Keeping Kids Drug-Free: What Parents Can Do

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In his book When Saying No Is Not Enough, Ken Barun lists a number of reasons that kids turn to drugs, and steps that parents can take to prevent this from happening. The main reasons kids turn to drugs are:

  • Peer pressure
  • Boredom
  • Wanting to feel like an adult
  • To escape problems
  • Rebellion
  • To feel good

What can parents do about all these things? Lots! Barun gives six types of solutions, which are discussed below.

1) Make your home a positive place to be

A positive home environment

If your child perceives home as a safe, positive, welcoming place, they will be less likely to try to escape - physically and emotionally to do drugs with their friends.

What helps to make a good home environment in which kids are less likely to turn to drugs? Some characteristics of a positive home environment listed by Barun (p. 102) are:

  • Children receive love from their parents
  • Parents consistently provide support and advice
  • Parents firmly disapprove of drug use, and do not smoke, drink to excess, or use drugs themselves
  • Appropriate discipline is used consistently
  • There is good communication between family members

Communication of feelings

Communication of feelings is particularly important. In his book Parenting For Prevention, David Wilmes explains that expression of feelings is critical for healthy development. We need to express feelings to build relationships with others, create a sense of intimacy and togetherness, and find the support and encouragement that other people can provide. Children who cannot express feelings are not as likely to receive support from others, and are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to try to change their feelings. To help kids learn to express feelings appropriately, parents can:

  • model appropriate expression of feelings by giving "I" statements, such as "I feel sad," or "I feel happy." Simply start the statement with "I," then name a feeling, and give a brief explanation. For instance "'I felt let down when I found you hadn't finished raking the lawn before you went out with Rick'" (p. 101).
  • help kids recognize their own feelings by commenting on how the child seems to be feeling. For instance, "'You look sad today. Want to talk about it?'" (p. 101).
  • encourage kids to describe feelings they have in different situations.
  • expose kids to a wide vocabulary of feeling words.
  • simply be good listeners.
  • support kids when they do express their feelings. For instance, a parent could say "'I'm glad you could tell me that'", or give the child nonverbal support, such as giving a hug (p. 102).

Appropriate discipline

Barun also emphasizes that use of appropriate discipline is a critical part of a positive home environment. Although children will often protest against discipline, they actually need restraints to help them navigate the confusing social world. Also, children may confuse permissiveness with not caring, and may act out to gain attention if parents are not enforcing appropriate limits.

At the same time, it is important that discipline is not too extreme. Barun clearly states that punishment should not be physical, because kids learn more from the inevitability of punishment than from its harshness. In other words, it is more important to give penalties for misbehavior consistently, rather than to make the penalties overly harsh.

For a discussion of methods of effective and appropriate discipline for both younger children and teens, click here to read Raising Successful Children: Strategies for Behavior and Discipline.

Risk factors at home

So far, we have reviewed some of the positive characteristics of home environments associated with low risk for drug abuse. By contrast, some of the negative characteristics listed by Barun (pp. 101-102) for home environments linked with a high risk for drug abuse are:

  • Affection is rarely expressed
  • Parents are neglectful or abusive
  • Parents are too lenient or too strict
  • Parents and/or siblings use tobacco, alcohol, or drugs
  • Parents are dependent on the child, burdening him with their own responsibilities
  • Drug use is not discouraged or discussed
  • Economic pressures arise frequently; either there is too little or too much money

Most of these negative characteristics are simply the reverse of the positive characteristics discussed above. Thus, a good strategy to reduce your child's risk of using drugs is to try to provide as many of the characteristics of a positive home life as possible.

2) Encourage your child's positive interests

Barun emphasizes that parents need to show their children positive strategies to "enjoy life through accomplishments, through loving and being loved" (p. 100). If children can find other enjoyable things in life, they will be less likely to turn to drugs.

Barun recommends providing positive alternatives to drugs any interests or activities that make kids feel good and uses their spare time. Some activities often found helpful are physical exercise, sports, working to achieve personal goals, helping others, hobbies, drug-free youth groups, a constructive home environment (i.e., having stimulating things to do at home, such as a computer), and part time employment.

3) Let your child start to do adult things

Barun recommends helping children feel grown up in other ways so they don't turn to drugs. Specifically, parents can start giving kids household chores at an early age, permitting kids to make informed decisions about things that affect them, and teaching kids responsibility toward others.

Parents also need to realize that it is natural for children seek their independence, and one of the tasks of parenting perhaps the hardest is letting go. Nonetheless, parents need to allow children more and more independence in their activities and choices as they develop through the teen years. Wilmes states that part of a parent's job is encouraging children to make their own choices in matters they can handle at their present stage of development. By gradually loosening our tight grip on children, we give them the chance to practice making choices while they still have a firm home base of support, so they will be prepared to make good decisions when they are out on their own. Barun also recommends gradually loosening parental controls on children as they pass through the teen years. In this way, children are less likely to feel they have to declare independence on their own though self-destructive methods, such as drug use.

4) Monitor and guide their friendships

The importance of friendships

In general, drug and alcohol use is most likely to occur when kids are with other kids. Specifically, Wilmes (p. 33) reports that kids tend to use alcohol and drugs most when they are:

  • with friends
  • at parties
  • in cars

They tend to use alcohol, but not other drugs, when they are:

  • with a date
  • with adults (over age 30)
  • at home
  • after 4:00 p.m.

They report that alcohol and drugs are not commonly used when:

  • alone
  • at school

From this list, it is clear that kids are most likely to use drugs and alcohol in the company of their peers. Thus, it is very important that parents get to know their children's friends as much as possible. In the publication Keeping Your Kids Drug-Free, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign suggests some methods, such as having your child's friends stay for dinner, and also getting to know their parents. It is also recommended that parents keep track of what their child is doing at all times, by asking the "w" questions: who they are with, what they are doing, when they are doing it, and where.

Barun notes that if you suspect one of your child's friends is pressuring your child to do drugs, you have every right to tell your child not to see that friend. If you do, however, Barun cautions that you should explain to your child:

  • Why you have made this decision
  • The reasons you believe the other child drinks or takes drugs
  • That this action is not intended as a punishment for your child, even though it may seem like it.

Peer pressure

Of course, it is not possible to know all your child's friends and acquaintances, or everything your child is doing. Sooner or later, your child will likely find themselves in some situations where they encounter peer pressure to use drugs or alcohol. In fact, Barun notes that peer pressure is the most commonly cited reason why kids start doing drugs. According to Levant's Keeping Kids Drug Free, there are numerous types of peer pressure, ranging from "friendly" pressure (a casual offer to try something) to extremely heavy pressure (such as one child telling another they won't be their friend unless they take drugs).

Barun notes that kids sometimes give in to peer pressure simply because no one has taught them how to say no effectively. Telling kids to "Just say no" doesn't prepare them to handle difficult situations that can arise when getting pressure from peers and friends they value. Barun recommends that parents provide kids with techniques for saying no, and coach them in using those techniques. Some techniques suggested by Barun (pp. 133-134) include:

  • Saying "No thanks"
  • Suggest other things to do instead
  • Say "No" repeatedly
  • Mention dangerous side effects
  • Change the subject
  • Return the challenge (for instance: "What's wrong? Scared to do it by yourself?")
  • Reverse peer pressure (for instance: "Drugs are boring. I can't believe you need to do that stuff.")
  • Base an excuse on an activity (for instance: "I can't drink; I'm training for football")
  • Ignore them
  • Hang around with non-users

And finally, if the situation seems too overwhelming, just walk away.

5) Talk with your child about drugs

Barun advises starting anti-drug education with your child while they are still young. Ideally, parents should teach their kids about drugs before they reach adolescence, because adolescents typically do not listen to adults as well as younger children. The message to deliver should be clear: no drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, ever.

As for how to talk to your children about drugs, Barun warns that it is important never to lecture to kids about drugs, because lectures just turn kids off. Also, the "fire and brimstone" preaching approach is bound to fail. Instead, Barun recommends sticking calmly to the facts about what drugs and alcohol do, limiting your discussion to the most essential information, and bringing up the subject casually at appropriate moments in the course of other activities, such as watching TV or listening to the radio. Other writers call these times "teachable moments." Barun gives a few examples: for instance, when the media reports on a celebrity's drug problems, or shows celebrities who have been on drugs and admitted that drugs nearly ruined their lives. In his book, Saying No Is Not Enough, Robert Schwebel gives some additional examples, such as when a TV program, commercial, or movie shows alcohol or drugs or people taking them, or when your child witnesses real life situations in which other people use alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

A related approach is to start a conversation by asking questions about what your child thinks when there is media coverage of a drug or alcohol related incident, such as a drunk driving accident. In their book How to Talk to Teens about Really Important Things, Schaefer and DiGeronimo suggest talking about stories in the news, asking your teen's opinion before you give your own, and treating your teen's beliefs with respect, even when they aren't the same as yours. In this way, you can discuss the issue of alcohol and drug use in general without asking your teenager directly about their personal use. Thus, you still make your point strongly, without making your teen feel like they are on the witness stand, or that you are demanding a confession from them.

For specific topics to discuss with your child, Schwebel makes the following recommendations:

  • Basic general drug information such as why people take drugs, and the concept of side effects.
  • Concepts of abuse, dependence, and tolerance
    • Abuse taking too much of something, taking it at the wrong time, or taking something that's bad for you.
    • Dependence needing to take drugs to feel good and handle problems, instead of learning how to be happy and do things in better ways without drugs.
    • Tolerance having to take more and more of a drug to get the same effect.
  • Specific drugs discuss some effects of particular drugs, especially common substances like alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. Drug dangers
    • Addiction becoming dependent on a drug and having touble quitting.
    • Immediate effects emphasizing the negative short-term consequences of drug use, rather than long term problems, is more effective for children and adolescents.
    • Illegal drugs there are no checks for purity, and they may contain other unexpected harmful substances.
    • Driving while intoxicated driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs is very risky.
    • Overdose a very serious risk.
  • Communicating what's normal any children think that lots of kids are doing drugs. Make sure that they know that most drugs are rarely used by kids. According to NIDA's Monitoring The Future Survey, even cigarettes and marijuana are used only by about 1/4 or less of high school seniors.

6) Build your child's self esteem

High self esteem helps protect a child against peer pressure, because children who feel good about themselves believe they can be accepted by others without doing drugs, and believe they will be able to handle rejection if they are expelled from the group.

Most of the techniques discussed above serve to increase children's self esteem. Levant recommends some additional strategies:

  • Build confidence by focusing on the positive and praising your child's accomplishments even small ones.
  • Use encouragement to motivate your child to change undesirable behavior. If a child makes a mistake, treat it as a learning opportunity and offer your child support, with the understanding that next time will be better.
  • Similarly, when your child makes mistakes, correct your child's actions, rather than passing judgment on your child as a person.
  • Emphasize the importance of improvement, instead of focusing on a need for perfection.
  • Finally, teach your child how to give compliments, not just expect to receive them. Giving a compliment makes both the receiver and giver feel good about themselves.


There are many reasons that kids turn to drugs. But there also are many steps that parents can take to help their children stay drug-free. Barun concludes his discussion of causes and effects of drug use by pointing to the critical role that parents can play for their children: "Therein lies the key: that children feel secure in their parents' love. You've no doubt seen cars sporting the bumper sticker 'more hugs than drugs'? It's not just a clever slogan; doing so can truly make a difference" (p. 109).


Barun, K. (1987). When saying no isn't enough. New York: Signet.

Levant, G. (1998) Keeping kids drug free. San Diego: Laurel Glen.

National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. (undated). Keeping Your Kids Drug-Free [Brochure].

Schaefer, C., and DiGeronimo, T. (1999). How to talk to teens about really important things. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schwebel, R. (1989). Saying no is not enough. New York: Newmarket Press.

Wilmes, D. (1988). Parenting for prevention. Minneapolis: Johnson Institute.