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Small Talks: Keep the Conversation Going - Beyond Alcohol

Small talks are making a positive impact on kids' choices about alcohol, so why stop there? Frequent, casual conversations about prescription medications, cannabis, tobacco, and other drugs can be just as effective. And don't be fooled; most kids will find themselves in a situation where dangerous substances are available. So keep at it! As parents and caregivers, it's up to you to talk openly with the young people in your life about the risks.

An older person and a younger person sitting by a hay bale

Substance use in Wisconsin

Taking healthy risks is an important part of growing up — but substance use isn't. Kids looking to experiment, fit in with friends, or cope with their feelings often find ways to access harmful substances (usually without much effort). Unfortunately, when kids aren't aware of the risks, it can lead to serious consequences. Here's what we know about Wisconsin youth in recent years:

  • Prescription painkiller overdoses have increased 260%.
  • Over half (52%) of substance use services were for marijuana use.
  • One in four high schoolers use tobacco.

Check out our data library to learn more about how substance use in Wisconsin. See the statistics.

Dangers of drugs

You want your small talks to have an impact, right? Then it's important to get the facts on the substances Wisconsin teens experiment with the most. Do some research to stay on top of the trends. What are kids using, and what are the risks? And remember, you can always go straight to the source. Ask your kids what they know; it just might spark a conversation.

ALERT: Read our public health advisory issued August 17, 2022, regarding fentanyl increasingly present in drug overdose deaths in Wisconsin.

Prescription medication

Although prescriptions come directly from medical professionals, they all come with risks. Two of the most misused prescription medications are opioids and stimulants. Opioids like Oxycontin® or Vicodin® are often prescribed due to injury or other medical conditions. When used correctly, opioids can be an effective way to relieve pain. Stimulants such as Ritalin® and Adderall® are effective medications to treat children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Misusing prescription medications can lead to higher chances of dependence, slowed brain development, and even heart failure or seizures.


Cannabis, more commonly known as marijuana, is one of the most misused drugs among adolescents. Cannabis contains a potent chemical called THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is responsible for the mind-altering and euphoric effects many users experience. The legalization of Cannabis in some states has led many people to view it as more acceptable and safer. However, cannabis can still have harmful effects for kids, including difficulty thinking, problems with memory and learning, impaired coordination, and long-term misuse.


Tobacco use among kids is just about as common as underage drinking. Young people are consuming tobacco in many ways. But whether kids smoke, vape, or chew doesn't matter. Nearly all tobacco products contain highly addictive nicotine, along with a mix of other nasty, cancer-causing chemicals. As a parent, you should know: 90% of daily tobacco users begin by age 18. Beyond the increased risk of cancer, using tobacco can lead to heart disease, lung disease, stroke, diabetes, and more. To learn more about tobacco products and their impact on kids, check out our Tobacco is Changing campaign.

Common questions

You were young once, right? You know kids are resourceful, curious, and often feel above any real harm or serious consequences. That attitude can be dangerous. Help protect the young people around you by tapping into how kids think and feel about alcohol and other substances. Remember, the more you know, the better prepared you'll be when conversation time comes. 

Where are kids getting substances?

  • Home: The easiest place for kids to get drugs is at home, especially prescriptions left in medicine cabinets.
  • Friends and peers: Many kids are given or sold prescription medications and illegal drugs from those they know, typically at school.
  • Social media, websites, and apps: Kids access drugs online via social networks, websites, secret groups, and marketplaces.

What do kids think about certain substances?

  • They think that prescription drugs are safer because they come from a medical professional, but they're wrong. All prescription medications have serious risks when not used as prescribed.
  • They think they know exactly what they are getting when given or buying substances. Wrong again. Drugs are often mixed with other drugs to increase the effects. Recently, the highly potent opioid fentanyl has been responsible for increased accidental overdoses. Learn more about fentanyl at Dose of Reality.
  • They think that increased legalization makes cannabis more acceptable or safer, but that's not the case. Kids are still growing, and cannabis can negatively affect brain development.

Is drug possession a serious offense?

  • Most schools have policies that prohibit drugs and tobacco on campus.  Offenses often lead to suspension or expulsion, putting their academic future at risk.
  • Possessing illegal drugs, including cannabis, is against Wisconsin law.  Penalties may include large fines and jail time (even for a first offense), suspension of driver's license, and more.
  • In some cases, it is against the law to possess legal substances. Possessing someone else's prescription medication with the intent to use or distribute is illegal.

Why kids are using substances?

  • To feel good: Kids often use substances to seek psychological or physical pleasure.
  • To try and fit in: Kids want to be accepted and often succumb to peer pressure.
  • To study: Kids often turn to stimulants drugs, such as Ritalin® and Adderall®, because they believe it will help them study more effectively.
  • To cope with stress: Kids go through a lot growing up and may use substances to deal with stress related to school, friends, family, sports, and more. Resilient Wisconsin has tips on how to cope with stress and trauma.
  • To mimic behavior on social media: Kids look up to the celebrities and influencers they follow on various social media platforms. Unfortunately, many people kids follow online use their reach to promote unhealthy behaviors that kids may try to emulate.

Do more than talk

Which kids are 50% less likely to use drugs? The ones who continue to learn about the risks at home. That's why having frequent, casual conversations about the dangers of substance misuse are so important. But there's more you can do beyond just talking that will help make a difference. Try to:

  • Set a good example. If you drink, keep it to one or two at most. If you take prescription medications, use them only as directed. Don't use illegal drugs around your kids.
  • Encourage your child to be active in hobbies, sports, and clubs that interest them.
  • Connect and stay involved with your kids. Spending quality time together makes kids feel loved and supported and can give them the resilience to say no.
  • Make your kid's mental health a priority. Keep up with their social media habits and set healthy boundaries with screen time and other devices.
  • Know your kids' friends. Friends are a big influence on each other, and if one is using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, your kid may feel pressure to experiment too.
  • Establish rules and consequences. Explain your family rules, such as leaving a party where drug use occurs and not riding in a car with a driver who's been using drugs. If your child breaks the rules, consistently enforce consequences.
  • Keep track of all prescription medications in your home. Store all prescriptions in a locked location and safely dispose of any unused or expired medications at a drug take back location near you.
  • Encourage your child to get involved in youth programs that advocate for children's health, like the Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.

Get help if needed

If you think a child is already drinking or struggling with substance use, don’t blame them or yourself. Focus on getting help instead. The Wisconsin Addiction Recovery Helpline can help. It’s free and available 24 hours a day. 

Last revised February 15, 2023