If you are a parent, or hope to be someday, you’ve likely considered how you will teach your children about drugs. If you grew up—like I did—in a home that taught abstinence only, and went to a school that taught the DARE program, you know that what you were told and what you learned on your own are very different.
Having the wrong information about drugs can be annoying at best and deadly at worst. Imagine a child who is told to “just say no” to heroin and benzodiazepines. What would happen if this child one day found themself at a party, being offered Percocet and Xanax by friends? How would they know that combining these two drugs heightens the risk of a fatal overdose?
Jen Sarduy considered such risks after seeing problematic drug use in her family and community growing up. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, she now works as the communications manager for the National Harm Reduction Coalition. As a mother of three children aged 6, 8 and 13, she is having constant conversations with them about drugs, safety and harm reduction.
“I became a parent very young, and I knew I wanted to parent my children in a way that was more open than how I grew up,” she told Filter. “I knew when my parents were lying to me and it left gaps. I wanted to create more space with my kids about what a conversation on drugs could look like.”
Sarduy’s children often ask her questions about drug users they see in the media and on television. For her, these are opportunities to talk about the negative ways society perceives people who use drugs.
“It’s important for us to combat representations first,” she said. “These conversations in our home usually start with our kids seeing a portrayal of someone on the news that’s inaccurate or stigmatizing, so we have to explain what’s wrong with that.”
“Conversations in our lives stem from questions like, ‘Why was this person adopted?’ So we have to talk about how the War on Drugs took that child away from their family,” she continued. “It’s all tied up in how the world works.”
Working directly with people who inject drugs, homeless people and formerly incarcerated people, Sarduy has plenty of opportunities to educate her children about the ways in which these groups are discriminated against. “Kids learn from us,” she said. “We just talk to people like people. We model how we can offer support instead of stigma.”
“It just made me look elsewhere, to my peers—who were also not well educated about drugs.”
The need to help parents communicate better about drugs inspired Angela Rabbitt to co-create a webinar series, titled: How To Have The Drug Talk. She is a social worker with experience in harm reduction, and also the mother of a 10-year-old child.
“I knew that my parents had experimented with drugs, so I thought they were very hypocritical,” she told Filter. “My dad was very anti-marijuana and didn’t talk about anything with us. That, combined with my school education on drugs, made me mistrustful of what I was told. It just made me look elsewhere, to my peers—who were also not well educated about drugs.”
Her weekly webinar series focuses on addiction and overdose prevention for families. Rabbitt is already having conversations with her daughter about drugs—though she hopes it will be several more years before she starts experimenting.
“Our culture sees drugs and sex as inherently bad and taboo, but I’d rather present her with facts,” Rabbitt said. “We talk about what different drugs are and their effects, and opioid overdose and how that works. My daughter also doesn’t get easily afraid of things.”
“What helps me is having an air of curiosity and non-judgement, and allowing her to ask questions. And being honest and willing to answer all her questions—unlike for many parents, where the response is, ‘All I’m going to say about drugs is they’re bad.'”
For some parents, personal tragedy has pushed them to want to teach other parents. Carol Katz Beyer, a mother from New Jersey, lost two of her sons to fentanyl-involved overdose in their late 20s. Through her advocacy with Families for Sensible Drug Policy, she now helps share information about safer drug use while advocating to end the War on Drugs. On October 2, her organization debuted a virtual Family Drug Support Listening Session for caregivers to share knowledge and experience.
“Unfortunately my approach to drugs was very different from what they were taught in schools and in rehab,” Katz Beyer told Filter. “My sons were labeled as ‘powerless’ and ‘addicts,’ and I don’t see any other health condition being treated in that way.” She urges parents to see problematic drug use as health problem rather than a moral issue, and to approach it with love and support.
Of course, parents aren’t raising their children in a vacuum. Kids will grow up receiving conflicting and confusing information about drugs—from their teachers, from the media, from popular culture and their peers.
Rabbit acknowledges the challenges this adds to parenting. “I assume my daughter’s drug education in school will be quite inaccurate,” she said. “But I hope she is the one who can talk to her friends and share her knowledge in class. That’s why I focus on giving her the right information, so she can then help others.”
Katz Beyer stresses that even with all the right information and education, living within the drug war inherently creates risks for people using drugs. She experienced this firsthand when her son Bryan went through the addiction treatment system in Florida. He was prescribed Suboxone by a doctor to taper his heroin use.
But when he went to a sober living facility, he was banned from using Suboxone. “Children who likely are only experimenting with drugs are being funneled into abstinence-only programs,” she said. “Stopping use and then returning to use, especially if fentanyl is involved, can lead to a fatal overdose.”
“We know that risk-taking is part of their wonder years. But when you feel like you’re being judged, often you won’t express what you need.”
She encourages parents to approach their children’s drug use within the context of comparable behaviors. “We tell our children to eat right, and wear a helmet when they ride their bike. We know that risk-taking is part of their wonder years. But when you feel like you’re being judged, often you won’t express what you need.”
Rabbitt echoed this. “Telling your children they can’t do something just pushes them to do it secretly. Let your child know they can call you if they’re in trouble, without punishing them.”
And if your child shows signs of problematic use, she suggests using questions to help them discover whether their behavior aligns with their own values and goals.
“Have a conversation with your kid about their drinking or drug use,” she said. “If your goal is to go to college but you’re not getting good grades, how is your use impacting that? How is it affecting your safety and those around you? That can help kids see if their behavior is getting in their own way.”
Sarduy emphasized personal autonomy and consent when having “the drug talk.” She makes sure her own kids are well-versed in the harm reduction techniques in which she specializes. They are each trained in naloxone administration and how to spot an overdose, and are familiar with syringe issues and HIV tests.
Avoiding hypocrisy is important to her. “I try not to set boundaries that are not for my own body,” she said. “So we talk about world traditions and how people use substances, and legality. We want to equip our child to make an informed decision, and not make choices that make them unsafe when they want to experiment.”