Health & Science

How to talk to children about substance misuse and addiction

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Talking to kids about drugs, substance misuse, and addiction has always been important, but maybe now more than ever. New survey findings reveal that one out of every five 13- and 14-year-old respondents had seen drugs being sold on social media. According to the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation who administered the survey, kids’ exposure to drugs online increased from 20 percent of 13-15 year-olds in 2020 to 25 percent of teens surveyed in 2021. 

The survey also revealed that Snapchat was the leading social media app where teenagers saw drugs being sold online, followed by Instagram and TikTok. With kids spending even more time online than ever during the pandemic, it’s not surprising that they are being exposed to more and more problematic content on their favorite apps. 

Given that peer pressure is all but a given in adolescent life, coupled with the fact that kids are increasingly likely to find drugs for sale or content related to substance abuse online, the time to talk about it is now. These scripts can help you talk to them about this tough topic in a productive way—

Start the conversation early

You can incorporate lessons about drugs and controlled substances into your conversations with your kids, even if they’re very young. For example, when you give them vitamins or medicine you can say this—

“Remember, you can only take medicine when a parent or trusted adult gives it to you. Taking medicine that doesn’t belong to you, or when you aren’t directed by a safe adult to take it, can make you very sick.”

To explain addiction to a child, it might be helpful to use a metaphor they will understand—

“Drugs can make people addicted, even after trying them only once. When you become addicted to something, your body wants more of it no matter what—even if your mind knows it’s bad for you. Imagine there was a big bowl of candy sitting out. Some people might be able to take just one piece, but others may love the feeling of eating candy so much they can’t stop after just one, even if they know it will give them a stomach ache.”

Lead with empathy

Think back to what it was like to be their age—the urge to experiment and the desire to fit in are strong forces in the lives of teens and preteens. Make sure they know you empathize with their feelings, and at the same time are coming from a place of wisdom and experience that can be a valuable resource for them if they ever feel conflicted or confused—

“It’s totally normal to be curious and to want to experiment and fit in. At the same time, your brain and body are still developing right now, so the consequences of drugs and alcohol are much more severe for you, and more likely to be permanent. These substances can damage important organs like your brain and heart, and cause you to become addicted for life.”

Peer pressure is a big part of the picture when it comes to kids and drugs. Friends can be powerful influences on each other, so it’s important to warn kids early and often about the dangers of trusting substances that aren’t approved by a parent or doctor—

“Whether you see drugs for sale online, or if they’re being offered to you by a good friend, you never know exactly what you’re getting. Drugs can be laced with even more harmful substances, like fentanyl—and it’s impossible to know their potency. If you’re feeling pressure from a friend to try a drug, you can just say, ‘No thanks, I’m not interested.’”

Addiction can affect anyone

Despite media tropes and stereotypes about folks who are addicted to drugs and alcohol—the fact is, addiction does not discriminate. Anyone can become addicted to substances, regardless of their background. It’s important to stress the consequences of addiction to young folks—

“Addiction is a biological disease that can make people do harmful things to themselves and others. People can become addicted for lots of different reasons, from experiencing trauma, to experimenting with drugs as a teen. If you know someone who is addicted, it can feel bad to miss out on time with them or see them make hurtful choices, but it’s important not to judge them or take it personally. Just remember, the only way to avoid becoming addicted to substances is to avoid them—especially when you’re still growing and developing.”

The most important thing to remember when starting this conversation is to keep communication with your kids open and ongoing even after it’s over. Establish a judgment-free policy with them, that allows them to come to you about any questions or concerns they have about drugs or alcohol without fear of being interrogated or punished—

“If you ever see or hear anything about drugs or alcohol that you’re curious or concerned about, you can always ask me about it without worrying about judgment or getting in trouble. You can always feel safe coming to me if you need help.”

As kids get older, they’re faced with tougher and tougher choices. These talking points will help prepare them for some of those challenges, and help them make more informed choices on their own.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.