The H Word: How and Why to Talk With Your Kids About the Deadly Heroin Epidemic

by ParentCo. August 29, 2017

teenager boy sitting and covering his mouth using a hat

In the U.S., 60,000 people died from drug overdoses last year – the most ever. Drugs are now the leading killer of Americans under 50 years old, with more than half of overdoses attributable to opioids/heroin which, alone, now kill Americans at roughly the same pace as gun violence. As a recovering alcoholic, these figures confirm the frightening trend I see developing in Alcoholics Anonymous: More and more young people are primarily addicted to opioids – including heroin – as opposed to alcohol or other drugs. Before we go further, some clarification: Generously prescribed painkillers like Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin are in the same family of drugs as heroin – namely, opioids. The abuse of both is at crisis level. And though addiction is addiction, all drugs are not created equal. Opioids are simply far more lethal and especially likely to cause overdoses following periods of clean time. Heroin’s growing popularity stems from accessibility and cost. Since it’s illegal, heroin doesn’t require a prescription and, on the streets, is far less expensive than its pill-based counterparts. The result is widespread “addiction by accident” scenarios in which patients are prescribed painkillers for a legitimate reason, become physically dependent, and eventually turn to cheaper, more obtainable heroin. Scared yet? You should be. We’re raising our children amidst an unprecedented scourge of deadly addiction, and staying silent is simply not an option. Here are ways parents can communicate the perils of opioids.

“Whatever you do..."

The best advice my father ever gave was, “Whatever you do, don’t drive if you’ve been drinking.” He said this not when I reached legal drinking age, but four years earlier when I got my driver’s license – ceding, without condoning, the likelihood of underage drinking while emphasizing drunk driving as completely unacceptable. One sin was venial, the other potentially mortal. Similarly, a holier-than-thou approach won’t suffice when it comes to heroin. We must hammer home the singular danger of opioids without explicitly condoning the use of other drugs, alcohol included. Heroin must occupy a never-ever-ever category unto itself. Whether that makes kids more likely to imbibe other substances is debatable. Regardless, you’d rather your child come home drunk, stoned, or even high on cocaine than find opioids in his backpack.

Arrange a "pre-intervention" – even if your teen doesn’t realize it

Chances are, you know someone in recovery – someone like me. And chances are, they’re very comfortable with discussing their experiences as alcoholics and addicts. It’s something we do regularly in AA, where identifying with fellow sufferers is key to staying sober. Our checkered pasts and the plainspoken, preach-free manner in which we discuss them make those in recovery ideal to deliver a stern yet unassuming warning about the dangers of opioids and heroin. Know a recovering drunk but not a junkie? No problem. Anyone with a firm foothold in recovery is well aware of the emergency that heroin has become, and can speak to its unique lethality. We’ve been to enough wakes. A pre-intervention need not be a big production – in fact, the lower-key the better. For example, I once tactfully found a few moments to informally chat with a friend’s kid during a barbecue. He got the message – and he didn’t even know the discussion was orchestrated by his parents. To those who’d call that deceitful or manipulative, I say this: Welcome to the real world. Desperate times call for drastic measures and, of all the indignities to which we can subject our children, I’d put some pre-planned “Just Say No” stagecraft pretty far down the list. Hesitant to ask a recovering friend to discuss so personal a topic? Most of us are so grateful to be free of addiction’s grasp that we’re happy to pay it forward and help prevent someone from having to endure the same hellish consequences we suffered.

Play to teenage exceptionalism & rebellion

Every generation of parents ascribes, in some degree, to the “When I Was Your Age” cliché, the idea that our childhoods were tougher than that of our offspring. And indeed, this eye roll-inducing saying is true in certain areas – the sophistication of technology, the four-star resorts most college campuses have become, and so on. But in terms of navigating illicit drugs, the current youth generation has it worse not only than their parents, but any generation. Again, the difference between marijuana and heroin – or even cocaine and heroin – is the difference between being picked up by the police and being zipped up by the coroner. Opioids have upped the ante to the point where parents need to pitch a near-perfect game. So use that. Adolescents and teenagers love believing the world is singularly tough on them and their peers. Here’s a novel concept: agree with them. And while you’re at it, play to teen angst and rebellion. Explain to them what got us here: Lies and profiteering. For decades pharmaceutical companies have reaped massive profits by vastly downplaying the addictive nature of a class of painkillers so similar to heroin that, today, most heroin addicts started with prescription painkillers. A telling statistic: In Ohio about 20 percent of the population was prescribed an opioid last year. Faceless corporations who didn’t care whether people live or die started, and continue to propagate, this scourge. Let’s tell our children exactly what this is: the epitome of authoritarian evil deserving of their contrarian teenage rage. Most important, don’t help them by becoming just another customer. And if all else fails, ground them for 18 years.



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