Chances are good that you know a family that’s been touched by the opioid epidemic. Roughly 60,000-65,000 individuals in the U.S. died from drug overdoses in 2016, with about 42,000 of those deaths caused by opioids. It’s estimated that more than 11 million Americans misused prescription opioids last year, and nearly one million used heroin. Among the fastest growing groups of users are teens.
Opioids are a class of drugs derived from or related to compounds naturally found in the opium poppy plant. These include street drugs like heroin as well as prescription painkillers such as morphine, oxycodone (Oxycontin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). Some occur naturally and some are synthetic. All are addictive and, when misused, can be deadly.
As a psychiatrist who works with people who struggle with addictions, I regularly deal with families affected by the opioid crisis. One of the most heartbreaking things I see is parents desperately seeking to help an addicted child, but to no avail. Sometimes the grip of addiction is overpowering and the addict isn’t ready for help, or doesn’t want it.
The lure of opioids is strong for many, but there are things that moms and dads can do to help prevent their kids from doing drugs. Some are simple, such as reducing access to opioids by storing prescription painkillers in a secure location and returning any excess pills to your doctor if you no longer need them. Know where your kids are and who they are with—your teenager doesn’t have a “right to privacy” when it comes to these sorts of things. And certainly you should talk candidly with your children about the dangers of opioids (both prescription and street drugs), and make your expectations for conduct clear.
There are a few other things to bear in mind to help your child avoid the tragic path to addiction:
- They need to rely on God, not coping mechanisms. The means people choose to deal with pain, stress, or even boredom go beyond just drugs and alcohol. They can include “safer” substances such as caffeine and food. Teach your children, in words and by example, to turn to God for help and comfort – not marijuana, a glass of wine, or a second or third helping at dinner.
- The opposite of addiction is belonging. Do your kids know they are dearly loved by God and your family? Are they plugged in to a healthy youth group at church? What about other Christian groups like Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Young Life, or Youth for Christ? When someone feels connected and knows they are loved it’s much less likely that they will turn to substances like opioids to escape the difficulties of life.
- They need tools to make good decisions. Some parents think that if their kids are raised in a relatively stable environment they will naturally make good choices. The fact is, good decision-making never comes naturally, and people need to be taught how to make good decisions. Help your children to thoughtfully consider the situations they encounter, think about their own perceptions and emotions, and properly assess their circumstances and plan their best response. Seeing you making good choices and thinking out loud really helps them understand what goes on in your head to produce godly decisions.
The pull of the culture and peers toward opioid addiction is strong , but your influence as a parent is even stronger. Keep the lines of communication open with your kids so that you can provide the guidance they need.
Karl Benzio, MD, is a psychiatrist and member of the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family. Dr. Benzio is founder and director of the Lighthouse Network (844-543-3242), a helpline and resource for people dealing with addictions and mental health issues, and Honey Lake Clinic, a residential addiction and mental health treatment program in Greenville, Florida.