Let’s Talk Family, Column Entry, “How Do You Talk to Your Kids about Alcohol and Other Drugs?”

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Column: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing

Column entry: “How Do You Talk to Your Kids about Alcohol and Other Drugs?”

By Jonathan Pettigrew, PhD, Arizona State University; Diane Badzinski, PhD, Colorado Christian University

Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.

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April 2024

How Do You Talk to Your Kids about Alcohol and Other Drugs?

Teen: “Goal! Now we’re in the lead! Let’s go!”

Dad: “Yes! We are going all the way this year. I’m going to grab some chips while it’s commercials.”

[Dad exits into living room. Voiceover from commercial overheard in the background: “Grab a refreshing beer and enjoy the game.”]

Dad: [Entering the room again]: “Is that a commercial?”

Teen: “Yeah, that beer commercial plays every game.”

Pause. Imagine you’re the dad in the situation. What would you say next? How would you respond?

Research on “drug talks” shows that often these kinds of conversations are instigated by “triggers”, things like commercials on TV, programs at school, or life events when alcohol, smoking, or other kinds of drugs come up.[1] So how would you handle the trigger scenario above? Some avoid or ignore the topic – some intentionally and others don’t notice the opportunity for conversation. Others give hints about their perspectives or family rules. Some also address it directly, either through a conversation or through repeating a family rule.

Different ways of interacting have been classified by Michelle Miller-Day and her colleagues as never talking, direct vs. indirect talks, and situated vs. ongoing kinds of conversations.[2] This creates a typology of conversations with ongoing direct, situated direct, ongoing indirect, situated indirect, or never talked. Ongoing direct conversations occur on several occasions (as opposed to a one-time, sit-down “drug talk”) and are marked by clear, explicit messages about drugs. Most parents communicate “don’t do drugs” to their kids as a direct message, but some parents give the clear message that “it’s your choice.” Direct messages leave little room for ambiguity and interpretation. Conversely, indirect messages make hints about drugs or family rules about drug use. One example that I recently heard was that a dad found his child’s marijuana and he flushed it down the toilet. There was no confrontation, no conversation; but it was an indirect way of communicating disapproval of marijuana use. If indirect messages happen on several occasions throughout childhood or teenage years, this becomes an ongoing indirect style. If they happen at one or two events, this would be considered a situated, indirect style. Situated messages “are episodic or occur in response to specific events (e.g., a conversation about drinking and driving before heading off to the senior prom).”[3]

There are also some teens and parents who fit into a “never talked” category, but by the time they reach high school, most adolescents report having a conversation with their parents.[4]

A study of mostly 11-14 year old teenagers (with an average age of 12) showed that the majority (61%) reported hearing direct messages, about a quarter (27%) indirect messages, and only 6% reported parents had “never talked” to them. More youth reported situated conversations than ongoing ones in both categories.[5]

Drug talks are only one topic which parents can address. Kids are bombarded with messages – just look at the billboards you pass, or the ads posted on the side of your social media feed. Groups of kids and teenagers are also talking about their experiences, including those with drugs, movies, relationships, and a host of other issues. Advertisers and interventionists alike are trying to influence decisions and behaviors. Kids hear these messages from all sides, so parents should join the conversation.

So, let’s go back to our scenario and script out some possibilities.

First, it is helpful to choose the situation for talking. Should it be over dinner? Formal? Informal? On a hike? Driving to school? In our situation, the dad picks up on the cue from the commercial. It is a trigger he could engage or ignore. If the game was going against their team, it might be good to ignore if he or his child were really engrossed in the game. Since their team was winning, maybe it was a good time to engage. At the same time, the scenario dictates that it can’t be a long, drawn out conversation, complete with charts, graphs, and testimonial videos! It needs to be short, and on point.

A “soft start-up,” like we discussed in our March column, is also important. In our scenario, the TV gets the conversation going. It’s way less awkward than calling a formal meeting and “drug talk” discussion. It flows with life. It is grounded in an ongoing relationship.

So how do you launch into a conversation? As we’ve presented before, asking good questions and listening are really important. An ongoing connection creates a space for these kinds of talks.

Specific strategies for getting the conversation going could be to use Motivational Interviewing tactics. This counseling technique is a way to use questions to help people identify areas for change and then help them think about and commit to possible strategies for improving their lives. In our scenario, motivational interviewing could look like the dad asking questions, making observations, and affirming/encouraging the positive attitudes and behaviors he notices with his teen.

  • “What do you think about that commercial?” is an example that solicits the teen’s perspective. The father could just as easily have said “don’t do drugs” but it would have shut down conversation, not invited it.
  • “I trust you to make good decisions. What do you think would be the best decision for the person shown in the commercial?”
  • “I am so glad you’ve stayed away from alcohol during middle school.”
  • “Thanks for making athletics your priority. I’m glad you haven’t been smoking or drinking but you have really focused on getting stronger and faster. You are quite an athlete!”
  • “You’re smart to stay away from beer. Beer can be a big distraction for some kids. They spend a lot of time and money trying to fit in with their friends by drinking. I’m glad you’re confident enough in who you are that you don’t have to drink alcohol to have friends.”

There could be a thousand ways the dad responds, or you might respond. And lots of them would be great. We believe that the research shows that having direct conversations is an important way to protect kids from risky alcohol use or other drugs. Most teenagers want to hear from their parents and respect their opinions, even if they don’t show it! Keeping lines of communication open gives a space for “drug talks” and other important conversations.

Have a “drug talk” with a child or teen? Share with us what worked (and even what didn’t).

–Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


[1] Jonathan Pettigrew, Michelle Miller-Day, YoungJu Shin, Janice L. Krieger, and Michael L. Hecht, “Parental Messages about Substance Abuse in Early Adolescence: Extending a Model of Drug-Talk Styles,” Heath Communication 33, no. 3 (2018), 357.

[2] Michelle Miller-Day and Ann H. Dodd, “Toward a Descriptive Model of Parent–Offspring Communication about Alcohol and Other Drugs,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 21, no. 1 (2004), 69–91.

[3] Pettigrew et al., “Parental Messages”, 350

[4] YoungJu Shin, Jonathan Pettigrew, Michelle Miller-Day, Michael L. Hecht, & Janice L. Krieger, “Trends of Parent-Adolescent Drug Talk Styles in Early Adolescence,” Health Communication, 34 no. 8 (2019), 801–810; Pettigrew, et al., “Parental Messages.”

[5] Pettigrew, et al., “Parental Messages.”


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