How To Talk To Teenagers About Opioid Abuse

The United States is in the middle of an opioid epidemic. Around 130 Americans a day die from the abuse of heroin and prescription opioids like fentanyl. It’s a serious public health crisis, impacting everything from healthcare to criminal justice to productivity, in addition to the tragic loss of life. As painful as it is to admit, some of these losses include teenagers.

Man with open pill bottle

One of the most important steps we can take to respond to the opioid crisis is improving our understanding of opioid abuse in general and this epidemic in particular.

Specifically, speaking openly and candidly to young people about the opioid epidemic helps prevent them from falling victim to it. Here’s a guide for how to talk to the teenagers in your life about the dangers of opioid abuse.

A Bit of Background

Before you can talk to others about opioid abuse, you should inform yourself about it as much as possible. Here is some quick, general context about the opioid crisis for your reference.

In the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies insisted that prescription opioid painkillers were not addictive. This led to an increase in how often healthcare providers prescribed them to patients. As overdose rates increased, it became clear that these medications were, in fact, very addictive, with nearly 30% of patients who were prescribed opioids for chronic pain going on to abuse them.

Many people who got addicted to opioids after being prescribed an opioid painkiller by a doctor went on to take heroin, with 80% of heroin users having first misused prescription opioids. Since the beginning of the epidemic, opioid overdoses have increased significantly, especially in the Midwestern region of the United States. Today, deaths from opioid overdose happen six times more often than they did in 1999.

Now that you’ve gotten some background about the opioid crisis, here are important tips to keep in mind for when you speak to your teenagers about it.

Be Open with Your Teenager

As an adult, it’s easy to underestimate teenagers and give them a simplified version of the truth in an effort to help them understand it. In fact, teenagers have a remarkable capacity for understanding, and sanitizing the truth will not protect them from it. When speaking to teens about the opioid crisis and drug abuse, it’s important to be candid and honest. Be prepared to answer difficult questions, and put in the time to really educate yourself in order to be able to give accurate, complete answers.

Teenager driving car with mother beside him

Make It Casual

Talking to teenagers about opioids doesn’t have to be a big production where you set a specific time to talk. Try to find opportunities to bring up the topic naturally, like when somebody you know is prescribed a painkiller. Or perhaps if it comes up in the news, or on social media.

Allow it to be a true conversation instead of a one-sided speech. Hear out your teen’s opinions and let them participate in the discussion. Know that you don’t have to cover the topic exhaustively in one go. There will be opportunities in the future to keep the conversation going. If you or your teen find it awkward to have a sit-down, one-on-one conversation, have your talk on a drive or while on a walk.

Father and son talking outside on a cold day

Be Empathetic

If you frame your opioid abuse discussion with your teenager exclusively with negativity and demonize those who get addicted to opioids, you’re missing an opportunity to humanize addiction and dive into the complexity of how and why the crisis is happening. Do your best to show empathy, compassion, and understanding. Acknowledge the role of the healthcare system and pharmaceutical providers in the epidemic along with the personal responsibility of users.

Be a Resource

Help give your teenager actionable steps. Teach them how to handle a situation where they are faced with being offered an opioid prescription. Help them learn how to talk to a friend who might be abusing opioids.

It’s critical to offer yourself as a person to talk to openly with if your teen gets into something unsafe. They should know that they can come to you and receive help, not judgment. Prepare yourself for the possible scenarios in which your teenager might come to you for help. You want to be as useful as possible in guiding them through these issues. With openness, conversation, and proactivity, you will be much more successful at protecting your family from opioid abuse.

About the Author

Paula Nicola, M.D.
Dr. Nicola is the Facility Director at Renu. She is a trained and board certified medical doctor with specialized training in addiction medicine.

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