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Talking to your kids about illicit drug use

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Reports about the ongoing opioid epidemic have saturated the news lately, leaving parents baffled as to why smart, well-adjusted kids are turning to heroin to get high. Even though we’ve had programs and policies at both the federal and local level, illicit drug use amongst our youth continues to be a grave problem.

According to a 2015 revised report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which outlines statistics collected by The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Most people use drugs for the first time when they are teenagers. There were just over 2.8 million new users of illicit drugs in 2013, or about 7,800 new users per day. Over half (54.1 percent) were under 18 years of age.”

Parents shouldn’t subscribe to the notion of “not my kid,” because good kids with good grades can experiment with drugs. Instead, be sure you know your child’s friends, the places he hangs out, and the latest in illicit drug use in your community. By the time most kids are in middle school, they’ve already heard about drugs on the playground, so be sure to talk with them first.

Here are some tips to help parents know where to start:

How to broach the subject

“It is always best to create an open dialogue about the dangers of drug use before the problem is even there,” says Jamison Monroe, Jr., founder and head of Newport Academy. “Create an environment where you don’t have to play catch up on educating your children on the potential dangers of their behavior.”

Tina Muller, a drug counselor and Family Wellness Manager at Mountainside Treatment Center advises, “Parents can start talking to their children about drug abuse when they are very young without explicitly diving into an explanation on hard drugs.”

While dispensing vitamins, Muller suggests, “Explain to them that vitamins are good for you and will help you to grow up to be big and strong, but they can also be harmful if you take too many.”

Dr. Deni Carise, Chief Clinical Officer at Recovery Centers of America, reports, “Kids in elementary school are hearing about drugs, so you need to start the conversation. Parents should find out what the school is doing about substance abuse education.”

Muller points out, “If you become aware that kids at their school are using drugs, and your child hasn’t said anything about it, ask him directly, ‘Have you heard about the drug use at your school? What are your thoughts and feelings about it?’”

Your approach and building trust

“Before you talk to your kids, get educated,” explains Howard C. Samuels, a leading drug and alcohol addiction expert and founder and head of The Hills Treatment Center. “You need to know what’s going on with your children. You need to build a rapport with them. Don’t look down at them.”

Carise says that there are different ways to approach kids depending on their behaviors and personality.

“Impulsive kids are more likely to try drugs, and simple verbal warnings usually don’t work with them. Instead, a parent can share news articles that show popular, athletic kids overdosing on the first or second try.” She points out that there is also an educational approach. “You could tell your child, ‘I know you have a good head on your shoulders, but drugs change the way people think. People who are high will do things they normally wouldn’t.’ ”

What about sharing your own indiscretions? Muller advises, “Your kids might be curious as to whether you’ve tried drugs. Parents may be inclined to lie about this, but that lie can end up ruining their credibility. It’s okay to share some basic information without going into a lot of detail. Use this as a teachable moment to talk about peer pressure and the consequences you faced.”

“My kids know I’ve been in recovery for 32 years,” Samuels shares. “I don’t know for sure if they’re less likely to use drugs, but I do know that if you don’t talk to your kids about it, you’re not being a responsible parent.”

Parents can provide their kids with a safety net.

“Use a text code,” suggests Carise. “If your child is in a situation that has gotten out of control, she can text you ‘blue’ to let you know that you should call and insist she return home.” This way it doesn’t look like your child is the one who ratted out her friends.

Carise states, “For those who have been drug free and have reached the ages of 22 to 25, the chances of developing an addiction significantly decrease. Whether it’s decreased impulsivity, more responsibility, or a combination of factors is unclear.”

Talking to your kids about drugs should be an ongoing conversation throughout their growing-up years.

Latest in illicit drugs

The bottom line: Parents need to be informed about what’s going on in their communities.

“Every police department has a community liaison officer who knows what’s going on,” Samuels asserts. “Parents need to use all resources available to them.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that marijuana is harmless, because it is now legal in some states.

“The legalization of marijuana sends the message that weed is harmless. I see disastrous consequences in young people’s lives due to marijuana. The THC is very powerful in marijuana today,” Samuels states.

“Parents’ medicine cabinets are the number-one place kids get drugs,” warns Carise. “Pill parties are a new trend. Parents go out of town and kids mix a bunch of prescription and over-the-counter pills in a bowl. Then, they take turns grabbing some. They don’t even know what they’re taking.” These types of parties (a.k.a. pharming or pharm parties) usually include alcohol and are extremely dangerous because the drug interactions are unknown and can be fatal. “Parents need to lock up their prescripti­ons,” Carise urges.

Drugs that can be bought online or elsewhere:

Salvia (aka Magic Mint, Sally-D): is an herb in the mint family which causes hallucinations. It is illegal to sell in New York, but can be purchased online and in other states.

Synthetic cannabis (also known as fake pot, K2, spice): contains dangerous chemicals sprayed on plants and sold in packages labeled as collectors’ items, usually including “Not for Human Consumption.” Synthetic drugs can cause hallucinations and psychosis. When one chemical is banned, producers create different chemical versions to trick the system.

The opioid epidemic (heroin and prescription drugs)

“Opioid addiction is sweeping the nation at an alarming rate,” warns Monroe. “All ages and demographics are struggling with this one.”

According to a January 2017 National Institute on Drug Abuse article, “Prescription opioid pain medicines, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, have effects similar to heroin. Research suggests that misuse of these drugs may open the door to heroin use. Nearly 80 percent of Americans using heroin reported misusing prescription opioids prior to using heroin.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also reports that increases in the number of written prescriptions, greater social acceptability for using medication, and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies have contributed to the opioid epidemic.

“Most people with a heroin problem started out with a prescription opiate. They get hooked on those, then turn to cheaper, easily accessible heroin,” warns Carise. Another frightening statistic is that people are becoming addicted to heroin in six to nine months, Carise informs.


“Nicknames for drugs are always changing,” states Monroe, “but parents should be aware of ‘ice’ for methamphetamines, ‘brown sugar’ or ‘H’ for heroin, and ‘candy’ or ‘snow’ for cocaine.”

Other common street names:

• Marijuana: Weed, pot, dope, herb.

• Prescription pain killers (Vicodin, OxyContin, etc.): Morph, vike, cotton, kicker.

• Valium: Blues.

• Ritalin: Rid.

Red flags

“If there is an alcohol or drug problem with a parent or grandparent, a child will be predisposed to addiction,” cautions Samuels.

Dr. Carise shares a Recovery Centers of America list of possible warning signs:

• Changes in friendships

• Becomes tired or withdrawn

• Frequent mood changes

• Unreasonable excuses for behavior

• Becomes hostile, angry or secretive

• Unusual elation

• Poor hygiene

• Severe change in weight

• Loss of interest in schoolwork

• Missing cash from your wallet

• Unusual paraphernalia or items: red-eye reduction, wrappers, pipes, lots of mints or chewing gum, Frisbees (used to clean marijuana), etc.

You believe your child has tried drugs

Some parents choose to test for drugs even if they haven’t found out their child is using. Kids can then use this as an excuse to turn down drugs in front of peers.

“I test my 15-year-old son,” Samuels says. “This enables him to say to friends, ‘I can’t use because my dad tests me.’”

Carise counsels parents to have a specific plan if their child tests positive. In other words, parents need to know what the consequences will be and specific questions they will ask their child.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports, “Youth are more likely to follow rules if they know parents are checking up on them and will enforce the consequences consistent­ly.” Immediate follow-up is also important — both consequences and encouragement for good behavior.

Samuels advises, “If they continue to use, send them to an outpatient program.”

Parents can also:

• Contact an addiction specialist­/treatment center.

• Schedule child for a full medical work-up.

• Find a peer support group.

Myrna Beth Haskell is an award-winning author, columnist, and feature writer. Her work has appeared in publications across the U.S. as well as internationally (www.myrnahaskell.com). She is also co-founder and managing editor of Sanctuary (www.sanctuary-magazine.com).

Resources for parents


• National Institute on Drug Abuse: Comprehensive site with a wealth of information.

• Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration: Help and treatment, publications.

Getsmartaboutdrugs.gov: A Drug Enforcement Administration resource. Drug facts and how to identify and prevent drug use.

• Partnership for Drug-free Kids: Downloadable resources concerning treatment, medications, intervention, and how to talk to kids.


“Teens Under the Influence: The Truth About Kids, Alcohol, and Other Drugs – How to Recognize the Problem and What to Do About It” (Balantine Books).

Hotlines and helplines:

• Al-Anon-Alateen: (800) 344–2666

Peer support groups, publications, general information.

• Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration: (800) 662–HELP (4357)

This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers can also order free publications and other information.

• The National Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Information Center: (800) 784-6776

Comprehensive database of leading drug and alcohol treatment centers. Recommends licensed professional interventionists.

Posted 12:00 am, March 5, 2018
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