Just more than a decade ago, Sara Doiron experienced a parent's worst nightmare: her 16-year-old daughter Kyla took a deadly dose of fentanyl, overdosed, and died in Whitby, Ont.
Doiron's experience is unfortunately becoming increasingly familiar as the number of fatal opioid overdoses increases across Canada, among both habitual and recreational drug users.
"It's so sad to watch the news today and to watch one fentanyl drug overdose after another in all parts of the world," Doiron says.
Several people every day in Canada have died of a fentanyl overdose so far this year, and Western Canada is disproportionately affected. But other substances — including other drugs, abused prescription medications, and alcohol — can also cause problems with abuse and addiction, and early onset of substance use is a risk factor for later issues.
But parents do have one important tool available to them when it comes to keeping kids away from drugs: talking. "Conversations are one of the most powerful tools parents can use to connect with — and protect — their kids," says Cathy Taughinbaugh, a parent coach with Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
Parents do have one important tool available to them when it comes to keeping kids away from drugs: talking.
"But, when tackling some of life's tougher topics, especially those about drugs and alcohol, just figuring out what to say can be a challenge."
Here are 15 tips for having those conversations with your children, at a variety of ages — and for keeping that conversation going as your children get older.
It's natural to want to shield your child from dangers like drugs, at least for as long as you can. In fact, you should start in the preschool years, says Jennifer Carrano, an assistant professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Delaware.
"They should have the information and tools they need before they're ever faced with making decisions about drugs," Carrano says. "Beginning the conversation with children before they're exposed to drugs can lay the groundwork for healthy decision-making later in life."
Approach it differently for different ages
"With drug use affecting more families these days, you can't start too young," Taughinbaugh says. But the approach you choose for these discussions will vary depending on the ages of your children.
Talking to the youngest kids
"Having general conversations about making healthy lifestyle choices is key," Carrano says of discussing drugs with the youngest 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."
With preschoolers you can build discussion into your general teaching of life skills, like mentioning that you should never take medications that don't have your name on them, Taughinbaugh adds.
Discussions with tweens
Slightly older children can understand the differences between medicinal and non-medicinal uses of drugs, and hear about the negative side effects. "But keep your discussions about substances focused on the present — long-term consequences are too distant to have any meaning," Taughinbaugh says.
Keep your discussions about substances focused on the present — long-term consequences are too distant to have any meaning.
Allow your children to make increasingly complex decisions and solve problems, and to learn from their mistakes in age-appropriate ways, Carrano adds.
Getting through to teens
As children get older, they're going to hear more about drugs from people other than their parents: their peers, other adults in their lives, and the media they consume. And as they move into the teen years they may end up in situations where they are exposed to drugs themselves, like parties or a friend's house.
"Parents should continue to encourage open and honest communication, to encourage decision-making and problem-solving skills, to set clear rules and consequences for behaviour, and to model good behaviour," Carrano says.
Don't discuss drugs once with your child and consider your work done. This is a conversation that has to continue with your children, including into the teen years.
"Parents, you are the biggest influence in your teen's life," Taughinbaugh says. "That's why it's important to talk regularly with your teen."
Parents, you are the biggest influence in your teen's life. That's why it's important to talk regularly with your teen.
Have drug-related discussions with your teens based on their realities, not on the world you wished they lived in, she says. Talk to them about their friends, especially if their friend group seems to change suddenly. React with seriousness, but not high emotion, if your teen comes home smelling of smoke or alcohol, she says — they should understand the gravity of the situation, but screaming at them will only cause them to shut down.
When to bring it up?
Family discussion about drugs should include both focused conversations and smaller, casual ones.
"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."
Listen word by word
Pay attention not just to the overall message you're hearing from and providing to your kids, but also to the individual words they are using, Doiron says. "If during the conversation you feel they said something that glorifies drug use, then stop and rectify the conversation right then and there," she says.
If during the conversation you feel they said something that glorifies drug use, then stop and rectify the conversation right then and there.
Let them talk, too
Give your children a chance to ask questions, to bring up their concerns, and to tell you what they're thinking — it's a conversation, not a lecture. "Approach your conversation with openness and empathy and be sure to communicate that you do not want your teen using drugs or alcohol," Taughinbaugh says.
"Remind your teen of your support and be sure to listen to what he or she has to say."
Don't make the discussion one-sided. "To make sure your child fully understands the severity of drug use, ask him or her questions," Doiron says. "Tell your child to ask you questions as well and make sure you're both on the same page." This gives you a chance to make sure they understand, and to clear up any misconceptions right away.
Talk about peer pressure
Peer pressure is not unusual — it's likely your child has experienced it already, about something far less serious than drugs. At some point, though, that pressure may be applied in more dangerous situations.
"Explain to them that some people make bad decisions and they want others to join them in the bad behaviour so that they're not alone," Doiron says.
Explain to them that some people make bad decisions and they want others to join them in the bad behaviour so that they're not alone.
"Share your personal stories of what you encountered when a cigarette or alcohol was offered to you, yet you didn't want to try it. Be honest with them." And remind them that as much as it might seem like everyone is doing it, that's not the reality, Taughinbaugh says — so it doesn't have to be their reality either.
Know what their peers are experiencing
If you hear about drug use or drinking at your preteen's school, talk to them about it, Taughinbaugh says. "Let him know that in the future, he can always blame you to get out of a bad situation," she suggests, and make it clear that kids can come to you about anything — don't make them feel like you can't handle hearing about what they are dealing with in their day-to-day lives, because then they won't feel open to sharing with you.
And talk to your kids in practical terms as well, Carrano says — practice what they might say if offered drugs, or in a scenario where others are using them. This gives them skills to rely on when that pretend scenario is reality.
Addressing the behaviour of loved ones
Younger children in particular might find it hard to understand that someone who chooses to use, or even abuse, drugs isn't a bad person, even if they are not making a good decision.
You can address negative behaviours without demonizing the person, especially if that person is a loved one or someone your child looks up to. "If your child sees an adult smoking and you've had this discussion, you could say, 'Grownups can make their own decisions and sometimes those decisions aren't the best for their bodies,'" suggests Taughinbaugh.
Be mindful of your own behaviour
There are plenty of reasons why you might take medications, and many adults have a drink here and there without problem. But be mindful of how you talk about substances in front of your children, Doiron says.
Be mindful of how you talk about substances in front of your children.
If you need a medication for a medical reason, that's something you can explain to your child. And if you yourself are in recovery for drug or alcohol abuse, that can be important to share with your child so they know the risks, Taughinbaugh says.
There is research showing that children of alcoholics are more susceptible to their own addiction problems in the future, for example.
Remember to focus on the problem, not the people
Addiction is a disease, not a character defect, and parents should keep in mind that they can talk honestly and with concern about drugs without demonizing those who struggle with abuse.
"Children and adolescents can easily recognize the negative consequences of a disease without unfairly demonizing people who are ill," Carrano says.
Addiction is a disease, not a character defect.
"Parents can explain to children that addiction can affect anybody, which is why it is so important to make good decisions around substance use."
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