For Parents & Caregivers 


From the moment our children are born, keeping them safe is second nature: we hold them close as they get their first shots, teach them to look both ways before crossing the street, and help them develop healthy habits that will nurture them throughout their lives. We hear very little, though, during the critical early years about how to protect our kids from addiction, despite the fact that the disease tends to begin in adolescence.

“When prevention works, it is the only treatment that is 100% safe and effective. Families are front-and-center in successful prevention efforts.”

Dr. Mark Gold, Addiction Psychiatrist and Professor, Washington University School of Medicine

Addiction is a complex disease and there are many factors that contribute to a person’s overall level of risk. There are some risk factors that we cannot change—genetics, for example—but there are other critical ones—like individual and environmental factors, that we can use to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

Addiction Policy Forum provides evidence-based strategies that parents and caregivers can implement to build a strong foundation of health and wellness that will help guide our children throughout their lives.

Download your own copy of Addiction Policy Forum's Prevention toolkit for parent's and caregivers. 



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10 Things Parents Can Do

10 Things Parents and Caregivers Can Do

The research is clear– talk early and often with your kids about the risks of using alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, prescription medications, and other substances.

This isn’t a one-time chat, but an ongoing dialogue that will change over time. Try to bring it up in casual settings where everyone can talk freely, such as during a meal, on a walk, or while in the car. Talking about teen substance use does not increase usage– in fact, just the opposite.

Talking about addiction can be hard. Take some time to think about your own relationship to substances, and whether your family has a history of addiction. If you have a drink in front of your kids, that’s an opportunity to explain the differences between adult and adolescent brains, and why it is so important for them to delay substance use until their brain is fully developed in their twenties.

Two of the key factors that reduce the risk of kids developing addictions are “healthy attachment” and “prosocial engagement,” which are fancy words for feeling like you belong and are engaged in positive activities.

Whether it’s sports, church, Future Farmers of America, 4-H, music, drama, volunteering, or surfing, kids do better when they are kept busy and feel part of a healthy community. It turns out those extracurriculars are less about résumé-building and more about building protective factors to keep them safe!

More than 80% of kids ages 10-18 say their parents are the biggest influence on their decision to drink or not drink alcohol.

A key element in preventing the development of a substance use disorder is delaying the age of drug and alcohol use initiation, especially while the adolescent brain is still developing. Remind your kids that you expect them not to use alcohol or drugs, and be clear about these expectations. Don’t assume that they know what you are thinking.

Be clear, consistent, and specific about what the immediate consequences of substance use are in your family. Rather than saying “you’ll be grounded” or “you’ll be in big trouble,” be specific: If you use alcohol or drugs, then the consequence will be X for Y amount of time. 

On the flip side, remember to reward your child for healthy behaviors and positive decision-making.

It’s tempting to want to be friends with our kids, but what they need most is a parent to guide and support them safely into adulthood by setting clear expectations and holding them accountable. It’s important to let kids know that if they find themselves in a risky situation, they should always feel comfortable calling on us to come to pick them up.

Help your kids think through different ways to refuse drugs or alcohol if they are offered. For example, tell them they should feel free to blame you - by saying that you randomly drug test at home and would ground them for the rest of time, or wouldn’t let them play sports, music, etc. if you were to catch them using any amount of drugs or alcohol.

It’s understandable to think that kids would be safer doing something if we are there to monitor them, but this doesn’t extend to substance use. Parents condoning or supplying alcohol to their teens– sometimes referred to as “social hosting”– increases adolescent alcohol usage, as well as other unsafe behaviors.

Teen drinking is not inevitable. Take steps to limit access to substances, don’t partake in social hosting, and remind other parents that adolescent substance use is dangerous no matter where it happens.

It can seem like kids need us less as they grow up, but staying engaged throughout the adolescent years is critically important. Stay involved in your growing kids’ lives.

Build relationships with other parents in your community and work with them to keep tabs on where teens are gathering and what they are doing. Let other parents know that your kid is not allowed to use substances under any circumstance, and ask about their house rules regarding alcohol and drug use.

Be transparent with your kids about having these conversations– it is possible to give them freedom, while also doing your job to keep them safe.

As you nurture your kids’ passions outside of the home, remember to also carve out family time. Research shows that spending time with family members and loved ones– bonding over favorite activities or talking about your days– has a long-lasting positive impact and strengthens healthy attachment (even if your teen claims they would rather be doing anything else!).

Quality time builds trust and strengthens relationships, which increases the likelihood that if your teen starts to struggle with substance use or another issue, they’ll feel more comfortable coming to you for advice and support.

Six to twelve-year-olds need 9-12 hours of sleep per night.

Getting a good night’s sleep is critical for mental and physical health– especially during the adolescent years when brains are undergoing such an important phase of growth and development. Make sleep a priority in your household and find ways to ensure that your child is getting enough rest, such as by implementing lights-out guidelines when appropriate or reducing screen-access before bed. A lack of sleep may not seem like a big deal, but over time it can lead to serious health conditions and make your teen more susceptible to using substances.

If you think that your kid may be struggling with substance use, don’t wait to get help. Science tells us that the earlier a person is treated for a substance use disorder, the better their outcomes, and that treatment works even if a patient isn’t feeling “ready.”