How Teens Think Adults Should Talk to Them About Drugs

How Teens Think Adults Should Talk to Them About Drugs

Be honest. Don’t judge. Tell us how to be safe. Share your experiences.

By The Learning Network

“In the age of fentanyl and other illegally manufactured synthetics, the danger associated with trying drugs is greater than ‌ever‌‌,” Maia Szalavitz, a contributing Opinion writer, writes in the guest essay “How to Talk to Kids About Drugs in the Age of Fentanyl.”

Rather than using scare tactics and focusing only on abstinence, as popular 20th-century drug programs like DARE and Just Say No did, Ms. Szalavitz recommends being honest with young people and offering strategies for harm reduction.

We asked teenagers how they want adults to talk to them about drug use. An overwhelming majority agreed with Ms. Szalavitz’s advice. As one student put it: “Kids need to be cared for and not by lying to their faces or making a situation terrifying but by telling them the truth.”

They told us how parents, teachers and other adults have talked to them about drugs and shared what has worked and what hasn’t. Several even offered their own ideas for how to approach the conversation. You can read a selection of their responses below.

Thank you to all those who joined the conversation on our writing prompts this week, including students from Akron, Ohio; Charles W. Baker High School in Baldwinsville, N.Y.; and Maury High School in Norfolk, Va.

Please note: Student comments have been lightly edited for length, but otherwise appear as they were originally submitted.

‘Honesty Is the Best Policy.’

I feel like a lot of kids and teens have access to the internet and are exposed early to what drugs can and can’t do for them. When they go to class and hear false statements (like the thing with colored fentanyl) from campaigns stating “Just say no” they can call out their bluff. When drugs get brought up people always lie and beat around the bush when they explain, but I think adults just need to be honest. Yes drugs aren’t all that great but they’re more common than kids are told. When you have surgery and are prescribed pain killers they can lead to an unexpected and harsh addiction. They’re told that drugs are only sold in dark alleys or illegally when they can be sold by a doctor or pharmacist. Parents, family, teachers or any other adult figure always preach honesty and trust when they can’t even correctly inform children about an epidemic. And when they finally get the guts to sit down and talk they don’t even know what they’re talking about. The only tactic they have to talk about drugs is to completely scare us away from even looking at drugs. Honesty is the best policy even when it comes to drugs.

— Kendall, Baldwinsville, New York

Teens can see through the ads and adults that make horrifying scenes. Teens don’t want to be lied at, teens are both smart and curious to try something new. Young people need to see, feel, and hear the truth of drugs. If they are just told what to say and not told what is the product of being a drug abuser or an addict, their undeveloped minds think it’s all a joke. Kids need to be cared for and not by lying to their faces or making a situation terrifying but by telling them the truth.

— Janet, Glenbard West HS, IL

Focus on Harm Reduction.

Social stigmas around drug use only cause more problems. And more problems don’t help drug abusers to reach the path of recovery. If you talk to your children about drugs without using shameful language and fear tactics, your child may be more open to sharing their experiences about it with you down the road. While you should always warn your kids about the dangers of drug abuse, you should also remind them that if they do use drugs, It’s not the end of the world and there are preventative measures they can take before they reach a level of addiction. It should also be taught that there are safe ways to use drugs so that you have a lesser risk of overdose and psychological damage. Many adults don’t discuss it any further than “don’t do drugs. End of discussion.” If more parents were open with the conversation and answered their children’s questions, they would feel less curiosity to try it for themselves and find out. The article mentions the need for accuracy over hype, stressing the importance of sharing truthful information instead of exaggerated stories. I agree with this because I think — no, I know — that personally I’d feel more comfortable talking about using drugs with my parents if they didn’t share such dramatic tall tales.

— Allie, Union High School

We are faced with a drug crisis that feels out of control. The one hope is adults can educate teens about the danger of fentanyl-laced drugs. It is unrealistic to think that every teen will listen to the adults around them when they are informed of the risks of drugs. Most teens cannot comprehend that being laced with fentanyl could happen to them or someone they know. The reality is that teens don’t always listen to adults, and adults are not always around when something bad happens. We have to accept this reality and prepare kids for the worst-case scenarios. At my school, Narcan, an anti-overdose drug that counters narcotic overdoes, is available in school counselors’ offices for emergency purposes. They also provide fentanyl testing strips. Educating teens about the fentanyl crisis is critical due to the fear that one might unknowingly encounter the fatal drug.

— Annabelle, Los Angeles, CA

Start Conversations Early.

I think that adults should be speaking more honestly about drugs. In 5th grade, my class had this drug avoidance program. Although they did at least tell us a little about drugs, they didn’t go in depth enough to teach us all the things we need to know. I didn’t know that drug addictions can even come from prescribed medicine and I didn’t know their effects on the body. A lot of teen addictions start when they are 12 and 13, which is before we start to go more in-depth. Lots of kids experience drugs before they know anything about them. If kids can learn about the dangers of drugs young, then the teens doing drugs will not be as much of a problem.

— Charles, Glenbard West HS Glen IL

Only teachers in my life have really educated me about drugs. My parents are prone to glossing over taboo topics, so I’m not surprised that they don’t talk about drugs often. I have had honest dialogue about drug use with teachers in health class, and I know that I, personally, don’t want to participate in any kind of drug use. I think that better education on drugs should happen much earlier on though. Kids who already do drugs aren’t going to listen to teachers about the dangers of it, since they aren’t afraid of it anymore.

— Cate, Bville

Help Kids Understand the Risks.

Overall I think the best way to teach kids about drugs is to tell them about it honestly and what it does to them, as well as letting them research it on their own. This could be done in a sort of guided research assignment to have them look up statistics, effects, and maybe cases of misidentified drugs that resulted in overdoses. When the article mentions how “the danger associated with trying drugs is greater than ‌ever” and then explains how drugs are being mislabeled, it does make me see an even further risk in experimenting with drugs. While I was not planning on trying any, it does make me realize that a drug advertised as minor could very well be lethal and that makes it much more threatening.

— Alexander, Cary High School

I believe children should learn about drugs more in terms of the consequences. Relationships can be ruined, you’re career dreams could be out of the picture, and worst of all you can end up dying. Children need to understand their actions involving drugs will seriously effect their lives. I think it’s better if they knew less about the feeling as many say it made them happy or calm for a bit. This can make kids believe that the consequences may not apply to them so they just might take the chance with drugs to see what it is like.

— Anne, New York

Programs such as “DARE” that try to scare teens out of doing drugs should be replaced with honest conversations. Ideally, the goal of this is to get adolescents to stay away from drugs completely. However, realistically that will not always work. Teenagers should be taught which drugs are most dangerous, the dangers of laced drugs, and how to recover from addiction or overdosing. Teenagers should be told the truth and speak to past addicts and past fentanyl drug dealers so they can understand the dangers of drugs instead of being lied to.

— Mariana, Biotechnology High School

Share Your Personal Experiences.
My mom and dad have both talked to me about drugs. My mom always said that she never cared for vapes and didn’t want my brother or me to get into those kinds of things. But as for other drugs such as weed, on the other hand, she has said that she has no problem with us using it when we get older, as long as we aren’t abusing it. My father on the other hand has a bad history and so does the rest of the family so that influenced me to stay away.

— a.g., Bville

One of my parents works in an ER and sees first hand the effects of drugs on people and what it can do to them, ever since I was little he talked to me about the dangers of drug use. I think this shaped the way I view the conversation today because to me this is an important topic to talk about openly. It doesn’t matter how much someone says to say no to drug use simply saying that will not stop it from occurring. Instead it is important to educate people on everything about drugs and not only what it does to you physically but also emotionally.

— Kayla, NY

Talk to Teens in ‘Ways That They Like to Listen.’
I think the best way to talk to a teenager about this issue is in ways that they like to listen to such as: on social media, promoting video games, etc. This is a good way because it will make a bigger impact because it’s something they enjoy, so when they see it pop up they will pay more attention to the idea. Discussing drugs to young teens today is a very important thing that should happen, but needs to be done in ways that will leave the biggest impact.

— Landry, Sullivan High School

Throughout the first 13 years of my life when spoken to about drugs by any adult in my life the conversation always ultimately stated to never do drugs. When entering high school I felt completely unprepared for the realities of drug use in social situations. As a result of this I was introduced to Generation SOS, which is a teen peer support group which welcomes open and honest conversations regarding drug and alcohol abuse. The conversations that Generation SOS holds opened up the open conversation about drugs that I hadn’t been exposed to prior. I have been able to start a Generation SOS club at my high school and allow sober speakers to share their experiences with drugs and alcohol. These conversations have changed the stigma surrounding addiction within my school environment and allowed for students to find a comfortable space for honest conversations. These honest conversations about drugs have been far more effective in connecting to my high school, because stories and vulnerability speak far louder than statistics.

— Danielle, Miami Country Day School

Most of the time when kids go to a public school, they will end up learning about drugs on their own but if you don’t want them to learn from somewhere else other than you, just sit ‘em down and talk to them. I do think that the abstinence method is completely irrelevant as shown by dare and other programs from the 20th century, kids aren’t going to care what adults think they should do if they’re told not to do it. However, I do think the modern method of exposing kids to what the dangers are from drug dealers/former drug users is a much better method because they already seem so much more trustworthy in an “anti-drug” promotion to kids than a cop.

— Phanece, Crest High School

Make a Safe Space to Ask Questions.

My mom has talked to me about drugs and so did my 7th grade health teacher when we were going over the subject. I remember them telling me that they are not good for you. Also you should never take someone else’s prescribed pills and you should never take a pill if someone offers you it, and I remember them telling us about the different types of pills. Yes, I was able to ask questions and they had made it a safe place to talk about it and like how it is not good for you if you play sports or even if you don´t. This has shown me that to always be careful and never do anything with drugs that are not prescribed or needed.

— Julianna, New York

I think it’s important for adults to let children know about the dangers of drugs. The adults should tell them the truth instead of trying to sugarcoat it. Although they should be brutally honest about drugs, it should also be a nonjudgmental conversation — not shaming anyone who uses drugs. The adults should educate the children about drugs in a way that isn’t shaming anyone that uses drugs, but should still talk about the dangers that they can inflict … Adults should also create a safe environment when enlightening kids on what drugs can do. They should make the environment safe enough for the child to want to ask questions and for the conversation to be an open and honest one.

— Griffith, Glenbard West High school, Glen Ellyn, IL

For Some Young People, Scare Tactics Can Work.
Adults should not hesitate to make drugs sound as bad as possible. The reason I think this is because drug use can seem harmless to kids at first but it is the opposite. Adults should also talk a lot about peer pressure because it is a huge reason why teens start doing drugs. Once someone does a drug once they can already become hooked. Overall, a lot of people’s lives can and have been ruined by drug use.

— Dan Trouesdale, Baker High

I sincerely think kids should be taught everything about drugs. Kids are young and don’t have the ability to distinguish what’s the right thing, and they may be lured to do drugs. What’s more, the bad influence on your mind and body is permanent, and it’s not something you can easily quit. So it’s essential and critical for adults to teach things about drugs and keep kids away from it.

— Lisa, Taipei

How to Have a Conversation About Drugs With a Teen, According to a Teen
There comes a time where you have to teach your child about drugs, or else, there’s a chance they’ll fall into it. The best time to start confronting your kid about drugs is when you’re ready for it, or most or best case, when they’re becoming a teenager, or they’re changing, like from cute to mature and stupid. What you would do in my way is: First, greet your kid and hang out, because your kid will go along with you. Before you straight up talk about drugs, because that’ll destroy the immersion, start slowly, introduce and present the idea of being a teenager, some benefits such as being able to act “like” an adult, being able to handle their own life, then some disadvantages like being more troublesome and aggressive, intense attitudes, and drugs. Now you can move aside with the teenager talk and make drugs be the big topic. Educate them by telling why people do drugs, how it started, the impact it gives, the consequences of it physically, mentally and emotionally, and how drugs doesn’t make you cool, but it makes you look stupid. And even suggest some things to do to prevent it, like mention about having sports and clubs, be with friends who are kind and bring good influence, or having a hobby. And there that’s how you talk to your kid about drugs.

— Albert, Baker High School


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