Talking to Youth

We are dealing with a paradox right now – data shows that fewer young people are using drugs now than in years past, but our kids are more at risk of dying from drug overdoses than ever before. Why is this? Because fentanyl and drugs laced with fentanyl are both extremely potent and increasingly available. 

Talking about substance use can feel overwhelming, but having open, honest conversations with young people about the risks and consequences of substance use is one of the most important things you can do to help keep them healthy and safe. Talk early and often with your kids about a variety of issues.  If you’ve created a relationship built on trust and regular conversation, then ‘big’ topics won’t seem so much like ‘hard topics’ when they come up.

Take some time to think about your own relationship to substances, and whether your family has a history of addiction. If you drink alcohol in front of your child, that’s an opportunity to explain the differences between adult and adolescent brains, and why it is so important for them to delay substance use until their brain is fully developed in their twenties. 

This isn’t a one-time talk to have with your kids, it’s an ongoing dialogue that will change over time as your child gets older and the landscape of illegal drugs in our community changes. Talking about substance use does not increase usage – in fact, the opposite is true.

The best way to keep teens safe is to give them scientific facts and life-saving information. Facts like: 

  • The risk is real: Any drug that doesn’t come from a doctor or pharmacist could contain lethal amounts of fentanyl. That means black market pills that claim to be Adderall, Ritalin, OxyContin, or Valium may have enough Fentanyl to kill you. 
  • It is undetectable without special equipment: Fentanyl is tasteless, odorless, and too small to see with your eyes. An amount of Fentanyl the size of two grains of salt is enough to cause a deadly overdose.
  • Naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose. Let teens know that naloxone is legal for ALL ages without an ID. Learn how to get Naloxone here. 
  • Know the signs of an overdose and what to do as a bystander. 

Simply saying ‘Don’t do drugs’ and ‘Because I said so’ just doesn’t work. Those most at risk may just tune the warning out if they feel judged. You have to combine parental expectations with science-based facts.   

What you can do

You can use these strategies to help kids navigate difficult situations involving drugs and alcohol. (Use the drop-down arrows to read more):

The bottom line up front: Your opinions matter to your child. Even when it might not seem that way. 

Remind your kids that you expect them not to use alcohol or other drugs, and be clear about these expectations. If your kids see you drinking alcohol or using other substances, it’s a good time to explain how their developing brain would be affected by substance use. If you think this conversation will bring up painful memories from your own childhood, it’s ok to talk with a trusted adult friend or confidant first about your feelings and how to best share your past with your child in a meaningful way.

Have a conversation with your kids about how to respond to offers from peers or others to drink or use other drugs with specific responses can help prepare adolescents. Responses such as, “No thanks, I have a game,” or “Nope, but I’ll take a water,” can help them manage difficult social situations. Even let them blame you. “My parents are strict, I can’t.”

Refusal Skills by Category
SimpleNo, thanks.
DeclarativeNo, I don’t drink
No, I don’t do drugs.
ExcusesNot tonight, I have a big game.
No, my parents are strict.
No, I’m the designated driver.
AlternativesNo, but can I grab a water?
No, but let’s (insert alternative activity)
ReversalNo, why are you messing with that crap?
No, I thought we were friends?

Pressure from peers can be difficult for adolescents to navigate.– whether it’s being at a party with alcohol, in a car with someone drinking or using drugs, or in other risky situations with peers. Setting up an escape plan beforehand can help your teen exit difficult situations.

Start a conversation with your teen about peer pressure and difficult scenarios. Build together an escape plan, a secret code that they can text a parent or caregiver to be immediately picked up by an adult and exit the situation. Some have called this an X strategy, and text an X to a parent. Others have decided on a code word or emoji that signifies they need help with their exit plan, whether sushi, or pineapple or another agreed on message.

Let them know that if they feel uncomfortable for any reason in a situation, they have a way out.

It’s understandable to think that kids would be safer doing something if we are there to monitor them, but this doesn’t extend to substance use. 

Parents condoning or supplying alcohol to their teens– sometimes referred to as “social hosting”– increases adolescent alcohol usage, as well as other unsafe behaviors. Kids who drink at a young age – even under parental supervision – are also more likely to experiment with other substances at a young age.  It is also illegal! 

Let other parents know that your kid is not allowed to use substances under any circumstance, and ask about their house rules regarding alcohol and drug use. Be transparent with your kids about having these conversations– it is possible to give them freedom, while also doing your job to keep them Safe.

Promoting resilience in your child is also one of the best ways to reduce their risk of substance use.  Whether it’s sports, church, Future Farmers of America, 4-H, music, drama, volunteering, or surfing, kids do better when they are kept busy and feel part of a healthy community. It turns out those extracurriculars are less about résumé-building and more about building protective factors to keep them safe!

As you nurture your kids’ passions outside of the home, remember to also dedicate family time.

Research shows that spending time with family members and loved ones– bonding over favorite activities or talking about your days – has a long-lasting positive impact and strengthens healthy attachment (even if your teen claims they would rather be doing anything else!) 

Quality time builds trust and strengthens relationships, which increases the likelihood that if your teen starts to struggle with substance use or another issue, they’ll feel more comfortable coming to you for advice and support.

Substance use disorders get worse over time. The earlier treatment starts the better the chances for long-term recovery. 

Many families are wrongly told to “wait for rock bottom” and that their loved one needs to feel ready to seek treatment in order for it to work. The idea that we should wait for the disease to get worse before seeking treatment is dangerous. Imagine if we waited until stage 4 to treat cancer. Decades of research has proven that the earlier someone is treated, the better their outcomes—and that treatment works just as well for patients who are compelled to start treatment by outside forces as it does for those who are self-motivated to enter treatment.

*** This content was adapted from the Addiction Policy Forum’s “12 Things Parents Can Do to Prevent Teen Opioid Use and Addiction.”