The ten tuths I'll tell my son about drugs

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Addiction runs along family lines, so it’s critical to talk to your kids about substance abuse. But that doesn’t make it easy. Here are my ten truths for discussing drug addiction with my son.

byMichelle Horton


When a doctor handed my husband a prescription to painkillers six years ago, I had no idea how our lives could unravel. We were entering a time of denial, deception, near-death scares. A simple chemical cocktail completely changed my husband and controlled him, until I was sleeping next to a stranger.

Throughout the excruciating experience, I learned more than any class or informational video could ever teach. I stared at the human struggle, right in the eyes, and slept next to its darkest shadows. I saw my husband’s problem through a fresh perspective, and I saw my son through the same — knowing he might be genetically predisposed to follow in his father’s numbed-out path.

So how do we talk about addiction with today’s kids — kids with more access to drugs and entryways into addiction than ever before?

It’s easy to settle into the “War on Drugs” talking points, or to stick with a watered-down “All drugs are bad. Don’t do them” script. I know some conversations are scary and difficult — better left to D.A.R.E. officers and after-school specials, we assume. But this fear-based, broad-stroke approach to drugs inevitably backfires. It just does.

As my son gets older and the questions start coming, I hope to instill in him three main values: open communication, unconditional acceptance, and honesty.

Here are 10 lessons I believe all kids need to hear — and they need to hear them from us:

1. Drugs are something we can and will talk about often.

I recently attended a community forum on the growing opiate epidemic strangling our quiet, safe suburban area (a topic plaguing communities all over the country), and I had one big takeaway. A researcher was talking about the heroin use in – deep breaths – middle school. She found that the most at-risk kids weren’t the ones who said their parents thought drugs were “good” or “bad;” the kids most at risk had no idea what their parents thought.

Parents, we need to talk to our kids about drugs, and sooner than we think. Especially with the wide availability of prescription drugs, which is at the root of our opiate and heroin epidemics.

According to The Medicine Abuse Project, one in four teens has misused or abused a prescription at least once in their lifetime, and much of the abuse is happening before the age of 14. We need to start talking, and early.

2. We will never live in a drug-free world, and we probably wouldn’t want to.

Let’s start by being honest about drugs, in all of their forms and varieties, illegal and legal. Whether we like to think about it or not, drugs will be a part of our children’s future. As a society, we use substances to achieve different states all the time — to wake up (caffeine), to numb our pain (opiates), or to bond and connect with friends (alcohol). Even sugar can be brought into the drug discussion, showing kids how benign-looking and pervasive drugs really are in our society.

Our kids don’t need to just avoid drugs; they need to responsibly live in a world with drugs around them all the time.

3. Not all drugs are created equal.

Marijuana is not meth; psilocybin mushrooms are not tobacco; sugar is not cocaine. Grouping all drugs under one umbrella term and circling them with a giant red X doesn’t do much to teach our children. It’s actually quite lazy.

All drugs have the possibility to be abused, but they don’t affect our bodies in the same way. Some have a much higher propensity to destroy our lives and bodies, and some have proven medicinal qualities. Take psychotropic drugs, for instance. As the experiences of ayahuasca, DMT, and psilocybin become more mainstream and accessible, they need to be another branch of the “drug talk.” Lumping these types of drugs into the same category as, say, “speed” or “crack” is dishonest and shortsighted.

Our honesty is valuable. If they trust our judgment and know we’re being straight with them, they might be more apt to believe us when we say, “Just don’t pick up a cigarette. Nothing about it is worth it.”

4. Some of the most dangerous drugs are legal.

It’s time to stop propagating this idea that the most dangerous drugs are the illegal ones.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 114 people die from prescription painkillers every day, and pharmaceuticals cause over 1.4 million emergency department visits per year. Prescription drug overdose has now moved to the number one cause of injury death, bypassing car crashes, and killing more people than cocaine and heroin combined. And do you know the third leading cause of preventable death? Alcohol, also legal, which kills nearly 88,000 people annually. And then there’s the cigarette.

Kids need to be aware that the real dangerous stuff could be picked up at any drug store or supermarket.

5. Drugs are a quick fix, but a losing battle.

If our kids end up experimenting with drugs, they very well might discover the truth: drugs work. When it comes to numbing our anxiety, patching up our holes, and helping us feel nice and peaceful and happy, yes drugs work – at least for a moment.

Although drugs make it easy to avoid the hard realities of life and escape to a different place, those patched holes aren’t a sustainable solution. It might work for a year, five years, even 20 years, but the leaks will come. The structure will crumble, I promise you.

The longer we cover up our problems with something like drugs, the harder life gets. I hope to teach my son that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with life, and drugs are a self-destructive, losing battle.

6. Addictions go deeper than drugs.

We have this idea that drugs are the problem – that if we can just keep our kids away from drugs, if we can ensure that they’re “good” kids who make the “right” choices, then they’ll be safe. And yet drugs aren’t the problem – drugs are the solution to something deeper.

Drugs aren’t the only way our kids can distract themselves from unpleasant issues, or deny parts of themselves that they don’t like. Heck, the phones in their pockets are warm, comforting portals into distraction and disconnection. The more disconnection our kids feel, the more vulnerable our kids are to addictions of all kinds.

According to Johann Hari, author of “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs,” the likely cause of addiction isn’t the chemicals hooks, but isolation, loneliness, and disconnection.

In order to keep our kids safe, we’re going to need to address those deeper concerns.

7. Addictions are miserable.

Parents are good at saying no, but perhaps we need to do a better job at explaining why.

The real mechanics of addiction — how it affects our brain and our lives — need to be emphasized, preferably by someone who has been there. This is where I’m hoping my husband can step in, showing my son that even the smartest, coolest, most superhero-like people aren’t immune to the hell that is addiction. 

8. There is a genetic predisposed to addiction.

Some parents hide their struggle with addiction, worried that their kids might think less of them.

But kids predisposed to addiction — which is a lot of children — need to understand the odds stacked against them. Addiction and alcoholism become family legacies. My son will meet people who can dabble in recreational drugs and drinking without long-lasting consequences, but he needs to know he’s rolling a dice. With his father’s history, it’s less likely that he can take just one drink.

9. Not now, maybe later.

Rather than broadly declare, “Never ever” with a wagging finger, I want my son to understand the very real, scientifically confirmed problems that drugs — including marijuana and psychedelics — have on developing brains.

So no, not right now — allow your brain to develop in a healthy way. But when you’re older, in your 20s, you can make that choice for yourself. Odds are, any consciousness exploring or drug experimentation will be done a bit more responsibly because he’s not a child.

10. He can always talk to us, and we’ll always listen without judgment.

This statement is, hands down, the most important component of the drug talk.

Not for parents to say they’ll listen without judgment, but for them to actually do it. Sometimes life is hard, and people stumble into unhealthy coping strategies — it happens. Just because my son might make a bad choice, doesn’t mean he’s a bad person.

And if he does find himself hooked on drugs, I want to look at the deeper hurt and issues going on. No emotionally healthy person with self-worth and self-love needs to rely on drugs to get through the day, or engage in such self-destructive habits.

The lines of communication will always be wide open. I want him to know that no matter what happens, he can be okay. And we will always listen to him, no matter how hard it is to hear.

Michelle Horton is a New York based writer who has lived with addiction in her family and marriage. She's been published in a variety of publications and founded, an award-winning site for young moms.



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