Talking about drugs with kids is hard, but not talking is even harder. Take it from Nicole Kapulsky: In 2009, when an old high school buddy offered her heroin, she knew surprisingly little about it, even though she was in her early 30s at the time. Her family had never discussed drugs at their Pennsylvania home, and while she'd grown up in the era of Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign, the catholic school she'd attended had a different philosophy: Just don't talk about it.
"I'd led a very sheltered life," says Kapulsky. "In the beginning, I didn't even know that it was heroin I was doing — my friends at the time kept calling it the 'little blue bags.'" Those little blue bags, they said, would make her feel good, which, after an ugly divorce and custody fight, Kapulsky was desperate to experience again.
That childhood silence around drugs was nothing compared to what she'd face when, nearly a year after her first hit, she became a full-blown addict. Once her family learned how serious her habit was, they cut her off. Kapulsky researched treatment options and fought to get clean on her own; she has been sober for almost five years. But she still remembers how, in the beginning, no one wanted to talk about her addiction.
That silence is the product of fear, frustration and shame, says Marcia Lee Taylor, president and CEO of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids — and it's partly why addiction rates have soared. In fact, deaths from heroine overdoses have nearly quadrupled in the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But on Thursday, November 17, Dr. Oz asks you to break that silence, right at your dinner table, by having a candid heart-to-heart with your family about addiction. Don't know where to start? Use this parental resource guide and these tips from family counselors and addiction specialists to find your voice.
Go in through a side door.
Take some pressure off by asking your kids what their friends and classmates are doing instead of grilling them about their own experiences, says Neil Bernstein, PhD, a psychologist and the author of How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What To Do If You Can't. It'll help them open up and could provide useful information. For instance, if your 16-year-old tells you that all her friends are using, says Dr. Bernstein, what she's really saying is, "Mom, I'm around drugs."
Acknowledge that life is stressful and ask where they feel the most pressure.
Classes? Extracurricular activities? Relationships? "One of the big differences between teens today and teens of their parents' generation is their motivation for use," Taylor says. "They don't always get high to have fun but to deal with stress and anxiety." If you know where they're struggling, you can steer them toward safer coping strategies.
Let them get a word in.
"Parents often tell me they had a really great talk with their child, but when I ask what the child said during the conversation, the answer is nothing," Bernstein says. A good talk is full of give and take — which means you have to encourage and allow kids to chime in, even if it means waiting out some uncomfortable silence in the beginning. If your kid doesn't say much, check your tone and body language, says Adina Silvestri, EdD, LPC, a member of the American Counseling Association. If you're visibly tense or agitated, you could be conveying the wrong message without uttering a single word. The goal is to come to the conversation without judgment, which can silence a child, says Paul H. Earley, MD, an addiction medicine physician in Atlanta.
If they ask about your own drug use, be honest.
"You don't need to go through every twist and turn of your past, but if you, as a parent, are dishonest and your kids find out — which they always do — you'll lose a lot of credibility," Taylor says. Kapulsky has an open-book policy with her own kids, and her 12-year-old son respects her input so much now that he occasionally asks her to talk to some of his friends about addiction. If your past does come up, Bernstein says, make sure there's a moral to your story — in other words, talk about consequences you faced as a result of trying drugs or regrets you have. Never be flippant about any experimenting you might have done in high school or college — it sends a mixed message to your kids.
Talk about the family tree.
While genes don't control the whole story when it comes to addiction, at least half of a person's susceptibility can be linked to genetic factors, according to the American Psychological Association. With addiction prevalent in his own family tree, Dr. Earley says he told his kids right off the bat that they're at higher risk for it than others and have to think carefully about where doing drugs or alcohol could lead them.
Don't fixate on your teenagers — it's just as important to have younger tweens at the table, too, says Silvestri. "By the time they get to their teens they're likely to have experimented with drugs," she says. In fact, Earley adds, by the age of 12, children are already beginning to form their own attitudes about drugs and how safe they are to use — and they could be very different from yours.
Make sure your info is current.
If you're out of date, you're likely to get a lot of eye rolling that's closely followed by a total shutdown. Drugs of choice — and why people use them — can change from one generation to the next. Kids might have done quaaludes or PCP out of boredom in your day; now they may be abusing prescription drugs to cope with over-scheduled lives, or drinking cough syrup for a cheap, easy high. Get up to speed with online resources such as the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids' drug guide.
Keep the conversation going.
Don't think of it as one talk but a series of talks, Bernstein says. In fact, Taylor recommends that parents bring up addiction as frequently as they would any other health-related topic, like eating well or getting enough sleep. "Parents need to look for teachable moments and they're everywhere around us," she says — just take a peek at newspaper headlines. Whatever you do, Silvestri says, just "don't stop having the conversation."
Over 125 people die each day in the United States from drug overdose. Federal Government research reveals that over 20 million Americans deal with substance use problems. Only 1 in 10 people are getting treatment to beat this chronic disease. Join The Dr. Oz Show on Thursday, November 17th for our National Night of Conversation to help families come together to face the addiction crisis that plagues our country. Research shows that strong family bonds give children the resources and strength they need to avoid substance misuse. To show your support and participation, post your own picture of an empty dinner plate on your social media channels with #NightOfConversation.