Drugs are bad, m'kay. In the area where I live, one of the unfortunate facts of life is widespread drug abuse. So, at night, addicts use local playgrounds to shoot up then leave syringes and needles lying around, which is obviously dangerous for kids using the playground during the day. Today, we found a needle at the top of a slide and four syringes a few feet away.

I've already explained about the need for wearing shoes at all times. I've also explained that neither needles nor syringes must be touched because they carry infection. That went across very well when I added that should an accident with a needle occur then a visit to the hospital will be mandatory and most likely involve several injections (show me a kid who isn't scared of injections!).

What I couldn't explain was why the syringes and needles were there. My child thought they were used by doctors or nurses but was puzzled why doctors or nurses would use such things at playgrounds and leave them lying around. I almost went ahead and explained intravenous drug use wanting to stress the deleterious effects of drugs but stopped myself as didn't want to plant the idea of drugs or drug use in a small child.

Now comes the hard part. How would you explain intravenous drug use to a 6-year-old?

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    Not quite an answer. But I would add, some people legitimately posses hypos for medications even without use of illicit drugs. Although I would hope they would be disposed of responsibly this is not always the case. What is dangerous is that they have been inside someones body and thus can spread disease. Do you need to explain what the drugs are or merely how hypos are used and why its dangerous to touch them?
    – Vality
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 19:19
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    @Vality: trust me, the playground is used by junkies (someone died there in 2007 in a kneeling position?). There's no reason for someone who needs to administer medication intravenously to cross the entire playground and sit at the top of the highest part containing a slide next to the back fence. THE thing I wanted to explain is why people who are not doctors or nurses used syringes and the inevitable follow up question would be: why?...
    – Ruutsa
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 23:18
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    This advice: "should an accident with a needle occur then a visit to the hospital will be mandatory and most likely involve several injections" is potentially dangerous. It could encourage children to conceal accidents, thereby making them much more dangerous. Commented May 7, 2019 at 0:03
  • We also live in an area (Berkeley, CA) with lots of drug abuse, and related problems (homelessness, crazy people yelling in the streets and sometimes acting violently for no apparent reason), and tried to explain it to our kids as truthfully and age-appropriately as possible. I'm not sure I have any answers here, but I think it helped to try to discuss all of these things together, rather than just the drugs.
    – pkaeding
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 19:04
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    @R..: And given the danger of that already made mistake, the only viable solution now is to tell the child the full story as best as can be explained.
    – user21820
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 13:36

10 Answers 10


Just be truthful. While the details about chemical addiction may fly over a 6 year old's head, the general idea is really not that hard to understand. Tell them that drugs are chemicals that can make people feel really good, but that may be very unhealthy. Fundamentally, it's like candy and sweets, but far more dangerous (the consequences are more than obesity and tooth decay). This is something a child can easily relate to without making it appear alluring (who would want poisoned candy?).

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 11:00
  • A large list of examples of expressions that describe this behavior can be found here: english.stackexchange.com/questions/272933/…
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 17:12
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    The idea AJ is experssing is that kids have a stronger drive of curiosity than they do for self preservation. That is also the same idea my deleted comment was getting at. Being honest should be tempered with the reality that kids rarely make rational decisions and curiosity and boredom both play a strong role in decision making. Pandora's box, Adam and Eve, Prometheus, Houdini, countless stories and realities of people assuming known risks for various base desires. The book Curious by Ian Leslie, which is on the official Marines reading list, describes this human truth in great detail.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented May 11, 2019 at 14:38

My general approach is that it's not a good idea to hide the world from your children. Of course I wouldn't go into the gruesome details of drug addiction, but my view is that when I explain this to my kids, then it is me who is in control of the narrative.

In these cases I try to not "explain" the matter to my children, but to engage them in a conversation. In this case it could go something like this (but the replies of the children might be different and it's important to adjust your conversation to truly involve them). You will be amazed how much they can understand if you explain it the right way:

Parent: You know that there are some things that you need to do to be able to live, like eating.

Child: Or like breathing.

P: Yes, exactly. And when you don't breathe or eat, how does it make you feel?

C: It makes me feel bad because I get hungry. Or I can't breathe.

P: Yes, and there are drugs you can take that, once you have taken them, it makes you feel bad when you don't take them anymore. You don't need them to live, but your body thinks it does. So people who take drugs find it difficult to stop taking them.

C: But why do people take drugs when they make you feel bad?

P: Because it makes them feel good the first time they take them but then very soon it stops feeling good and they just take them to not feel bad. So drugs make people ill and we call this illness "drug addiction". That's why you should never take drugs, because they make you ill.

C: But why do people use syringes?

P: Because for some drugs you need a syringe to take them. And when they use a syringe it gets into contact with other diseases this person might have. And when you get stung by such a needle you can also get very sick. So don't touch them and when you are with a grown up, tell them and ask them for help.

Of course you try to answer any other question your child has to the best of your ability.

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    Stating "the first time you take them it fells good, but then it makes you feel bad" seems much more reasonable and truthful than the other answer. Leaving it at "drugs make people feel good" may probably end up encouraging kids to try them when they grow up and start accepting risks. Commented May 7, 2019 at 22:43
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    @Wildcard I wouldn't recommend using that site to arm yourself with actual facts. If you just want propaganda talking points then sure, but that is most certainly not an unbiased or accurate site.
    – forest
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 5:54
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    @Wildcard I am not here to promote drug use, and that is why I didn't suggest Erowid (a pro-drug informational site) as an alternative source of information. This doesn't mean that you can't arm yourself with real facts, not propaganda points. Using the website you linked to for information would be lying to your child about drugs, not arming yourself with actual facts.
    – forest
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 6:30
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    @Wildcard Discussion of the exact mistakes or myths repeated by the site that I found with my (brief) look at it should be done somewhere other than the comment section. If you're going to look for a site for facts about drugs, find a non-partisan site, not one which is anti (DrugFreeWorld) or pro (Erowid). Otherwise you can't claim to be trying to find the "truth about drugs", just propaganda talking points.
    – forest
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 6:33
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    That website and its overly preachy and fear-mongering tone makes me want to do drugs :-/ I can't imagine anyone would read that and actually come away wiser from it.
    – Erik
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 12:35

I'm going to basically repeat an answer that I gave in response to this unrelated question: Answer your child's questions accurately and truthfully, using language they can understand. Most of all, let your child guide the conversation.

Child: I thought those were used by doctors.

You: They are. But sometimes people who aren't doctors give themselves shots.

...and shut up. Wait for the next question. It might come immediately, it might come sometime later, or it might never come. But when it does, just answer the question in a matter-of-fact manner, using language that they understand, but without giving your child information overload. When I think about this, I think of a friend of mine who, at age 4, asked his father where babies came from and got the full lecture, with accompanying pictures out of a textbook. This was probably too much.

When he or she does ask that next question, it will probably be something like:

Child: But why do they give themselves shots?

You: Some people are sick and have to give themselves shots, but sometimes people give themselves shots just because they think the shots make them feel good.

At some point, this may lead to a full-fledged discussion on drug abuse. Or not. Let your child's questions guide you.

This is how we answered almost all of our boys' questions, from the ever-feared, "Where do babies come from?" to handling a similar situation when our younger son found and picked up a used hypodermic syringe in the park.

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    I like this answer but I'm not 100% on the "they think the shots make them feel good." It's wishy-washy. When you think something makes you feel good, it does. But the bigger problem is that that's not why junkies shoot up in the play-park. They do so because they are so addicted to opiates that they care for nothing else i.e. that kids could be hurt by their actions means nothing compared to getting a fix.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 20:22
  • Substitute whatever wording you like. To talk about addiction or getting a fix is a little above, say, a six-year-old. The key to this answer isn't in what I say to say, but how you say it.
    – Deacon
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 20:33
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    I agree with that and if it wasn't clear, I think this is the best answer. I think the focus on sickness. I can't think of a good fairly tale for this but there should be one. Like "Little Red Riding Hood" is about strangers with bad intentions it would be something like a mushroom that fills your belly but turns you into a mushroom when you eat it.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 20:41
  • I get that. It's probably not the phrasing I'd actually use. In fact, I'd probably let my wife handle this one if I could, as she deals with these issues daily on a professional level. 😃
    – Deacon
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 20:44


I lean towards a modified idea of what Gregory posted in a now deleted answer combined with the current top rated answer by forest. Kudos to you both for having good answers.

Developmental State

There are things you can discuss and things which are better not discussed because a child is not developmentally ready for this information. I say this because 6 years are still learning and acting out much simpler things like; learn and practice basic social skills like sharing and negotiating, learning to win and lose at games, group objects based on shape and size, begin seeing right and wrong and compare abilities of different children like in drawing.

However, while a 6 year old is exploring simple thing like the above, they are also developing critical thinking skills and moral reasoning. However, while kids are developing these skills it is important to understand where they are. For instance, according to Piaget, a child at the age of 6 would be developing a strong sense of absolute morality but have no understanding of relative morality. An example from the source text reads:

A child who can decentre to take other people’s intentions and circumstances into account can move to making the more independent moral judgements of the second stage

To me this means a 6 year old is not capable of processing information from the perspective of another person fully, so certain explanations you give him regarding the reason for drug addiction and self harm will not be useful.

Application to a 6 year old

Some details of, and even the wording of 'intravenous drug abuse' is too much for a 6 year old. I think you should be honest and also vague, generalize the issue.

Addictionisreal.org has some advice that starts with this overview:

This is a good time to introduce more detail into your conversations about drugs, especially what they are and the consequences of using them. Explain the concept of addiction – that some people may not understand how harmful drugs are or that some people try drugs and then have a hard time quitting. Introduce them to the idea that drug use can lead to abuse, which can lead to addiction.

So in conclusion I would keep the response somewhat vague while addressing the reality of what your son sees.
• What are drugs
• What can drugs do to your mind and body
• Why do some people choose to do this to themselves
• How should a 6 year old respond to this

What I would say, Final Answer
Drugs are strong and can be a medicine to help you, but they can also hurt you. Drugs should be only be used when a doctor has told you to, we can trust doctors. Some people use drugs on their own because they think they are smarter than doctors or for other selfish reasons. Some drugs change your brain and your body, and they make you crave them like you're starving. Once this happens you can't make good decisions anymore and the drug is in charge of you. Your only hope is to have someone help you. It is a very sad place to be and I hope you never end up with drugs in control of your life. Because you are young you have not seen people on drugs or using drugs. As you get older you will see people who do drugs, and you may even have friends who choose to do them because they think they are smarter than doctors or just don't believe what I'm telling you today. I'm your father and I will always tell you the truth and protect you. When you do see drugs I trust you will not let them control you, and you never use them without a doctor telling you it is okay.

If you have a faith this would be a good time to say a prayer or whatever your thing is. A prayer for protection from drugs, wisdom in resisting drugs and using doctor prescribed drugs, and redemption for those who are using drugs in your community to have someone come into their life and help them break their addiction.

  • Very well done, though I'm sorry to see the idea that "...in human nature to willfully do things which we know will harm us" disappear too. That's a good point (kids start understanding that at about 3 years of age, though they start doing it well before that!) Commented May 6, 2019 at 17:15
  • My 6 year old would have either zoned out or interrupted with 10 questions by halfway through that monolog. That is way too big a block of information for that age.
    – Myles
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 20:54
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    @Myles I hope the op's parenting style isn't to copy and read something from the internet verbatim but to have a conversation, which is the point. The paragraph is a response to an adult's question about help, not a literal monolog with a 6 year old. It should be seen as an overview of topics and ideas that may be addressed in the actual conversation with the 6 year old. In fact, the reality is that the entire conversation may take place over a few months or years of seeing those syringes at the playground.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 21:13

People use drugs when they feel sad, like something is missing from their life, but these people choose to take it out on themselves. They try to fill a hole with drugs but what they are really doing is destroying themselves.

There are chemicals inside the drugs that can make people feel good, but it actually ends up harming their bodies. It can harm their brains so people don't think properly either. That's why you can't touch them because it could hurt a lot, and it takes a very long time to recover. A portion of people never fully do. Some drugs are good for you when you're ill, but these drugs do not make you feel better, they can reduce people's emotions. The people using are a little bit lost and maybe can't process their emotions and thoughts very well. That's why they didn't think when they left these here.

It is very sad but we cannot judge them for it. We haven't lived the life they've lived or seen the things they've seen. All we can do is hope that in time they'll get better.

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    This could possibly be interpreted by the child as "When you are sad or feel something is missing, drugs are the answer".
    – dotancohen
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 8:21
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    "These people aren't bad, they just haven't had anyone teach them the difference between bad and good." I don't think this is a correct description of the mechanics of addiction and how people get addicted (the current opiod crisis in the US being a good example). Also, when you focus on "good upbringings" and "good and bad" you charge your description with moral judgement upfront without really explaining the underlying reasoning. If you explain the facts in an understandable way, a 6yo is capable of drawing the conclusions on their own (with your help and guidance as a parent).
    – Sefe
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 12:23
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    While obviously simplifying is necessary, this is too reductive and too wrong. Commented May 7, 2019 at 19:56
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    The first line on this is very good and sorely lacking from the other answers, but the part about "good upbringings" sadly brings it back down :(
    – Erik
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 12:40
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    Besides that drugs are not always illegal, I find the legality of something not to be a convincing reason. Why something is illegal should be reason enough for an unprosecutable 6 year old. Not that it's your only point but it just doesn't seem super relevant to a 6yo, and it's not true everywhere.
    – Luc
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 12:57

Most kids have been to the doctor for shots by the time they can hold a conversation. Most kids know that when they're sick they get medicine, and sometimes this medicine makes you feel better when you feel bad.

Unfortunately, some people are using this particular medicine without getting the help of a doctor first. They don't always get it from a pharmacy like we get our medicine, and they aren't always clean about how they go about it. And most importantly, they aren't thinking about any downsides to taking this medicine. It's a lot more complicated than this, and you'll learn more about it as you get older. For now, if you do see one of those needles, DO NOT try to pick it up. I know you're trying to help, but you're much better off getting an adult to clean it up.

Relating it back to medicine and doctors draws upon something they know to expand their knowledge without getting into exactly how illicit dark drug use (especially the kind that leaves needles in public) can be.

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    "For now, if you do see one of those needles" - Honestly, even adults should avoid discarded needles...
    – forest
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 0:31
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    Adults presumably know how to use an appropriate tool to pick up the needle and put it in a protective container where it can't poke anyone while being transported to a proper sharps disposal. Commented May 8, 2019 at 18:18

A six-year-old will be aware of such activities as smoking and alcohol consumption, and will have seen some drunk people. Therefore you can just tell the child that intravenous drug abuse is pretty much more of the same.

Your direct question was how to explain that junkies use the same equipment medics do. Through their own experience with healthcare, the child will likely feel (not sure if it’s actually accurate though, but the association will probably be there) that it’s the strongest substances for the most dire cases that tend to be administered by injection, so it’s only natural that people who have fallen beyond smoking and drinking are resorting to injection.

Other commenters have also addressed important points such as teaching your child not to conceal incidents from you, not to instill too much fear of legitimate medical procedures etc.

  • and will have seen some drunk people – This really depends on where you live.
    – forest
    Commented Aug 21, 2019 at 5:53

I'd stress the carelessness of people not cleaning up their mess. That's something kids can understand. You can remind kids that people like diabetics have a legitimate need to use syringes outside of a doctor's office. You don't know what the people were injecting, people's medical conditions are private, etc. You can feign ignorance about what and why people are are injecting themselves with.


A partial dialog, where one unsympathetic question leads to another:

Child: Why are these dirty needles left lying around?

Parent: The same reasons dirty liquor bottles and cigarette butts are left lying around. The people who enjoy these products hate always being judged harshly, and are sometimes afraid of being arrested, so they're in a big hurry to hide or get rid of the evidence. Some of them litter because messy things don't bother them right after they've had drugs, (but they may feel sorry about the mess later). But some of them litter as a petty revenge on the cleaner people who blame them for being messy.

C: Why can't they just do all that at home?

P: Not all of them even have a home. And some who have homes are yelled at or punished if they bring the products home.

C: Why can't they go to a hospital?

P: Because doctors are afraid of losing their jobs if they gave them as much drugs as they'd ask for. Also, not everybody can afford to pay the hospital's prices.

C: [Now thinking of an easy solution] Why can't they all go to jail until they promise to never use drugs or litter again?

P: Well there are too many people who use drugs, and not enough jail cells, and jails can be very expensive; so that the city might not be able to afford a Zoo or a playground because it spent all its tax money on jails. Also often people in jail promise not to do things, but then leave and go off and do the same things anyway.

C: [Growing more vexed]: Why can't we just take away all the bad drugs? So nobody can use them.

P: It's been tried, and police work very hard at it, but it's more difficult than it sounds. It's so easy to underestimate the determination, cleverness, and forcefulness of people that enjoy and supply illegal drugs. They work hard too, and some of them become very rich, richer than police, and pay jealous and unhappy policemen to help them. Also most of the drugs have good uses as well, and many people would suffer and die without them...

Note: The dialog could be made more sympathetic, (i.e. why folks use and why some oppose that), but it would be longer, so this answer takes the easier road of posing conundrums in hopes of slowing down the rate of such questions so the parent is not exhausted.


There are other potential uses of a needle than injecting drugs. I've seen people making use of needles to pump balls; the pump's hose has a special kind of needle (which is not sharp) but it was lost, so it was replaced with a syringe needle. There is the risk of pricking the rubber, but some people use this improvisation. Btw, pumping balls is actually plausible on a playground. And it is still dangerous to touch the needle - because it was sitting on the ground, it got dirty, and a wound would bring the dirt into the blood stream.

IMO, what a child needs to know is that it is dangerous to touch a used needle, and this SHOULD NOT develop into a discussion about drug abuse. A child can be told that there can be many uses of a needle, and regardless the actual use, it is unhealthy/unsafe to touch the needle. In fact, there is only a high probability, not a certainty, that the needle was used by a drug addictive person. In the event that the needle was used for other purposes, this would make the drug discussion really useless.

In the first comment to the question, someone pointed out a valid use of the needle. But you disagreed, saying that " There's no reason for someone who needs to administer medication intravenously to cross the entire playground and sit at the top of the highest part containing a slide next to the back fence. " You should know that some birds have the weird habit of stealing things, particullartly shiny metal thins. The bird can later drop the needle.

As stated here https://sciencing.com/birds-like-shiny-things-8555028.html: "the magpie has entered into popular folklore as an animal that, given a chance, will attempt to steal a trinket or similar object."

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    This is really more of a comment than an answer. Also, that a bird dropped it there (a whole bunch of times) is, pardon my bluntness, quite fanciful. The fact is that IV drug abuse is common, and that people go to isolated places (or houses) to shoot up. A playground at night is isolated. Why argue about how the needles got there? We're here to help, not to put the OP in an imaginary scenario. Commented May 7, 2019 at 13:29
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    It usually takes someone more than a minute to complain about a downvote. You managed to complain three times in less than two minutes! Wow! Also, I did read the entire answer. It's another flight of fancy to imagine that a downvote can be cast on one of your answers only if not carefully read. DV are for answers that are deemed not useful, which is how I perceive this answer. Commented May 7, 2019 at 13:30
  • I was going to write a longer comment, but this answer doesn't take into account that the child has been told the real What and How. (drugs and dropped by drug users) and is asking for explaining the why. OP has already realised that it is harmful to the child to lie to them and diminish the message of danger but is struggling with explaining the human flaw of substance misuse. As such i do not even consider this a answer to the question asked.
    – J.Doe
    Commented May 7, 2019 at 14:11
  • As stated in the question : "What I couldn't explain was why the syringes and needles were there"; my answer provided potential explanations, while avoiding the drug discussion. There is a mismatch between the question title and the question body. The question body asks how to explain the presence of needles, and I addressed just that. The phrase " I almost went ahead and explained intravenous drug use" proves that the drug discussion is a sub-topic of the main discussion - explaining the child the presence of the syringes needles on the playground Commented May 7, 2019 at 15:32
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    It's an answer, but it's not a good answer. Yes, it's technically possible that the needles were not used for drugs. It's also technically possible that the entire playground and all the needles on it appeared out of nowhere due to quantum fluctuations. That doesn't mean that your answer is realistic.
    – forest
    Commented May 8, 2019 at 5:58

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