Help teens learn how to assert their own decisions with their closest friends, their first crush or the most popular kids in school. Middle schoolers are not likely introduced to alcohol or other drugs by a stranger, but rather by someone they know and admire.

Don't be afraid to ask your students:

  • "What would you say to a friend who offered you alcohol or any other substance?"
  • "If someone you care about doesn't respect your opinion or choice, what can you do?"
  • "What other situations are you worried about encountering?"

Help your students formulate a response if a situation involving substance use arises. While a simple no may be all they need, middle schoolers will benefit from your support in brainstorming a variety of healthy ways to respond in a diversity of sticky situations.

Be Curious

Instead of always being the teacher, invite students to teach you. You'll learn a lot—what health means to them, what they find risky and how their perspectives evolve. From there, you can continue health-based conversations according to what is on your students' minds and what prevention topics they are the most interested in hearing about.

Use open-ended, thought-provoking questions such as:

  • What are your beliefs about the drinking age where we are? In other places?
  • How do you and your friends define healthy and unhealthy lifestyles?
  • What do you know about alcohol, nicotine or marijuana?
  • What percentage of teens do you believe use alcohol, nicotine, or marijuana?
  • Why do you think some people use alcohol or nicotine?

Encourage Them to Take Responsibility for Their Health

Middle schoolers who want more freedom can be coached to achieve it by developing healthy habits. Many healthy lifestyle choices are protective factors against teen substance misuse. Discuss the following topics with your middle schoolers:  

  • Their nutrition choices, their meal plans and how they feel after eating well
  • How to use technology in healthy ways, and when to limit the use of media
  • How to incorporate substance-free highs into their weekly schedules
  • Their wind-down routines for better sleep
  • Emotional identification and regulation, and how to healthfully handle stress or other negative feelings
  • Their routines for staying active and respecting their bodies and health
  • What they are putting into and getting out of their relationships with healthy peers

Prevention is lifelong. We encourage you to start and continue these health conversations with your middle school students to help them learn about alcohol and other drugs from a health perspective.  

Continuing the Conversation into High School

High school students have opinions on health matters and can play a significant role in their own health outcomes. In fact, we give teens a great deal of responsibility. Across the world, high school students may have legal access to alcohol and other drugs, and this accessibility—coupled with the stresses of young adulthood—can create additional risk factors. Adults can help to protect teens against these risks by staying involved: check in with teens regularly and support them through frequent, relevant conversations and strong, trusting relationships.

How can you have effective, open and helpful prevention conversations with high school students? Though there's no one-size-fits-all approach to successful dialogue, these principles and examples can help.

Keep the Conversation Current and Casual

Prevention is most effective when it is ongoing. Rather than offering one-time lectures, have frequent two-way conversations about alcohol and other drugs. Start with topics about which kids are experts, like pop culture or peers, and then talk health from there.

  • "I heard that song you like by Future when I was driving home. What do you think of the line, 'Percocets, Molly, Percocets'?" 
  • "I hear you saying your classmates talk about vaping marijuana as though it's a safe behavior. What do you think they may be missing, in terms of the health risks?"
  • "Did you know surveys suggest that less than half of all students are binge drinking in college, and quite a few don't drink at all? How would the movie you're watching look different if it painted a more realistic picture?"

Teach Them to Think Critically

High school students are on the cusp of using future-oriented thinking to curb risky impulses and make their own healthiest decisions. Conversations with caring adults can help teens refine their budding critical-thinking skills in ways that will keep them healthy and safe. You can supportively guide high school students through challenging, health-based scenarios. Make each example realistic, providing options that fit their lives and alternatives for them to consider. 

  • "I know it can be hard to say no to a friend or someone close to you, but it's totally possible. What's your go-to response if someone suggests you use with them? How would it work out if you said that, for instance, you need to wake up early the next day?"
  • "When I was in high school, I sometimes drank in an effort to fit in. I felt this internal pressure to drink, even when many people my age were making the healthy choice not to do so. I regret putting my young brain and body at a lot of health risk. What could I have done differently, and what could you do now?" 
  • "I heard some of our senior students excitedly talking about everybody drinking in college. What's your plan for making healthy decisions next year in an environment where people believe that everyone is using when in reality they aren’t?"

Encourage and Model Maturity

Model and praise pro-social skills like help-seeking, emotional regulation and open communication. The more you encourage and display healthy behaviors within prevention conversations, the more likely you are to receive healthy communication back from a teen who views you as a trusted adult.

  • "I can see that this conversation is stirring up a lot of emotion in both of us. Why don't we continue it some other time? I'm sorry this is upsetting you. That wasn't my intention."
  • "It sounds like you think vaping helps you to relax. I'm sorry you're stressed. That must be hard, and I appreciate how honest you're being with me."
  • "When I was in high school, I didn't know who to go to with my questions about alcohol and other drugs. I wish I had realized the school counselor and other adults were there to help me, not to get me into trouble. I'm proud of you for asking the questions you have."

Be mindful of lecturing, which can put teens on the defensive, and instead find creative ways to spark conversation and engage older kids in critical thinking. Your consistent efforts will have a big impact on how students think about and act around substances during their time in high school and beyond. 

* Editor's note: We prefer to use language that destigmatizes the disease of addiction. We don't ordinarily use terms like alcohol abusedrug abuse or substance abuse because they imply that people with substance or alcohol use disorders are "abusers," rather than people with a terrible disease. However, we have decided to keep the terms substance abusedrug abuse and alcohol abuse in this article to reach the people who are using those terms to search for help with addiction.

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