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Resources for Talking to Kids About Drugs and Addiction

It can be difficult to know how to talk to kids about drugs — both when they are young and when they’re teens. How do you decrease the likelihood your kids will experiment with drugs? What do you do if you’ve discovered they’ve used drugs? This page will help you answer these questions.

Our suggested approach is holistic — focusing on various measures of health including physical health, emotional health, social health, and spiritual health. Given that we focus on spirituality at Uplift, we spend more time on what the science and wisdom traditions say on this front. 

Here are the resources.

Tips for Talking About Drugs and Addiction

  • “Start A Conversation: 10 Questions Teens Ask About Drugs and Health” (10-min article) from the National Institute on Drug Abuse says, “We’ve compiled teens’ 10 frequently asked questions from more than 118,000 queries we’ve received to help you start a conversation about drugs and health.” Questions include, Is vaping bad? What is the worst drug? What are the effects of Xanax?
  • “The Do’s and Don’ts Guide for Talking to Your Kids about Substance Use” (5-min article) from Vertava Health gives clear guidelines, including, “Start the conversation early. Parents of younger children might think they have years before they really need to discuss the dangers of drugs, but in fact, it’s never too early to start warning them. A good place to start is around the age of about 5; your child will be more receptive to your advice and guidance, and you can start somewhat small by discussing the safety around medications they take for colds or that they see you take for a headache.”
  • “Help Your Teen Avoid Drugs” (4-min article) from the Mayo Clinic offers practical tips, including “Ask your teen’s views. Avoid lectures. Instead, listen to your teen’s opinions and questions about drugs. Assure your teen that he or she can be honest with you. Discuss reasons not to use drugs. Avoid scare tactics. Emphasize how drug use can affect the things that are important to your teen — such as sports, driving, health and appearance.”
  • “Addiction” (5-min article) from Nationwide Children’s Hospital outlines definitions, symptoms, causes, and treatments. It says, “Adolescent addiction is not just a phase. Take any kind of addictive behavior seriously. Talk openly with your child about the problem. Urge him or her to open up about their feeling and fears. Hold back judgment. It’s not a time for correction. It’s a time for support.
  • “What You Need to Know About Drugs (for Kids)” (4-min article) from Kids Health gives simple information about drugs. It says, “While using drugs, people are also less able to do well in school, sports, and other activities. It’s often harder to think clearly and make good decisions. People can do dangerous things that could hurt them — or other people — when they use drugs.”
  • Raising Addiction-free Kids” (24-min article or podcast) from the Harvard Graduate School of Education discusses addiction risks and how parents can create protective factors for their children. It says, “Many of the risk factors associated with when kids are most likely to pick up substances have to do with things like transitions, periods of time when they feel really low levels of self-efficacy, or [lack of] autonomy or control of their environment.”

The Science of Spirituality and Addiction

Researchers have consistently found that spiritual health can help with preventing drug addiction. Here are a few quotes along these lines.

“Spiritual development through the early years … provides a protective health benefit, reducing the risk of depression, substance abuse, aggression, and high-risk behaviors.”
— Lisa Miller, professor of psychology at Columbia University and author of The Spiritual Child

“Spiritual health promotes wellness and overall mental health, including recovery from addiction…Spiritual-religious beliefs, practices, and life-styles, including personal religious devotion, protect against addiction by enhancing a positive identity, integrity, a rich inner life, meaning, purpose, interdependence, social support, prosocial behaviors, well-being, and positive coping styles, including a collaborative approach to problem-solving… Spiritual practices may thus promote recovery in part by facilitating the transmutation of meaning and purpose from the object of addiction to the value of love.”
— Michael D. McGee, M.D, author and psychiatrist 

“Whole healing involves your body, mind, and spirit. … For the spirit, I am not talking about organized religion, though that works well for some. I am talking about getting in touch with your spiritual side — cultivating a connection with something bigger than yourself, finding meaning in doing good deeds and kind acts, learning to sit quietly contemplating vast ideas, and understanding that your suffering is part of the larger human experience.”
— Paul Thomas, MD

“Many of us resemble the drug addict in our ineffectual efforts to fill in the spiritual black hole, the void at the center, where we have lost touch with our souls, our spirit — with those sources of meaning and value that are not contingent or fleeting. Our consumerist, acquisition-, action-, and image-mad culture only serves to deepen the hole, leaving us emptier than before. The constant, intrusive, and meaningless mind-whirl that characterizes the way so many of us experience our silent moments is, itself, a form of addiction — and it serves the same purpose.”
Gabor Maté, MD

What the Wisdom Traditions Say About Excess 

Although ancient wisdom traditions emerged before the age of science, it’s still worth noting just how long human beings have thought about the effect that substances can have on the body. 

These traditions aren’t uniformly against substance use (Jesus’s first miracle in the Gospel According to John was to turn water into wine, Rumi wrote about the divine aspects of drink, and the Hindu Vedas sing praises to Soma, etc.), but they do contain some words of warning, as shown below.

The recurring theme is a warning against excess.

The Hebrew Bible
“Woe to those who rise early in the morning, that they may run after strong drink, who tarry late into the evening as wine inflames them!” — Isaiah 5:11 

“Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” — Proverbs 20:1 

“Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit” — Ephesians 

Buddhist 5th Precept for Monks
“I undertake the rule of training which consists in abstention from drink and drugs that cloud the mind.”

Plum Village (Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh)
“I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins.” (from the five mindfulness trainings)

Pema Chodron (Buddhist nun)
“All addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.” 

Rig Veda (Hinduism)
“Those who consume intoxicants lose their intellect.”

The New Testament
“Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness.” — The Gospel According to Luke

“The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” — The Gospel According to Luke

Islam
“They ask you about wine and gambling. Say, “In them is great sin and benefit for people. But their sin is greater than their benefit.” — Surat 2:219

Drug Facts

Use caution when introducing drug facts to kids, being aware of each child’s age and disposition. That said, knowing the facts can help your kids avoid the most destructive aspects of drugs. Rather than using general scare tactics, you can talk about the risks of drugs from a neutral scientific perspective. For example, “The studies I’ve read show that…”

The Alcohol and Drug Foundation breaks drugs into seven categories of stimulants, depressants, cannabinoids, psychedelics, opioids, dissociatives and empathogens.

Without exception, the downside of using these drugs is far more pronounced the younger the user is, as it affects a growing brain.

Stimulants (Cocaine, Amphetamines, Nicotine)

Cocaine

  • “Cocaine Addiction And Abuse” (2-min article) from Addiction Center covers the effects of abuse and statistics on cocaine use. “The psychological addiction is often the hardest part to overcome, although there are undeniable physical symptoms of addiction as well.” 
  • “Cocaine” (2-min article ) from The Alcohol and Drug Foundation shares that cocaine use can result in irritability, paranoia, and exhaustion in the short term and dependence, bronchitis, sexual dysfunction, kidney failure, and stroke in the long term. Because it’s snorted, cocaine can also cause nose bleeds, loss of smell, and nasal infection.
  • “Cocaine and Psychiatric Symptoms” (4-min article) from the Journal of Psychiatry gives additional measurements, noting: “Paranoia occurs in 68% to 84% of patients using cocaine. Cocaine-related violent behaviors occur in as many as 55% of patients with cocaine-induced psychiatric symptoms. Homicide has also been associated with cocaine use in as many as 31% of homicide victims. In suicide, cocaine has been found to be present in as high as 18% to 22% of cases.”
  • “Understanding Cocaine Addiction” (2-min article) from Very Well Mind gives clear and simple guidelines, including, “Smoking crack cocaine and being younger at the time of first cocaine use are both significant risk factors for addiction. … After the initial “crash,” cocaine withdrawal symptoms can last for weeks or months.”

Amphetamines

  • “Amphetamine Use And Addiction Treatment” (3-min article) from Vertava Health talks about amphetamines, including Adderall, Desoxyn, and meth. It lists long-term consequences of abuse, including “brain damage, losing touch with reality (psychosis), malnutrition, insomnia, convulsions, ulcers.”
  • “Adderall Addiction And Abuse” (3-min article) from Addiction Center talks about what leads to addiction, including, “Although not everyone who uses Adderall will develop an addiction, people regularly taking Adderall at unprescribed doses are at an elevated risk of becoming addicted. Over time, those habitually using Adderall develop a tolerance to the drug and are unable to function normally without it.”

Nicotine

  • “Nicotine dependence” (3-min article) from the Mayo Clinic states the facts plainly: ​​”Nicotine is the chemical in tobacco that keeps you smoking. Nicotine reaches the brain within seconds of taking a puff. In the brain, nicotine increases the release of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which help regulate mood and behavior. Dopamine, one of these neurotransmitters, is released in the reward center of the brain and causes feelings of pleasure and improved mood. The more you smoke, the more nicotine you need to feel good.” It also lists the effects of nicotine, including lung disease, cancer, heart problems, diabetes, eye problems, infertility, flu, etc.
  • “Nicotine Addiction” (3-min article) contains stark facts, including: “On average, 435,000 people in the United States die prematurely from smoking-related diseases each year; overall, smoking causes 1 in 5 deaths.”
  • “Nicotine addiction explained – and how medications can help” (2-min article) from Harvard Health Publishing gives ideas for how to help nicotine addicts: “Of the three medications that are used to help people quit smoking, varenicline is the most effective. … Behavioral counseling is a mainstay of treatment for substance use disorders and can help people quit. Quit lines and digital tools are available and can be very helpful, as can individual or group therapy.”

Vaping

  • “5 Vaping Facts You Need to Know” (3-min article) from John Hopkins states 5 facts about the danger of vaping as well as links to resources to combat addiction. “There’s a strong link between smoking and cardiovascular disease, and between smoking and cancer. But the sooner you quit, the quicker your body can rebound and repair itself.”
  • “Nicotine Addiction From Vaping Is a Bigger Problem Than Teens Realize” (4-min article) from Yale Medicine describes the science behind nicotine cravings and the effects on brain development. The article also presents the dangers in nicotine levels in vape devices, stating, “The form of nicotine in these pods is estimated to be 2 to 10 times more concentrated than most free-base nicotine found in other vape liquids. A single pod from one vape manufacturer contains 0.7 mL of nicotine, which is about the same as 20 regular cigarettes.”
  • “Know The Risks E-Cigarettes & Young People” (3-min article) from the Center for Disease Control shares the risks of E-cigarettes on the body and brain. It reads, “The aerosol from e-cigarettes is not harmless. It can contain harmful and potentially harmful chemicals, including nicotine; ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs; flavoring such diacetyl, a chemical linked to a serious lung disease; volatile organic compounds such as benzene, which is found in car exhaust; and heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead.”

Depressants (Alcohol, Benzodiazepines)

Alcohol

  • “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder”  (2-min article) from NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) covers the symptoms, risks, and treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder. It says, “Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.”
  • “Alcohol Use Disorder” (3-min article) from the Mayo Clinic gives several features of alcohol use, including: “Being unable to limit the amount of alcohol you drink, wanting to cut down on how much you drink or making unsuccessful attempts to do so, feeling a strong craving or urge to drink alcohol.”
  • “Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment” (3-min article) from the American Psychological Association talks about the cycle of alcohol dependence, “Once people begin drinking excessively, the problem can perpetuate itself. Heavy drinking can cause physiological changes that make more drinking the only way to avoid discomfort. Individuals with alcohol dependence may drink partly to reduce or avoid withdrawal symptoms.”
  • “ Adolescent Brain Development and Underage Drinking in the United States” (3-min article) from Marisa Silveri, Ph.D, shows why alcohol is so destructive: “Excessive consumption of alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States,” it says.
  • “The Effects of Drinking on the Teenage Brain” (5-min article) from Brain & Life shows that drinking at a young age can be devastating: “Nearly half of 43,093 adults who began drinking alcohol before the age of 14 became alcohol-dependent at some point during their lives, compared with only nine percent of those who waited to drink until they were 21.”

Benzodiazepines

  • “Benzodiazepine Addiction And Abuse” (2-min article) from Addiction Center states that, “Due to their high potency, Benzodiazepines can change the brain’s neurochemistry. Over time, the drugs build up in the user’s body. Users can develop mental and physical dependencies on the drugs as a result.”
  • “Study Finds Increasing Use, and Misuse, of Benzodiazepines” (3-min article) from the American Psychiatric Association remarks on the misuse of benzodiazepines in relationship to the healthcare system, “They also note that some misuse may reflect limited access to health care generally and behavioral treatments specifically and suggest that some misuse could be reduced with improved access to behavioral interventions for sleep or anxiety.”
  • “Am I Addicted to Xanax?” (6-min quiz) from Restore Detox Centers can help you know when Xanax use has crossed over into the territory of being an addiction.
  • “Benzodiazepine Addiction Quiz” (2-min quiz) from Sober Partners can help you understand whether Benzo use qualifies as an addiction.

Cannabinoids (Synthetic cannabis, medicinal cannabis, cannabis)

  • “Fast Facts and Fact Sheets” (1-min article)  from the CDC gives a range of data about cannabis. It says, “1 in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. For people who begin using before the age of 18, that number rises to 1 in 6. Marijuana use directly affects the brain — specifically the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time. Developing brains, like those in babies, children, and teens, are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of marijuana.”
  • “Synthetic Marijuana Addiction, Abuse and Treatment” (3-min article) from Addiction Center highlights the unregulated synthetic marijuana market. It reads, “According to the DEA, most of the chemicals used in Synthetic Marijuana are manufactured in Asia with no regulations or standards. They are then smuggled to the US, where they are sprinkled on plant material and packaged.”
  • “Marijuana and Cancer” (2-min article) from the American Cancer Society reviews the potential benefits and side effects of marijuana used in cancer treatment. It reads, “Studies have long shown that people who took marijuana extracts in clinical trials tended to need less pain medicine.”

Psychedelics (Ayahuasca, LSD, Psilocybin) 

  • “What Is Ahayuasca? Experience, Benefits, and Side Effects” (6-min article) from Healthline reviews the potential effects of the drug in the context of a ceremony, including diarrhea, vomiting, and panic. It reads, “Those with a history of psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, should avoid Ayahuasca, as taking it could worsen their psychiatric symptoms and result in mania. Additionally, taking Ayahuasca can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which may result in dangerous side effects if you have a heart condition.”
  • “LSD Addiction, Abuse and Treatment” (2-min article) from the Addiction Center talks about the potential benefits and risks of LSD use. It says, “Although LSD has been known to have some positive side effects, the drug affects everyone differently. In some cases, serious physical and psychological effects may occur.”
  • “Psychedelic Treatment with Psilocybin Relieves Major Depression, Study Shows” (3-min article) from Johns Hopkins Medicine describe current depression treatment using psilocybin including this study. It says, “In a small study of adults with major depression, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers report that two doses of the psychedelic substance psilocybin, given with supportive psychotherapy, produced rapid and large reductions in depressive symptoms, with most participants showing improvement and half of study participants achieving remission through the four-week follow-up.” **It’s essential to note that this study is for clinical studies only and that experiences not in these settings may produce very different results.

Opioids (Codeine, Fentanyl, Heroin, Opium, Oxycodone)

  • “What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic?” (2-min webpage) from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “In 2017 HHS declared a public health emergency and announced a 5-Point Strategy To Combat the Opioid Crisis”
  • “Understanding the Epidemic” (4-min webpage) Resource webpage produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 
  • “Opioid Use Disorder” (5-min article) from The American Psychiatric Association provides a description of the symptoms, treatment and prevention of the Opioid Use Disorder.  “If you or a family member is seeking treatment for acute or chronic pain seeking treatment, the AMA recommends talking with your physician about pain medications or treatments that are not opioids to avoid bringing opioids into your home.”
  • “It’s devastating’: how fentanyl is unfolding as one of America’s greatest tragedies” (3-min article) The Guardian describes how much damage opioids caused from 2020 to 2021: “More than 100,000 people died from overdoses in the US in a 12-month period ending in April, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the biggest increase ever seen in the US – and it’s only rising each month, drug researchers say. Fentanyl is driving the majority of these deaths, associated with at least 60% of the fatal overdoses – a 50% increase in a single year.”

Dissociatives (Ketamine, Methoxetamine)

  • “Methoxetamine” (2-min article) from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation describes the effects of methoxetamine use. It says, “There is limited evidence regarding MXE and dependence, however, experts believe that the similarity to ketamine means that it carries a comparable risk of dependence.”
  • “Ketamine” (3-min article) from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation shows the positive and negative effects of the drug.
  • “What are the uses of Ketamine?” (4-min article) from Medical News Today outlines the reasons doctors use it as anesthetic and its potential for abuse.

Empathogens (MDMA, Mephedrone)

  • “Is Ecstasy (MDMA) Addictive?” (3-min article) from American Addiction Centers says, “the research suggests that there is no formal withdrawal syndrome recognized with discontinuation of ecstasy; however, discontinuation of the drug is often associated with a number of very distressing psychological and emotional symptoms that often drive individuals to seek out the drug to reduce the emotional stress”
  • “MDMA assisted therapy for PTSD edges closer” (3-min article) from the Alcohol and Drug Foundation shows how MDMA is possibly helpful in curing trauma.

Talking About a Parent’s Addiction

  • “How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Addiction” (4-min article) from Skywood Recovery suggests being honest and helping your kids understand it’s not their fault. “Children, especially younger ones, are inclined to blame themselves for what’s happening in their family, so they need someone to explain that mom or dad’s actions are not their fault. Your child needs to know that his job is not to fix you – his job is to be a child.”
  • “How to Talk to Kids About a Parent’s Addiction” (7-min article) from Verywell Mind suggests encouraging open and honest communication, “Many times, kids who grow up with an addicted parent are told not to tell anyone about what happens in their home. Consequently, they often feel a great deal of shame and embarrassment about their home lives. As a result, you need to assure them that it’s OK to talk about the problem without having to feel scared, ashamed, or embarrassed. Remind them that they don’t have to lie, cover for their parent, or keep secrets.”
  • “20 Books to Explain Addiction to Children” (5-min article) from Canyon Vista Recovery Center lists 20 well rated books you can buy to help your kids understand parents who have a substance addiction.
  • “Lending a Hand” (2-min video) from Sesame Street conveys a discussion about a kid whose mom attends drug recovery meetings every day to stay healthy.
  • Sesame Street: Parental Addiction” (6-min video) tells the story of Salia and her parents, who are recovering from addiction. Sesame Street also has interviews with real families

3 Books We Recommend

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté, MD — This book explores lessons Maté has learned from working directly with addicts. He writes with clarity and compassion, backed by science. ​​He writes, “My medical work with drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has given me a unique opportunity to know human beings who spend almost all their time as hungry ghosts. It’s their attempt, I believe, to escape the Hell Realm of overwhelming fear, rage and despair. The painful longing in their hearts reflects something of the emptiness that may also be experienced by people with apparently happier lives. Those whom we dismiss as “junkies” are not creatures from a different world, only men and women mired at the extreme end of a continuum on which, here or there, all of us might well locate ourselves.”

The Addiction Spectrum: A Compassionate, Holistic Approach to Recovery by Paul Thomas, MD, and Jennifer Margulis, PhD — This book posits that the world isn’t divided into the binary of “addicts and nonaddicts” but rather is on a spectrum, including mild, moderate, and severe. It recommends maintain general health by eating real food, reducing stress, increasing vitamin D, exercising, getting high quality sleep, fixing your gut microbiome, and building true relationships. It also goes through a deep dive of opioids, alcohol, marijuana, and meth. Finally, it suggests making spirituality a centerpiece of healing, with the acronym FREEDOM (“find your spiritual self, release resentment, expect temptation, embrace your flaws, draw on the crew sent to rescue you, open yourself to change, and make progress, not perfection”).

The Addiction Solution: Treating Our Dependence on Opioids and Other Drugs by Lloyd I. Sederer, MD — Outlines the science behind addiction and suggests solutions. It outlines things that matter, including age (the younger someone starts, the more likely they are to be addicted), set (certain personalities and biologies are more likely to become addicted), setting (traumatic settings increase use), route of administration (“the faster a substance gets into our brain, the more likely it is to become habit-forming”), and much more. While it doesn’t prescribe a single solution for all situations, it does list spiritual solutions first in the list of suggested treatments. “By spirituality,” Sederer writes, “I mean that which is or becomes sacred to an individual, which does not necessarily include adherence to a religious institution with its particular beliefs, doctrines, and worship practices. I believe we all hunger for lives of meaning and purpose, and an inner, buoying sense of connection to others, not a life of isolation. Spirituality can provide for those fundamental needs.”

Information About Healing

  • “The Best Explanation of Addiction I’ve Ever Heard” (10-min video) from Dr. Gabor Maté, who worked with drug addictions for 12 years and found that people who are addicted to substances, offers a compassionate view of addicts. He says that addicts “need to be helped to heal from their trauma. Because it is all about trauma.” He adds, “Is it possible to heal people from trauma sufficiently that they don’t have to escape into addictions to lessen the suffering of their trauma? Yes, that’s entirely possible.”
  • One Powerful Solution to Stop All Your Addictions” (13-min video) from therapist Marissa Peer contains a simple mantra to help prevent and heal addiction. While the title of the video is overstated, the content offers some basic help to avoid and overcome addiction, including the advice to truly believe you are enough. Peer says, “When you begin to know you’re enough, to believe that you’re enough, to accept that you’re enough, the need for a filler for that emptiness — whatever the filler is, drink, drugs, gambling, shopping — will minimize, subside, and then it will go away.”
  • “Mindfulness: A Way To Calm The Drive Of Addiction” (10-min article and podcast episode) from meditation facilitator Thomas McConkie says, “When you start to practice mindfulness — when you look really closely at the dynamics of experience moment to moment — what you discover is that at the heart of experience is a kind of addictive mechanism. Whether you have an illegal drug habit or a texting habit or a potato chip habit, what you realize through meditation is that the object of addiction is less important than the actual underlying structures of addiction.”
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