Every day more than 130 people die after overdosing on opioids in the United States. But, one demographic that is grossly overlooked in the midst of this crisis is children.
That may sound unthinkable. However, one study has found that more than one in four opioid overdoses involve children and adolescents. Even more concerning, during the last 14 years, these opioid poisings are more severe and deadly.
“Our findings suggest the opioids children and adolescents have access to are increasingly potent and even small doses of them can cause severe health problems or death,” said Megan Land, MD, a pediatric critical care fellow at Emory University, in Atlanta, and lead author of the study.
“Everyone who interacts with children and adolescents needs to be aware of the risk of self-harm, misuse and abuse of opioids, and restrict access to them in the home,” said Jocelyn Grunwell, MD, PhD, the co-author of the study and an assistant professor in the Department of Critical Care, at Emory University. “
As a parent, it is your responsibility to educate yourself. At the minimum, this includes learning the risk factors and consequences of substance among children. You should also find ways to help reduce stress in your child’s life and be a role model for them.
Most helpful though, you should have an ongoing dialogue with them regarding drugs. In fact, research has found “that children who hear the facts about drugs and alcohol from their parents are significantly less likely to use them.”
With that in mind, here are some tips to help you start this conversation.
1. Start young.
If possible, begin having this discussion during the preschool years.
"They should have the information and tools they need before they're ever faced with making decisions about drugs," Jennifer Carrano, an assistant professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Delaware, tells HuffPost. "Beginning the conversation with children before they're exposed to drugs can lay the groundwork for healthy decision-making later in life."
At the same time, you should take their age into consideration.
"Having general conversations about making healthy lifestyle choices is key," Carrano says when talking about drugs with the younger children. "It's important to link ideas about drugs to concepts that preschoolers already understand. For example, young children know that unhealthy food choices can make them sick so explaining that drugs can do the same thing is a concept they'll be able to grasp."
The Nemours Foundation also suggests taking advantage of "teachable moments.” For example, “If you see a character in a movie or on TV with a cigarette, talk about smoking, nicotine addiction, and what smoking does to a person's body. This can lead into a discussion about other drugs and how they could cause harm.”
Just remember to keep “the tone of these discussions calm and use terms that your child can understand.”
“As your kids grow older, you can begin talks with them by asking them what they think about drugs. By asking the questions in a nonjudgmental, open-ended way, you're more likely to get an honest response.” However, they still cant’ grasp long-term consequences, so keep the conversation in the “present tense.”
Teenagers are probably more aware about this topic then you may want to admit. They have either seen substance abuse in media or may know peers who have tried or are using drugs or alcohol.
"Parents should continue to encourage open and honest communication, to encourage decision-making and problem-solving skills, to set clear rules and consequences for behavior, and to model good behavior," Carrano says.
2. Choose a good time and place.
Blocks of time, like before school or after dinner, are ideal for both casual and focused conversations.
"In addition to directly initiating conversations about drugs, parents should also look for naturally-occurring teachable moments," Carrano says. "For example, if drug use is mentioned in a movie or song, or if a child's favourite athlete gets caught using steroids, these are natural conversation starters.”
“There will be hundreds of these moments over the course of childhood and adolescence, thus giving parents many, many opportunities to reinforce lessons about drug use," adds Carrano.
3. Ask and listen, but resist the urge to lecture.
“As adults we very much want to impart as much wisdom as we can to help young people avoid the same mistakes that we made,” wrote Sharon Levy, MD, MPH and Siva Sundaram, BA on the Harvard Health Blog. “But, it is probably more useful to draw out their innate curiosity and encourage them to seek out answers on their own.”
“Consider beginning by asking a question like, ‘Tell me, what do you know about marijuana?’ Teens who feel like their point of view is valued may be more willing to engage in a conversation.” add the authors. “In response to what your child says, use nonjudgmental reflective statements to make sure she feels listened to, then follow up with a question,” such as “So you’ve heard that marijuana is pretty safe because it is natural. Do you think that is correct?”
“You don’t need to agree with everything your teen says; you just need to make it clear you are listening.”
4. Stick to the facts, not fear or scare tactics.
This builds trust and can help you reinforce your message that they should not use drugs or alcohol because via Drug-Free New Hampshire:
It’s against the law.
You’re still growing and your brain is still developing. Alcohol and drugs can damage your memory, your ability to learn, and can permanently damage your brain.
Doing drugs and drinking when you’re a teen makes you more likely to become addicted, and can lead to desperate measures including committing crimes.
You are more likely to make a bad decision when you are drinking or getting high, such as getting in a car, getting in a fight, or having sex.
Kids who drink are more likely to try other drugs.
5. Create a healthy, honest and positive environment.
If your child comes to you with a question regarding drugs or alcohol, or any other mental health struggle, don’t avoid the topic. Offer compassion and empathy so that they can turn to you or another trusted adult for support.
You should also encourage healthy and creative activities that boost their self-esteem and reduce boredom, such as hobbies, sports, journaling, or volunteering.