The opioid epidemic. Nothing but perhaps 911, Sandy Hook and most recently the Parkland shooting have left such an indelible mark on the public consciousness. Young children growing up in the shadow of staggering overdose numbers, stigmatized media images of people injecting drugs, and personal tragedies often have difficult questions for parents:
"Why did Dylan's brother die?"
"Are needles poisonous?"
"Are all prescriptions dangerous? If I take aspirin, will I eventually use heroin?"
"Why do they do it?"
Most parents never expected they would be discussing addiction with their 6-year-old. Explaining the complex biochemistry of the disease is difficult for people to understand and describing how dopamine and neurotransmitters operate while you're teaching your children algebra is no simple task.
Here's what to do: Don't have that discussion. Instead use age-appropriate language and provide emotional support to your child.
Like other public traumatic events, the opioid epidemic is uncomfortable terrain for many parents, who are often expected to have answers. Often nurturing children responding to public trauma in non-verbal ways (hugging them or being present with them as they explain their feelings) is as good a response as possible, but here are some additional suggestions:
Talk about it: Your child has questions, and you need to be emotionally present for him or her. You may feel you're protecting your child from emotional trauma, but the sooner you can have a frank discussion about opioids and overdoses the better. Children will fill in gaps about an event – often relying on secondhand information or the internet – about opioid use and overdoses and they are looking to you for help. Ensure they have credible sources to go to, like drugfreenh.org.
Choose a safe, comfortable place to discuss the event and speak in a calm, reassured voice. You are reinforcing to your child that he or she is safe, protected, and in a secure environment. Avoid euphemisms (or drug slang), both because this language may reinforce unhelpful stereotypes and because children sometimes interpret your words literally. (For instance, instead of drug addict, say drug user. Read more about this here: https://drugfree.org/parent-blog/shouldnt-use-word-addict/ or speakupnh.org)
Remain calm: Remember that your children take their cues from you. If you appear fearful or angry they will be, too, and if you display feelings of helplessness or frustration they will pick up on it.
Avoid expressing feelings of shame, guilt or judgement, if someone has died as a result of an overdose since these emotions stigmatize people your child was close to and oversimplifies addiction. Also reassure your child that he or she is not responsible, and that nothing your child said or did caused the person to use drugs or overdose.
Discuss the event, but don't linger on details: You need to be honest with your child, but this doesn't mean you need to go into details. Explain to your child that addiction is a disease of the mind that results in distorted thinking, preoccupation with drug use, and learned helplessness. Drug use is very dangerous, and the addiction-conditioned brain cannot assess that threat accurately.
Establish order: Sometimes in the midst of graphic public news like an overdose it appears that no one is in charge. Children may interpret TV or newspaper images as the final arbiter of truth, but media is driven by emotional sensationalism. Set the tone in your house and be open to dialog.
Take time to comfort, cuddle and care for your children: Not all children will show outward signs of being scared, anxious or overwhelmed so don't wait until your child asks for affection. Not all communication is verbal and sometimes a hug will be as effective as a long discussion.
Take time to play, read, create art, play music or go to the movies together and recognize reoccurring questions or concerns.
If your child continues to be troubled, consider seeing a professional mental health clinician or school counselor. (For a list of New Hampshire Student Assistance Programs, visit: dhhs.nh.gov/dcbcs/bdas/sap.htm.) Information, including a Drug Guide for Parents and 9 Facts About Addiction People Usually Get Wrong are available (here https://drugfree.org/resources/)
- How to talk to your kids about opioids (http://theconversation.com/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-opioids-82056)