How To Help Your Kid Stay Clean

By Cathy Cassata 03/31/14

Practical tips from experts on how to help your children avoid the pitfalls of addiction. Spoiler alert—it starts at home.


Sure, it would be comforting if we could steer kids clear of drugs and alcohol by simply telling them “just say no” or showing them an abstract image of what their brains would look like on drugs, but unfortunately there’s more to it than that. D.A.R.E., The Office of National Drug Control Policy, National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, and other drug and alcohol prevention programs have been around for decades, yet studies and theories over the years claim that these programs don’t actually fulfill their mission of keeping kids off drugs. In fact, some reports state that similar programs can cause more kids to be curious and interested in drugs. 

“These programs are well-intended, in general. The issue is that our society has this short-term instant gratification way of thinking,” said Joseph Lee, MD, psychiatrist and medical director at Hazelden Youth Continuum. “Kids change as they age, and these programs are given to them for a very time-limited portion of their lives so over time the effectiveness of what they learned degrades. Plus, kids who are at higher risk for drug and alcohol dependency are not recognized and followed throughout their development. Parents can’t rely on these programs. They need to play a role in addition to them.”

According to The Partnership at, parents have more influence over their kids than friends, music, TV, the internet and celebrities. “This depends on the age of the kid. We know as kids get older that friends and things like that have more influence, but the point we’re making is that even as some of those factors begin to have more influence, our research shows that kids in high school and even college say parents are still their primary influence,” said Sean Clarkin, senior vice president of programs at The Partnership at, stressing that the amount of influence varies depending on age. “Kids who learn about the risks of drugs and alcohol from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use than kids who don’t. What parents should not do is to underestimate their influence and guidance on their kids,” he added.

Eyes Wide Open

Despite Clarkin’s point, a recent survey commissioned by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that many parents underestimate the threat of drug and alcohol abuse to their children with nearly 6 in 10 parents of children 12 to 24 years old indicating they are not concerned about their children’s possible use or abuse of alcohol or other drugs.

Lea Minalga from St. Charles, Ill., says this hits all too close to home. Upon discovering her 17-year-old son, Justin, was using heroin, Minalga was shocked. “When we have our babies, we love them so much and we start thinking of all the things that can harm them. We set up ways to protect them like getting their vaccinations, making sure they eat their vegetables, keeping them in sight for fear of pedophiles and kidnappers,” she said. “Never on my radar did I think about heroin or even drugs for that matter. I thought ‘never my kid.’ I felt a false sense of security.”

Like many kids, Minalga’s son experimented with alcohol and marijuana yet all it took was one snort of heroin at a party and he was hooked. “His best friend he had known since second grade told him he needed to try it and Justin didn’t want to tell him he was scared, so he dove right in. Justin later told me it was like Heaven opened its gates and he was immediately addicted,” Minalga said.

But Everyone Does It

While parents might not think their child is in danger of abusing substances, most realize that kids experiment. “From our data, we know that half of kids are going to use an illegal drug, and a higher percentage are going to use alcohol to some degree,” said Clarkin. “The difficult part is you don’t know if your kid is going to be the one to have a problem and you only realize in hindsight what was experimental use and what was the beginning of a problem. Plus, our research shows that more than 60 percent of parents of teenagers have experimented themselves with drugs and alcohol.” 

Understanding your child’s risks can be insightful. “Of course all kids are at risk to some degree since their prefrontal cortex of the brain, which controls reasoning, is not fully developed until age 25. Every time a young person uses, there are risks of poisonings, sexual trauma and accidents—you don’t have to be an alcoholic, you can drive drunk for the first time and get into a car accident and die,” said Lee. “But there is a subset of kids who do the same type of experimentation that other kids do, but they go in deeper, start using earlier and more heavily and develop a substance abuse disorder.”

The biggest risk factor, notes Lee, is genetic predisposition. “People underestimate the genetic risk for addiction. There certainly are environmental contributing factors, but a lot is just the cards we’re dealt,” he said.

Other risk factors, Clarkin says, include the following:

  • Mental health issues, such as depression, ADHD, and anxiety
  • Traumatic events in a child’s life like a parent’s loss of employment, a family move, a divorce, or a parent passing away
  • Having close friends who use

“Even though parents know most kids will experiment, kids with the above particular factors are going to be at higher risk. When these are present, parents should take the view that there is no such thing as casual use, and that any use becomes potentially problematic,” said Clarkin.

Looking back, Minalga says there were risk factors that probably applied to her son. “Justin’s dad wasn’t a part of his life when he was younger, so I’m sure not having a father figure didn’t help. He also was always a follower, letting others lead him. But the biggest red flag I probably missed in hindsight had to do with opiates. He used to get terrible earaches that were painful. One day when he was 8 years old, the doctor gave him a prescription with codeine in it, and I remember him lying in the back of the car on the way  home after taking one, saying ‘oh, wow, mom. I feel so good.’ I thought it was odd that he loved the feeling it gave him. It was apparent it wasn’t only the pain relief he was talking about, but it was like the medication lit up his brain,” Minalga said.

Be the CEO of your Home

Whether your child is at high risk or not, Lee says a good line of defense is to create a family culture and system of beliefs and values early on in your child’s life. “I find a lot of parents waiting until there are too many warning signs and trying to make sense of all the confusing and contradicting literature and advice out there, but often times it’s too late,” he said. “The culture I’m talking about building is like investing. If you don’t save any money, there’s no money to draw from. Parents have to invest in this culture when kids are young,” he added. 

In Lee’s book, Recovering My Kid, he stresses sticking to the fundamentals. “Much of the self-help stuff and advice on whether or not to choose Montessori school or how to let your kids be independent, are kind of icing on the cake parenting skills that only really work for kids who don’t have problems. I tell parents to forget about all of that and really focus on the very basic fundamentals. It comes down to a culture of leadership in the house,” he stated. 

Lee says ways to build this culture include the following:

  • Set the right expectations
  • Model the right behaviors
  • Express and communicate with your children the way you want them to communicate with you
  • Share clearly what the values and expectations are in the home

“Think of it like you’re the CEO of your home. It’s not a ‘I brought you into this world, I’ll take you out’ approach. Set up your family culture in a way that creates respect and trust so your kids go to you with their concerns,” said Lee. “It seems like common sense, but research continuously shows that kids who have a stronger relationship with their parents; kids who believe that their parents would strongly disapprove of drugs; and kids who feel that they can go to their parents for help are less likely to use.” 

Clarkin agrees and says modeling the right behavior can include your use of legal substances.  “Responsible use of legal substances in front of your kids is okay, but with that comes a certain amount of responsibility to do it responsibly, and to make it clear to your kids that just like there are other things that adults do that kids can’t do, this is one of them,” he said.

Take note of your behavior with prescription medications too, adds Clarkin. “We know from our surveys that 20 to 30 percent of parents say that they themselves have used a prescription medication that was not prescribed for them or that they have misused or abused prescription medication,” he said. “Now some of this misuse is probably not going to be a huge problem, but if parents play loose with perception medications, and say to a child, ‘I know you’re not feeling well, why don’t you use one of my leftover Vicodin,’ that sends a message to the kid that they can be their own prescriber.”

Talk, talk, talk

Lee says the earlier a child uses a substance, even if they’re not using it regularly, the greater the chance that they’re going to have a problem later on. “Parents talk to kids about car accidents, and wearing seat belts and not texting and driving, but the chances that your child is going to have a substance use disorder problem during his life is much greater than the chances he’ll have a fatal car accident. The top three reasons for kids dying: homicides, suicides and accidents are all heavily related to drug and alcohol use,” he said. “It’s important to talk to kids about these dangers early on.”

How early is too early? Lee says skip the toddler years and start when kids become more social and are able to process ideas. “Probably when they start getting into grade school. They’ll find references in media and see people in public so use those examples to say ‘see this is what can happen.’ Also really make it about a healthy thing at first. Say things like ‘I want you know that I don’t want you to put anything in your body that you’re not supposed to.’ As they get older, your messages can get more sophisticated, but should always remain simple,” Lee said, adding that a good way to tell if your child understands your message is to ask him or her how you feel about them taking substances. “Your child should be able to rattle it off. If they can’t or if they say it in a way that’s disingenuous, then you probably need to rethink your messaging.”

Talking is something Minalga wishes she did more of. “We never had a really good conversation about the dangers. When Justin was in 5th grade, his class had a D.A.R.E. officer talk to them and for a few days, he followed me around the house asking me all about the drugs he learned about. I didn’t have a clue how to answer him or what to say,” she said. “Then when he was in 7th grade, I sat him down and told him that drugs are really bad and that they’d stunt his growth if he took them. I figured scaring him would do the job. Little did I know he must have known that was a lie.”

To Scare or Not to Scare?

While parents should warn kids about the harms of substance abuse, Clarkin says it’s certainly possible to overstate the dangers. “We often hear that kids think they’re immortal and nothing is going to happen to them, so it can be tough to get a kid too concerned about the possibility of addiction. That seems very remote to them. However, kids are more attentive to short-term risks so talking about how if they use, they will let down the people they care about or if they’re in a car with someone who is high, they run the risk of getting into an accident, or that they’re not going to do their best academically or in sports, if they’re high all the time, are credible risks that are not only true, but also happening around them,” said Clarkin.

Knowing what she knows now, Minalga agrees. After seeing her son in and out of 25 rehab facilities and experience four near-death overdoses, Minalga became a drug and alcohol counselor and opened up a non-profit organization, Hearts of Hope, which aims to educate children, schools and parents about the dangers of substance abuse. “I wish I would have been more in tune with what drugs were and took the time to really sit down with Justin and talk to him realistically about the dangers,” she said. “Part of what I do now is talk to parents about drugs that are out there. When there’s a forum or educational event about drugs in your community, go! Don’t think education isn’t for me or I didn’t need to know about that. There’s nothing better than being able to talk to your kids about drugs and alcohol in an informed, straightforward, honest manner.”

With all of this in mind, Lee has one last bit of advice. “Remember, nothing is fool proof. Parents can do everything in their power, but they can’t control everything. I know there are a lot of good parents out there who, while they are not perfect, have really done a spectacular job with parenting and their kid stills has drug issues,” he said. “All you can do is your best. It’s a lot like when you send your kids to college, you can prepare them for college, but how they do in college is up to them.”


Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer based near Chicago. She last wrote about exercise addiction.

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Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She is a regular contributor to Everyday Health and Healthline. View her portfolio of stories at Connect with her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.