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How to Start a Conversation with Teens about Opioids

Teenagers experience dramatic physical, cognitive, emotional, and social changes and transitions. During this time, young people are confronted with many new challenges to which they must adapt. This can be a challenge for parents too. But it is also an opportunity to promote positive psychological, social and emotional growth. A positive relationship and respectful conversation can go a long way towards improving adolescents’ health and well-being, and can help them make healthier choices when it comes to substance use.

Talking openly, honestly and respectfully about opioids and other drugs can help our teens understand what we value as a family. It can also help us bond with our kids, which is a key factor in protecting them from substance-related harm. Here are tips for starting conversations about opioids or other drugs with our teens.

What is important to know about fentanyl and other opioids?

Before you talk to your teen, learn more about opioids and substance use.

Fentanyl is one of a class of drugs called “opioids,” drugs that bind to receptors in our brain and alter our perceptions of pain. It has been associated with the rise in overdose deaths in B.C. There are many different opioids, including prescription drugs like codeine (e.g., Tylenol 3), hydomorphone (e.g., Dilaudid), and oxycodone (e.g., Percocet). When prescribed, they are often used after surgery or for moderate-to-severe pain treatment.

Some opioids that are available by prescription or used in hospitals (e.g. fentanyl, morphine) are also manufactured in illicit labs or ‘kitchens’ by people with varying degrees of know- how or skill. These unauthorized drugs can be made to look like prescription drugs or sold as street drugs, like cocaine or MDMA.

People often blame the toxicity of fentanyl for the increased risk of overdose or death, but the picture is more complex. All opioids have different potencies. It has been reported that fentanyl is 50-100 times more toxic than hospital-grade morphine. And carfentanil, now showing up in Canada, is said to be 100 times more toxic than fentanyl. But, the toxicity of a drug isn’t the only or most important thing that makes it dangerous.

The primary issue that has created a tipping point for opioid overdoses in Canada is illegal production. When drugs come from outside of the medical system, it is impossible for the user to manage the risk around the drug’s contents, dosage and potency. Fentanyl can sometimes be used as a substitute in illicit drugs. Drug testing kits can help to know which drugs contain fentanyl, but they are not 100% accurate or available everywhere. The illegal production of drugs is a large part of what is creating the significant spike in overdoses and deaths due to fentanyl in B.C.

Seize Conversational Opportunities

Take advantage of opportunities to connect with your teens in everyday conversations or as part of ordinary activities. Opioids (e.g., pain medications) or other drugs may come up naturally when someone in the family is given a prescription. This is a great opportunity to model and talk about appropriate use and care with these substances.

Other opportunities come when discussing something you saw on social media, or when swapping stories about what happened at school or work. Current media stories about fentanyl overdoses provide opportunities for conversations with your teens about opioid drugs.

You can also look for openings when watching the news, TV shows or a movie together. A character’s action in a movie can provide an opportunity to talk about choices and how substance use can impact one’s goals and life plans.

Connect on the move

Connecting is sometimes easier when you’re not sitting across from one other or looking directly at each other. Try starting a conversation while in the car (e.g. after hearing news on the radio), taking a walk, playing sports, or doing chores together.

Did you know?

Talking openly about opioids and other drugs can help you bond with your teen - your support and strong connection is a key way to protect them from substance-related harm.

Asking them for their input is a great way to engage them in respectful conversation. You might try asking questions like: Why do they think people are using drugs? How come there have been so many fentanyl overdoses in the community recently? Open conversations create trust and teach kids they can feel safe talking to us about drugs. And we can learn from them as well!

For More Information

For more information about how to talk to your teens about substance use and overdose, see the following parenting articles:

Last Reviewed: December 2016