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How to talk to kids about addiction to painkillers

Mirmont Treatment Center September 21, 2017 Substance Use Disorders By Giampaolo Gallo, MD

Q: I recently read that adolescents and young adults are taking prescription painkillers to relieve stress and anxiety, which can easily lead to dependency and long-term addiction not to mention harder drugs. How do I talk to my teenage daughter about this?

The short answer is: Be straight with her. Kids have instant access to information through the Internet and from their peers. Any discussion you have about drug or alcohol use has to come from fact and experience vs. fear and lecturing.

The “opioid crisis” seems to make the headlines every day but many parents aren’t sure how to make the connection between what’s happening and how it affects their own families. So a bit of education here is helpful.

The term “opioids” refers to all manner of drugs that affect the nervous system to relieve pain. This includes opiates, which are drugs derived from the poppy plant, such as morphine (used to produce heroin) and codeine, as well as synthetic drugs, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl. You may recognize the brand names OxyContin, Percocet and Actiq, respectively. And there are all kinds of street names for opioids and morphine derivatives, including Apache, China girl, Murder 8, Tango and Cash, China white, TNT, Hillbilly Heroin, Percs (and Perks) and many more.

Parents have to tell the truth about why people take drugs

To have a conversation that your daughter can actually hear, it’s important to talk about why people take drugs in the first place. It’s not all doom and gloom, otherwise people wouldn’t be doing it. (This is one way a teenager might view it.) Your credibility is on the line here so you have to tell the truth. People take drugs to feel good. To escape from life for awhile. To change some aspect of their lives or the way they feel. Kids are taking painkillers because they’re feeling stressed out at school or anxious. They might try them so they can feel like an adult or they might just be curious about the effects. Perhaps they’re pressured by their peers or maybe they’re just bored. Maybe for no reason at all other than it’s been offered to them.

Once you’ve acknowledged the truth about why drugs and the euphoric feeling can be so appealing, then you can openly talk about what else the drugs do to the brain and body. They distort the user’s perception of reality and can make you do things that are inappropriate, wrong and irrational. They can affect your ability to think clearly and use good judgment. They affect the way your brain responds to pleasure and can set you up (almost immediately) for wanting more. Once you get more, you may need more than that to produce the same effect. You can quickly become dependent, then addicted, which can lead to seeking out stronger drugs like heroin that do the trick more quickly and cheaply. If you have a genetic tendency towards alcoholism or drug addiction, you are even more likely to have this instant craving and desire to do more, and your chances for becoming addicted are much higher.

Medicine cabinet misconception: Prescription painkillers

What’s in a medicine cabinet is also dangerously deceptive because it’s prescribed by a doctor. Kids erroneously think prescription drugs are safer than illegal street drugs. The fact is, however, prescription painkillers can be lethal because different body chemistries respond differently to dosages. What’s fine and “safe” for one person could cause another person to become sick or unconscious.

It’s also important to stop talking and listen to your daughter. You can encourage dialog by asking open-ended questions that give her a chance to talk about her own feelings and beliefs, as well as her own experiences and what she’s heard or been exposed to.

It can be harder to talk with older kids about this because they don’t want to have these kinds of “talks.” But our children still want our guidance and they want to know how to stay healthy in mind and body. Get the conversation started now. Your daughter needs to hear it from you first.