The Parent’s Guide to Opioid Education and Abuse Prevention

“It could never happen to my child” is perhaps one of the most dangerous phrases when it comes to opioid abuse. Whether it’s a genetic predisposition for addiction or susceptibility to peer pressure, no child is truly completely free of risk for drug abuse. Although this is a disturbing thought for any parent, take comfort in the fact that your influence holds a lot of power — but you have to know how to use it.

This guide will help you discover the best ways to educate your child on the dangers of opioid medications and strategies for abuse prevention. It isn’t uncommon for parents to be intimidated by the topic, but it is absolutely crucial for education to start at home: kids who learn about the dangers of drugs from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use. So cast your worries aside and let the teaching begin!

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Prevention Through Education — Talking to Your Child

It might be hard to believe, but when it comes to talking to your child about the dangers of drugs, there really isn’t any such thing as starting “too early.” Kids as young as 8 may receive false information about drugs from their peers, and encountering peers experimenting with drugs can start even in middle school. That means it’s up to you to beat the curve — especially because children don’t always recognize that taking medicine out of the cabinet can be considered drug abuse.

From about the age of 5, start talking to your child about the dangers of taking any medicine without your direct supervision or consent. Explain that when used properly it can be very beneficial, but used without adult guidance can be very dangerous. Further, specify that he or she should never take more of a medication without your knowledge. Discuss how every medication comes with its own risks, and those risks are increased the more that they take. This is a good basis for discussing opioids because it will help them understand early on that every medication should be treated with extreme care.

Another important point to discuss early on is to never accept medication from a stranger, friend, or even another grown-up without your presence or direct approval. Note that they should be especially careful when it comes to prescription medication. Discuss why it is that certain medications require a doctor’s prescription in the first place: they are more powerful, and thus potentially more dangerous, if taken without the guidance of a medical professional. Prescription doesn’t mean “better” or “faster,” and if someone attempts to persuade him or her to take this kind of medication, they need to walk away and let you or another trusted adult nearby (like a teacher) know.

If you take any prescription medications, especially a prescription opioid, talk to your child about why you take it. Talk about the journey that led you there: you went to your doctor with a particular issue, he or she ran specific tests, and based on his or her professional expertise, decided that this medication at a certain dosage was right for you specifically. Note how your doctor gave you the prescription with the understanding that you would take it only as they told you to, and that you wouldn’t share it with anyone else because they need their own doctor to give them their own prescription. If someone else were to take your medication, not only would you have less for yourself and potentially experience negative side effects without it, you could get into big trouble with your doctor and even the police. Go over the side effects of your medication, and how those might be further amplified when someone else — especially a child — takes them. Remember, you have to spell it completely out for children so that they truly grasp the gravity of the situation.

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As your child makes his or her way through elementary school, be sure to talk to them about peer pressure — and make it an open conversation. Ask them if they’ve ever felt encouraged to do or say something because their friends or classmates expected it (all the while letting them know it’s OK if it’s happened) and how they handled it. How did the situation make them feel? What did they end up doing? Were they happy with their choice? Share your own experiences, and keep in mind that while it will help to give them perspective from your childhood, it could also help to share instances in adulthood where you’ve felt pressured. Kids look up to their parents, and there’s a lot of comfort in them knowing that you, too, are human and face challenges over right and wrong.

Ask your child what he or she would do if a friend offered them a pill they’d taken from their parents. Would they feel confident saying no? What if their friend said it would get them high, but was harmless otherwise? Role play the situation as your child’s influential friend, and be convincing. Afterward, discuss what happened and how they felt about it. Have they encountered this kind of pressure already? Be prepared that he or she may not be willing to tell you if they have, or which of their friends it was. Point out that real friends don’t force their friends into anything they aren’t comfortable with, so if your child constantly finds him or herself in uncomfortable peer pressure situations, they may want to consider broadening their friend group. Tread lightly, though — forbidding a friendship can sometimes backfire. It’s important that your child feels you are someone they can trust and rely on, so don’t put them in the position to lie about who they’re spending time with. Do, however, keep a close eye if you suspect there may be a toxic friendship in your child’s life.

Because the country is facing a national crisis with opioid addiction, the topic will likely arise in the news as well as throughout pop culture. The dangers of addiction should be a recurring conversation throughout your child’s life, so take every opportunity to tie in real-world situations. If you happen to notice your teen singing along to a song about recreational opioid use, for example, find a moment to discuss it. Keep in mind that a song about drug use can be catchy enough that a teen completely disinterested in drugs will still sing along, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t point out that the content describes dangerous behavior. It can even be a casual conversation about a story on the evening news about a family that’s been affected by opioid addiction — especially if it escalated from pills to heroin. Ask your child what they think about the story, how they think things could have reached that point and spun out of control. Be sure to note that everyone makes mistakes, but when it comes to drugs those mistakes often lead to life-threatening situations. The addict in question probably never imagined things spinning out of control the very first time they experimented with drugs, and that’s why it’s absolutely vital to never even try — it’s an incredibly slippery slope that can trip up anyone.

Finally, outline all the negative consequences that can be brought on from opioid abuse. Following the high comes serious physical side effects, including vomiting and slowed breathing, both of which can be life-threatening. Opioids quickly become addictive because as a person’s tolerance grows, they need more and more to get the same euphoric feeling. With each increase in dosage, the risks amplify significantly, making an already-risky situation even more dangerous.

There are also significant legal consequences for opioid abuse, and penalties can vary in severity depending on your location. Stealing medication from someone with a prescription can lead to jail time and fines, and getting caught up in an illegal drug deal with a seller can lead to all kinds of legal ramifications — even if a person has only purchased on a single occasion. A criminal record can make important pieces of the future like college and a career even more difficult for a young person with big dreams. What may seem like a tiny experiment in the moment can literally jeopardize someone’s entire future, and all for a temporary high with a massive hangover.

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It’s important to reiterate that many who start by abusing prescription drugs end up resorting to heroin use in order to feed their intense cravings, which increases not only physical risks but also legal risks. Tell your child that while he or she may think that they’d never try an intravenous drug, the point is that that’s how powerful opioids are. Intense withdrawal, where a person’s body is screaming out in agony to be fed with a drug, can be so overwhelming that he or she is willing to do anything to stop the pain. That excuse won’t matter, however, to an undercover cop, a school administration official, or anyone else who might catch someone in the act.

Throughout your conversations with your child, stress facts over fear. Although much of the truth is frightening to imagine, you don’t want to get caught up in a “scaring them straight” kind of mentality. Both researchers and youth addicts have found that using fear as a driving educator isn’t effective. In some cases, it’s even had negative effects. When you discuss negative consequences with your child, present your case in a matter-of-fact manner and avoid making threats. Focus on having open conversations rather than giving lectures. Hear your child out. Ask how he or she feels, what they think, what ideas they struggle with. This can help ensure that if he or she does run into temptation to use, they’ll feel more comfortable coming to you with the problem instead of worrying you’ll judge or nag them.

Prevention Through Action: Taking Steps to Keep Your Child Safe

One of the most important steps you can take to shield your child from the temptations of opioid experimentation is to lock up your prescription medications. Count your pills after filling your prescription and regularly monitor how many are there so you are immediately aware of any discrepancies. If your child protests that this is a sign that you don’t trust him or her, let them know that locking them away keeps the entire family safe from temptation and can also prevent your medication from being stolen. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and your priority is always their safety.

Stay consistently involved in your child’s life: his or her schoolwork, extracurriculars, hobbies, and interests. Pay attention to who their friends are and take special note of any sudden shifts in peer groups. Though your child is certainly allowed to make new friends, completely switching which friends he or she spends the most time with is sometimes a sign of trouble, even substance abuse. Make a point to meet their new friends and get to know them. Meet their parents whenever possible and arrange outings that will allow you to see how everyone interacts. Find the balance between giving your child (especially teens) space and privacy while still staying connected.

It’s also crucial that you set a positive example yourself. Never abuse drugs in front of your child, including alcohol. Make sure you handle stress in healthy ways — don’t leap to grabbing a six-pack after a long day of work. Although as an adult you are certainly entitled to unwind and enjoy alcohol responsibly, it’s important to show your kids that there are better ways to cope. Your child — yes, even teens! — look to you for guidance and will likely emulate your behavior. Take every opportunity to show them the right way, and if you happen to slip up one day, embrace it as a teaching moment when it’s age-appropriate: if you wake up with a nasty hangover after indulging in a bottle of wine, talk to your teen about what a mistake it was. Admit that you mishandled the situation, and today you are paying the price. Again, we are all human, and your teen will not only appreciate your humility, they’ll appreciate your honesty.

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Don’t assume that just because you’ve discussed the dangers of drug and opioid abuse that the rules are implied. Establish specific, clear boundaries about acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and make sure that they are consistently enforced. Kids quickly figure out which threats are hollow and which are legitimate, so stand your ground. If you have joint custody, be sure that the rules are the same from home to home and keep the lines of communication open among co-parents. You must all be on the same page to keep your child safe.

When it comes to protecting your child from opioid addiction it’s easy to get lost in the negatives, so don’t forget to celebrate every positive decision your child makes. It’s important that they know you recognize their successes and their failures, and that you will always cheer them on. Your approval means the world to your child, so don’t overlook any opportunity to reiterate how proud you are of their efforts. Is your child kicking themselves over the first B they ever got? Celebrate it! Remind them that no one is perfect and that you certainly don’t expect them to be flawless. Show your child that you will forever be their biggest fan no matter what, and that any discipline you dole out is in the interest of teaching them right from wrong — and above all, keeping them safe.

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