Explaining substance use disorders and treatment to children can be difficult. Whether you’re a parent or a teacher or or another adult in the life of a child, it’s sometimes hard to know what to say and how much to say. This guide will give you some valuable insight as well as ideas on how to navigate this delicate subject..

Why Should I Explain Substance Use to a Child?

Let’s begin by talking about the reasons why you might want to have this conversation with a young person. If you’re a parent, then warning your child about the dangers of drug and alcohol misuse is the responsible thing to do. Ideally, you want to have the conversation before your child encounters drugs or alcohol for the first time when you’re not around. Arming your children with the facts about drugs and alcohol can help better equip them for handling peer pressure situations.. It can also help them recognize that getting high or drunk isn’t a solution to uncomfortable feelings. It doesn’t make problems go away, it simply introduces new ones.

When a Family Member Has a Substance Use Disorder

Another reason you may find yourself having a conversation with your child about drugs and alcohol is if someone they know has developed a substance use disorder. Especially if it is someone close to them, like a sibling, parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle. The behavioral changes in a person with a substance use disorder can be alarming to a child, especially if they don’t have a solid understanding of what is happening and why. There is also the need to protect children from those behaviors. For example, if your brother-in-law has a drinking problem, you might need to explain to your son that he should not go with his uncle if he is getting behind the wheel to drive somewhere. 

Reasons to Talk About Substance Use Disorders with a Child Include:

  • To provide them with some context before they encounter drinking or drugs.
  • To inform them of the dangers of misusing substances before they are exposed to situations involving excessive drinking.
  • So they understand what is happening to someone who has a substance use disorder.

How to Talk About Substance Use Disorders to a Child

Children often see, hear and understand more than we give them credit for. So, chances are if you are wondering if it is appropriate to have the conversation with a young person, it is. If anything, sooner is better. While we want to maintain a child’s innocence for as long as possible, it should not be at the expense of their safety This conversation can (and should) go further than simply explaining that drugs and alcohol can be dangerous and aren’t for kids. Children appreciate being treated with respect. So respect your child’s intellect and ability to reason by giving them the truth about alcohol and drug misuse and the potential consequences. 

Setting the Tone 

The tone and extent of the talk about drugs and alcohol will be largely determined by the child’s age, but also the circumstances. Be as forthcoming as possible with the understanding that there are things that younger children won’t understand or do not need to know. The key is remembering the purpose of the talk. The goal, first and foremost, is to protect your child. Secondary considerations are to help them better understand the world and give context to things they may see in movies or television or online. 

Also, bear in mind that there are at least 4 different types of conversation that may be had here.

  1. A talk with a young child about drugs and the reality of substance use disorders.
  2. A talk with a young child who has someone close to them with a substance use disorder.
  3. A talk with a teenager about drugs and the dangers of substance use disorders. 
  4. A talk with a teenager who knows someone close to them with a substance use disorder.

Explaining Substance Use Disorders to Younger Children

Each of the 4 scenarios outlined above will require a slightly different approach. When talking to younger children about drugs and drug dependence, using examples they will understand can be helpful. For example, you might talk about the temptation to eat too much Halloween candy and how the consequences might be getting sick. This is to lend context so they can understand, not to understate the seriousness of drug dependence. It should be made clear that drugs are far more dangerous than candy. 

When it comes to explaining a substance use disorder in someone the child knows, this may need to be handled a little more delicately. You might say the person is “sick”. That’s an honest description of a substance use disorder, and most importantly it can be used to convey the idea that the focus isn’t fault or blame.  


  • Use relatable examples or metaphors 
  • Don’t downplay the serious nature
  • Be honest
  • Explain (simply) it is a sickness, not to blame 

Explaining Substance Use Disorders to Older Children & Teens

Let’s face it. The Internet is educating children and teens whether we want it to or not. Chances are by the time a child has reached 10 or older, they probably have some sense about drugs and alcohol and understand that people sometimes have trouble with these things. It is still important that you ensure the child has the facts. You never know for certain what misconceptions they may have based on TV or movies or what a friend their age may have told them. With teens especially, it’s important to impress upon them the seriousness of drug dependence and the havoc a substance use disorder can wreak in someone’s life. 

If the older child knows someone who has a substance use disorder (SUD), especially if it’s someone they are close to, then it is especially important that you help them understand what this means. It should be clear that substance use is a disorder and it is not the fault of the person experiencing it. 


  • Find out what they already know
  • Don’t downplay the serious nature
  • Be honest
  • Explain the disease model of SUDs

Help for Substance Use Disorders and More at Harmony

If you or someone you love is living with a substance use disorder, Harmony Health Group wants to help. Our network of drug and alcohol treatment centers offer evidence-based dual-diagnosis care for all forms of substance use disorders. The first step in recovery is communication. A conversation with our admissions specialists will answer your questions and make you aware of the treatment options we have available for you or your loved one. Give us a call at (866) 461-4474 or contact us through our online form and the future will begin to look just a bit brighter.