Talk With Youth

Talking with youth about how to make safe, smart choices about drugs and alcohol is important. However, sometimes adults forget to also address the risks of prescription drug use.

Parents and other caregivers have an important role to play in helping youth avoid both prescription and street drugs. Almost 50% of young people who use heroin started with prescription drug abuse, and over 40% of teens who misused a prescription drug got it from their parent’s medicine cabinet.[1]

According to the 2018 Healthy Youth Survey in Snohomish County, about 83% of 8th graders, 85% of 10th graders, and 86% of 12th graders reported perceiving misusing prescription drugs not prescribed to them as great risk. However, that leaves about 20% of students across 8th, 10th, and 12th grade to do not perceive misusing prescription drugs as a great risk. That is about 2,025 students across all three grade levels [2]. Recent trends are also indicating that teens are using social media to obtain illicit fentanyl pills that look like prescription medication.

To prevent prescription drug misuse, make sure your children understand that prescription medications are only meant to be taken by the person whose name is on the bottle, and only following a doctor’s instructions. Age-specific tips on how to talk to youth about prescription drugs (as well as other drugs and alcohol) is available from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

Start the Conversation Early

Parents can start as early as preschool when it comes to talking about medication. A great way of introducing the topic is if your child takes vitamins. Explain that vitamins are medicine, too; while they are good for you and help you grow, they can also be harmful if you take too many.

The key is helping your children understand that medicine can be useful, but it can also be harmful if taken the wrong way. If you take medication or vitamins yourself, there is a good chance your child watched you take them. Being transparent about your usage reminds children that medications are taken for a specific reason, not for fun.

Be Their Advocate

For many children, their first experience with opioids begins after a dental procedure, a broken bone, or other serious injury. Some health care providers prescribe opioids as a standard method for pain management. While opioid medications may be effective for treating pain in the short-term, they have an extremely high tendency for addiction and do nothing to address the underlying cause of pain. Research has shown that opioids are no better than over-the-counter medications. As your child’s advocate, you can inform the dentist of health care provider that you prefer an alternative treatment for pain management.

If opioids are the best course of treatment, prescribing guidelines from the Bree Collaborative indicate that youth under 20 should not be prescribed more than a three-day supply of opioids (less than 10 pills).

Monitor Opioid Prescriptions Carefully

It’s important to tell children and adolescents that prescribed pain medications are appropriate to take under the supervision of a health care provider. If you have agreed for your child to take opioids, it’s important to discuss the risks of misuse and be clear they should not be shared with anyone else. Supervise the dispensing of the medication by keeping count of the number of pills in the bottle to ensure they are being taken as prescribed. Monitor your child’s level of pain and be sure to look for signs of dependence.

Medications should be kept in a safe place where they cannot be accessed by other family members or friends. And it’s always important to dispose of any unused medication at your local MED-Project disposal kiosk.

Encourage Conversation Often

Talking about proper use of medication should be ongoing as your child gets older. As a parent, your child looks to you for help and guidance in working out problems and in making decisions, including the decision not to use drugs. By engaging them in conversation, you are creating a safe space for them to talk to you about issues they come across throughout their adolescence. It’s important to discuss why people abuse drugs and alternative ways to cope with those impending issues. Remind your child that they have a support system in their friends and family.

Be honest about current or past drug use in the family.

Deciding whether to tell your child about your past drug use is a personal decision. However, your experiences and the lessons you’ve learned can better equip you to teach others. Your honesty encourages your child to also be open and honest about their own curiosities and possible experimentation with drugs. Talking about your experiences can build the foundation for ongoing conversations around this topic. You can speak the truth about addiction because you’ve survived it.

If there is a family member or close friend who is actively using, it’s important to explain this person’s struggles to your child in an age-appropriate way. Share what you’re doing to get that individual the help they need to make healthier choices. Consider reaching out to a counselor, your community church, or a group like Alateen or Al-Anon. This allows your child to find a space to share feelings about a friend or family member’s use.

Five Conversation Goals for Teens [3,4]

1. Teach your teens about the risks of using illicit substances and misusing prescription opioids. This includes the short- and long-term effects of using substances and how they affect their mental and physical health. This discussion should not be based on fear, rather openness and empathy to demonstrate you care for their health and wellbeing.

 2. Show you care about your teen’s health, wellness, and success. This can be accomplished by regularly checking in with your teen and discussing their feelings and emotions. If they are experiencing feeling low or stressed, talk together about ways to manage these feelings without substance use.

3. Show you’re a good source of information about alcohol and other drugs, including prescription drugs. Your teen will have questions and it is important to demonstrate that you are a trustworthy source. You also want your teen to feel comfortable coming to you with questions, this helps you know that they are getting their information from a credible source.

4. Show you’re paying attention and that you will encourage making healthier behavior choices, over substance use or other risky behaviors. To demonstrate you are listening to your teen you should use active listening and reflect what you heard from them: “I hear you say you’re feeling…”. You can demonstrate you are paying attention through “I” statements. You describe the behavior, how you feel about it and how it affects you. Then you spell out what you need. An example of this is: “When you don’t come home on time, I worry that something terrible has happened. What I need is for you to call me as soon as you know you’re going to be late so that I know you’re okay.”

5. Build your teen’s skills, strategies, and knowledge about drugs and prescription drugs. With these tools in their toolkit, your teen will be better prepared to avoid substance use and prescription drug misuse. If it would be helpful for your teen, you can practice roleplaying situations to help your teen problem solve and build up their strategies.


[1] Opioid Medication & Pain Fact Sheet Washington Health Alliance & The Bree Collaborative

[2] 2018 Healthy Youth Survey results for Snohomish County, all grades

[3] SAMHSA. Talk. They Hear You. 5 Conversation Goals: Talking with Teens About Alcohol and Other Drugs – Mini Brochure.

[4] Partnership to End Addiction. Preventing Drug Use: Connecting and Talking with your Teen.