Care and Feeding

How Do I Talk to My Kids About Drugs?

My cousin overdosed on opioids, and I don’t know what could have stopped him.

A parent puts an arm around a child.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Arleen Wiese/Unsplash.

Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding from Carvell Wallace every week.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Recently, my 19-year-old cousin passed away from a fentanyl overdose. I have always been very close with my cousin and his family and can attest without qualification that he came from a “good home,” that is, a stable environment with two loving parents, and had none of the risk factors that we sometimes associate with kids and drug abuse (i.e., no genetic history of addition, no mental health issues, no childhood abuse, no family financial struggles, etc.). His parents talked to him regularly and thoughtfully about the risks of drug experimentation and abuse. When my cousin died, he was on the honor roll of a selective college, with big plans for his future.

Friends, family, and medical examiners say that when he died of a fentanyl overdose, my cousin was not “addicted” in the way we understand that term. Instead, it was likely the second or third time he had used the drug (which he thought was heroin), which he began experimenting with after using pain pills in high school. This narrative of opioid abuse (pain pills to heroin) is familiar, but in my cousin’s case, it was quicker than usual—a few pills at high school parties, a few bad decisions with harder drugs in college, and suddenly he’s just a statistic in the opioid crisis sweeping the nation.

My question is not a new one, but in many ways, because of the opioid crisis, it feels like one we need to address in a different way and with new urgency: How do you talk to your kids about drugs? In particular, how do you talk to kids about drugs such as opioids, which, as was the case with fentanyl and my cousin—and for so many others who overdose every day—can literally kill in an instant?

Heavy, I know, but so is parenting sometimes.

—E

Dear E,

I’m terribly sorry for your loss. I know what it’s like to lose family members in this way, and it’s not something you can ever fully grasp or get over. I think that in order to talk to your kids about drugs you have to be realistic, honest, consistent, informed, and courageous.

You must be realistic first about the nature of your nephew’s situation. And while I understand why it feels important to point out that he came from a good home and was a good kid—and I have no doubt these things are true—it’s equally important to recognize that these are not inoculations against addiction. Neither is not having a genetic predisposition. Upgrading from pain pills to heroin is a sign that your nephew was struggling with addiction to a greater extent than it may be comfortable to recognize. And if he was already moving to heroin, there is a nonzero chance that he used pain pills more than “just a few times.” The opioid crisis is literally no different from the crack crisis in that regard: It is the substance that is addictive. It is the substance that can quickly and indiscriminately make an addict out of anybody, no matter their background.

I apologize if this feels like quibbling over semantics, but the reason it is important is that this is part of the message you must convey to your own children: that there is no “addict type” and that not appearing to be an addict does not in any way guarantee safety from the horrific consequences of drug use. Many people have signed their own death warrants barreling forward into drug use in the belief that they are perfectly fine because they don’t “look” like an addict. You have to also convey to them the seriousness and quickness with which these things get out of control, and in fact the abridgement of your nephew’s story is evidence of that. I am sure he thought he had things pretty well under control until it was too late. I know that because this is how these experiences are for most people who run into drug and alcohol trouble. Rather than a story of an unusual and unexpected occurrence, it would be wise to consider your nephew’s death evidence of how incredibly powerful and unmanageable this thing really is. This is the level of honesty and realism required to have an ongoing healthy conversation with your kids about drugs. They have to be informed and as such you have to be informed.

There is no magic bullet that can guarantee an outcome for children. If there were, we would have no need for this conversation. You must do your best, you must not mince words, and you must not be afraid to say difficult truths either to your children or to yourself.