How can I make sure my kids don't get caught up in the opioid epidemic? I've been reading about it, and I'm worried. These particular drugs – especially the prescription varieties – seem to be widely available and easily accessible, even on public school campuses. What I really need to know is why teens and preteens start (and continue) using drugs. And what steps can I take to protect my children against the dangers of substance abuse?
Great questions. You're absolutely right to be concerned. The opioid crisis has taken America by storm over the past couple of decades.
Since the late 1990s, we've seen an exponential increase in the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs in the United States and Canada. The potency and easy availability of these substances have made them popular as medical treatments and as recreational drugs:
- Oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet)
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- Fentanyl (a compound synthesized to resemble other opiates such as morphine and heroin)
What makes this situation particularly alarming is the high danger of overdose associated with opioid use. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reports that overdose deaths from opioids (including heroin, to which many users turn when they can't get prescription drugs) have reached epidemic levels. We've even heard of parents overdosing at home in front of their children! No wonder the federal government has called the opioid crisis a "public health emergency."
When it comes to teen and preteen drug abuse, some parents seem to have their heads in the sand. Others prefer not to talk about the issue at all. We can understand; it's terrifying! But ignorance and denial only increase the dangers associated with this problem.
The reality is that no child is entirely immune to the drug epidemic. It crosses economic, racial, geographic, educational, religious, and family boundaries. Even in close-knit households with strong values and solid faith – factors that can help prevent substance abuse – there are no guarantees it won't touch at least one of the kids.
Parents have no choice but to educate themselves and take proactive steps to preventing drug abuse in their homes.
Why do kids start using drugs?
- Parental attitudes toward tobacco, alcohol, and other substances can be a major factor. After all, children imitate what they see at home.
- Drugs are seen and presented in popular culture as attractive. That's not to mention the feel-good "high" they provide.
- In many cases, young people feel a need to numb themselves against the painful realities of life.
- Other influences include peer pressure, simple curiosity, rebelliousness, and a desire for thrills.
What's the root of drug addiction?
Drug addictions of all kinds are rooted in the basic human craving for attachment and relationship.
It's been our observation over the years that when kids (and adults) start self-medicating with drugs, it usually means something is missing relationally at home or with peers.
Without healthy interpersonal relationships, some individuals – especially those with addiction-prone personalities – try to fill the gap and medicate the pain with drugs, alcohol, or other self-soothing substances.
But using these substances changes the chemistry of the brain. So behavior quickly grows from a pleasure-driven destructive habit into an addiction with a severe biological grip. This physiologically based problem can be extremely hard to resolve. That's particularly true in the case of opioids because they're some of the most powerfully addicting drugs on the market.
How can I minimize the risk of my children being drawn into substance abuse?
- Make every effort to build a strong family identity. Get involved in your children's lives. Take an interest in the things they like to do. Share meals together as often as possible.
Be open, honest, and vulnerable. Work on communication skills that draw your children out. Help them feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with you. You can prompt them with unfinished sentences like, "You have deep feelings about this because …"
A strong sense of belonging to a loving family builds accountability and helps prevent loneliness. And as we mentioned earlier, loneliness can be a set-up for drug experimentation.
- Model the behavior you want your children to follow. Teach them practical, reliable, positive methods of dealing with stress – things like prayer, scriptural meditation, exercise, and hobbies.
Think carefully about the role of alcohol, smoking, and drugs (including prescription medications) in your own life. Children usually copy drug-related behaviors of their parents.
- Encourage your teens to build relationships with reliable adult mentors – people you know and trust. Kids often hesitate to share deep feelings with their parents because they have "unfinished business" with them.
This doesn't mean that you've failed as a parent; it's just wise to ask for a little outside help. Consider your pastor, your kids' youth pastor, a teacher, a coach, a grandfather, or a close friend or neighbor.
- Start talking early about smoking, alcohol, and drugs – and keep talking about them every chance you get. The earlier a child becomes involved in substance abuse, the more difficult it will be to break the habit.
Be aware of trends in your community. If you hear about kids smoking, drinking, or inhaling or injecting drugs, talk about it as a family. And make sure you have the time and energy for these conversations.
If you're too overworked, overcommitted, or overtired to keep tabs on the home front, make changes! A parent's physical and emotional presence is key to discouraging a child's drug use.
- Do everything you can to protect your children from direct contact with drug use. Keep prescription opioid drugs under lock and key and out of your kids' reach. Don't leave them in the family medicine cabinet. (For security, we encourage you to explore the option of a smart safe such as iKeyp.)
Talk to your kids about the special dangers and risks of opioid drug use. If your adolescent has a long-time friend who's become involved in the drug culture, have the courage to impose limits on that relationship.
Don't let your teen go to a party, sleepover, or other activity that isn't supervised by someone you trust. Keep track of the influences your kids are subjected to on a day-to-day basis.
- Create significant consequences to discourage alcohol and drug use. If your adolescent confesses that she tried a cigarette or alcohol at a party and seems genuinely remorseful about it, a heart-to-heart conversation would be far more appropriate than grounding her for six months.
But if your warnings are repeatedly ignored, you'll need to establish and enforce meaningful penalties – for example, loss of driving, dating, or phone privileges for an extended time.
- Keep a close eye if your child is prescribed medication for pain during medical treatment. Share your concerns with the doctor about addictive drugs. Ask if other medications that carry fewer risks than opioids might be effective.
If you'd like to discuss this at greater length, call our Counseling department for a free over-the-phone consultation. Our licensed counselors will be happy to help in any way they can.
Winning the Drug War at Home
Mom, Everyone Else Does! Becoming Your Daughter's Ally in Responding to Peer Pressure to Drink, Smoke, and Use Drugs (not currently available through Focus on the Family)