"Just say no" lessons are largely considered a thing of the past. Experts share more effective ways for parents to teach their children to avoid peer pressure and substance use—and it starts by teaching them about feelings.
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When Patti Ashley's son was 8, he came home from school and announced, "We learned about how babies were born today." A psychotherapist who works with families, Ashley, Ph.D., found herself taken aback. But she quickly pivoted her thoughts.

She knew this was a golden opportunity—not just to teach her son something, but to learn about him as well. What did he think about what he learned in school? This moment gave Dr. Ashley a chance to have an open, two-way conversation with her son, which set the stage for similar discussions in the future, including about substance abuse.

Getting these conversations started, and getting kids to talk about their feelings especially, is critical. Studies show children who can express themselves to their parent and learn to manage emotions are more likely to avoid drugs in the future. These kids are better able to handle peer pressure. "If there's a lack of emotional connection, they are going to go out and seek that with their peers," explains Dr. Ashley, author of Living in the Shadow of the Too Good Mother Archetype.

Yet being able to foster this expression may feel awkward to some parents, and others find themselves trying to resist the urge to lecture children to "just say no." And throughout their lives, children may pull away from even the most open parents. So how can parents teach children to express themselves while establishing and maintaining an open relationship with them?

Mother and daughter are looking at each other talking
Credit: Michael H/Getty Images

When to Start Teaching Children to Express Themselves

Self-expression starts at birth when babies cry. But as they begin to learn to talk, they'll express positive and negative emotions in new ways—a boisterous, "I love this truck!" or a tantrum in the grocery store. At this time, Dr. Ashley says it's important to talk about feelings and show support.

"If our child is unhappy, our natural reaction is that we want to fix it, but true empathy is saying, 'I can be with you,'" she says. "Validate that feeling by saying something like, 'That sounds really scary.' Just being with someone in their feelings is bigger than we give it credit these days."

Expressing Their Thoughts on Drugs

Some parents may recall a sit-down with their parents in middle school when they learned drugs were a bad choice and could kill them. Charley Melson, M.S., LPCC, the executive director of Praxis by Landmark Recovery, a Medicaid-focused drug and alcohol recovery center in Louisville, Kentucky, says this method doesn't leave room for conversation, which children may, in turn, seek with their peer group.

She suggests letting the discussion happen naturally, such as if a character on TV is struggling with addiction. Then, ask open-ended questions. "Yes or no questions can feel like you're being interrogated," says Melson. "If you ask open-ended questions, you can get more information on what your child actually thinks and how they see things."

By letting children dictate the conversation and listening empathetically and curiously, parents can meet the child where they are and give them the tools they need. This becomes more paramount as children grow older and have more direct experiences with drugs and alcohol, such as learning a friend smokes pot. Simply ask your kid what they think about a sensitive situation like that, suggests Dr. Ashley. "That builds a connective dialogue, empathy, and empowers the kid. We want our kids to intrinsically make good choices. When parents try to control the kids, they either rebel or turn inward."

What Happens If Communication Breaks Down?

As children grow older, they naturally crave more independence. The kid who once came home and talked about everything he learned in school may suddenly head straight to his room. But it's important to check in. Weekly screen-free family dinners or something as simple as striking up a conversation when driving a child to basketball practice can help parents remain connected. If a child continues to withdraw despite a parent's best efforts, a more direct—but still empathetic—approach may be necessary.

"If you ask them if everything is OK, they are going to say yes," says Charley. "Try using 'I' statements like 'I have noticed some distance. I feel I am not supporting you in the way you need. What can I do? Is there anything you need some input on?'"

If a child is out drinking every night—or continues to withdraw from parents—consider finding them a therapist to help them sort out their emotions and choices.

But Dr. Ashley says that even if things take a wrong turn, a parent's faith in their children can help them get back on the right track and reestablish a positive relationship. "Empower them," she says. "Say, 'I'm here to talk about that, and I know you're going to make good choices for yourself.'"