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Parents…The #1 Prevention Tool

Parents-should-always-talk-to-their-kids-about-drugsParents Have the Power!
Parents – did you know that you are the most powerful prevention tool in your child’s life? Contrary to popular belief, your influence is greater than that of peers, the Internet and social media! This fact is backed by over 35 years of scientific research. Engaging in on-going dialogue with your child about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs (ATOD) is one of the best strategies you can employ to improve your child’s outlook for a healthy, drug-free future.

When to have the talk.
Using ATOD is a decision that youth are being forced to make at increasingly earlier ages. The average child takes his or her first drink at age 12. The earlier parents begin dialogue with their children about drug and alcohol prevention, the less likely they are to turn to these substances when they reach adolescence. The conversation and language will sound different depending on the child’s age. Information should be age-appropriate. For instance, early elementary children should understand the difference between food and poison, medicine and illegal drugs, but older children should understand the risks and short- and long-term consequences of ATOD, including addiction. Continue the dialogue, even throughout the college years.

What should you say? 
The former “just say no” approach of the Nancy Reagan era is not effective. It is important to teach your child how  to say “no” to alcohol, tobacco and other drugs (ATOD) and specifically what to say or do in certain situations. Practice different scenarios to allow your child to think about how he or she would respond when presented with various situations. You can even make it fun! Encourage your child to use you as an excuse (e.g. “My mom would kill me if she found out I was drinking beer!”).

The brain continues to develop until age 25, and so a child’s biological ability to make good decisions on their own is not mature. Parents should set specific boundaries and rules around the acceptance of drug and alcohol use. Children will not assume that you disapprove of their use of alcohol and other drugs; it must be explicitly stated, as well as consequences of breaking the rules. If you are unclear about your position, children may be confused and tempted to experiment. Research shows that children who chose to avoid ATOD did so because they did not want to disappoint their parents. When parents establish clear, consistent “no use” rules, their children are more likely to lead alcohol- and drug-free lives.

Parents are sometimes hesitant to engage in ATOD conversation for fear of being questioned about their own use as a teen. Whether you are in recovery or had experimented with drugs as a teen, you can use your own experience to convey a prevention message. Honesty is fine, but do avoid glamorizing any past use or providing too much detail. Instead, emphasize the negative consequences that resulted from your use. In addition, let your child know that much has changed since you were a teen. This includes the purity of drugs like heroin, the strength of THC in marijuana and nicotine in tobacco products and the proliferation of prescription and over-the-counter drug misuse. In addition, new brain research reveals that early ATOD use can cause permanent brain cell damage and vulnerability to addiction.

How should you have the talk?
Find teachable moments. In the age of technology and instant access to news and other information, the subject of ATOD is unavoidable. Celebrities or professional athletes in the news due to drug use, and the negative consequences, could spark a meaningful dialogue. Ask about your child’s opinion on a book or character, movie or TV show, local and national news. If a friend or family member is struggling with addiction, help your child process this by having a conversation about it.

Family dinners and driving in the car offer ideal opportunities to start a conversation about ATOD. The dialogue should go two-ways. Ask open-ended questions to encourage a more in-depth conversation with your child. Ask what he or she knows or has heard about ATOD.

What else can you do to utilize your power as a parent?
Have daily positive interactions with your child. Children are less likely to engage in ATOD use when their parents are involved in their lives and when they share a close bond. Educate yourselves about ATOD and current drugs trends. Much of the information available online is pro-drug, so if your child or his or her peers obtain their information via the Internet, most likely it will be one-sided. It is important that your child knows he or she can come to you for accurate information, and that you are equipped to dispel any myths he or she may have read online or heard from a friend. Children are 50% less likely to use ATOD if they learn the risks of drugs from their parents.

One in four children is exposed to a substance use disorder in the family. Inform your child that addiction has a strong familial component. If you or an immediate family member is in recovery or has struggled with addiction, it is important that your child understands that this increases his or her overall risk of developing an addiction. The risk is both genetic and environmental; research shows that children of parents with substance use disorders are more than five times more likely to develop an ATOD-related problem than children in families without them. This familial component paired with the high level of risk-taking inspired by the teen brain increases a young person’s risk of becoming addicted even more.

Teen prescription drug misuse has increased in recent years. This is attributed to a lowered perception of harm in misusing medications because they are legal and prescribed by a doctor. In reality, some prescription drugs, particularly the opioid-based narcotics, are equally as harmful as street drugs such as heroin when misused. Parents can help educate their children about the risks involved. In addition to the health risks, it is illegal to give or sell prescription drugs to someone for whom the prescription was not intended, yet 70% of people who misuse prescription pain relievers say that they obtain them from family or friends.

Parents can restrict access to any medications they may be prescribed by locking up their medicine cabinet or storing the medications in a secure place, as well as counting and monitoring the number of pills. If parents have any medications that are unwanted, expired or unneeded, they may dispose of them in any of the 31 permanent medication drop boxes that are located in police departments throughout Bucks County as well as the Bucks County Courthouse.

To find a drop box near you, visit for Bucks County; for Montgomery County; for Delaware County; for Chester County locations. For an update on medication drop boxes in Philadelphia County and locations statewide, please visit the interactive state map on the website of the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) at:

Alcohol and drug use can be prevented and prevention starts with you! Never underestimate your power to prevent substance abuse. To educate yourself about ATOD and remain up-to-date on the latest trends, as well as to obtain ideas for talking to your kids about ATOD, please visit the following sites:  (Partnership for Drug-free Kids) (National Institute on Drug Abuse) (MADD) (Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Prevention of Underage Drinking ([ICCPUD]) (DEA) (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration)

Unleash your parent power and get together with your kids…before drugs do!

Melanie Swanson, M.Ed., CTTS
Prevention Specialist
The Council of Southeast Pennsylvania, Inc.

Bailiwick Office Campus Unit 12, 252 West Swamp Rd. Doylestown, PA 18901 | 215.345.6644


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