Editor’s Note: This is good advice for teachers, counselors and principals to share with parents when the subject of drugs invariably comes up.

As the back-to-school season approaches, parents face a number of concerns, one of which is how to address the topic of drugs with their children. It's a conversation that can be both anxiety-inducing and challenging for parents and kids alike, but it's also an essential one. By breaking the stigma surrounding this subject and encouraging open communication, parents can play a crucial role in helping their kids to make informed and responsible decisions that will set them up for success long after the upcoming school year.

As a mental health professional at California Prime Recovery, I specialize in addiction and trauma. I’m also a mom, and as such, I can say with utmost certainty that this important conversation starts at home.

With the lethality of drugs like Fentanyl, and the accessibility of nicotine vapes and marijuana, peer pressure appears to be stronger than ever. Even if it seems like a small conversation, you have the power to be the biggest modality of support during these formative moments.

How to Break the Stigma

Talking about drugs with children of any age doesn't have to be the awkward one-time conversation you had with your parents. Instead, it's best to begin early, starting with age-appropriate conversations about medicines and substances. As kids grow older, parents can gradually provide more information, adapting the conversation to match your child’s maturity level. Tailor your language to suit your child's age and comprehension level and avoid using complex medical jargon or scare tactics. Instead, frame the conversation in a way that is accessible and relevant to their experiences.

Create a Safe and Non-Judgmental Environment

Children need to feel safe and comfortable when discussing sensitive topics. Ensure that your child knows they can openly talk to you without fear of judgment. Avoid reacting with anger or disappointment if they share something challenging. Instead, listen actively and empathetically, emphasizing your support and understanding.

Be Honest and Informed

While it's important to be honest, it's also key to strike a balance between raising awareness about drug risks and instilling fear. Share real-life examples or stories of people who have faced challenges due to drug misuse, emphasizing the potential consequences without sensationalizing or scaring them. Before engaging in the conversation, make sure you are up to date on information about drugs and their effects. This will give you the confidence and knowledge to answer your child's questions effectively. It's okay to admit if you don't know something, and you can do research together to find reliable answers.

Be Open and Approachable

If you want your child to feel comfortable bringing anything to you, be approachable and accessible. The conversation about drugs is ongoing, so it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. Make it clear that your child can talk to you anytime they have questions or concerns. Having regular check-ins to discuss how they’re feeling is a good practice, regardless!

Provide Practical Tools

Engage in conversations that promote critical thinking and decision-making skills. Encourage them to evaluate peer pressure situations and make choices aligned with their values. Teaching them to say "no" to situations that make them uncomfortable can empower them to make informed decisions with confidence. Having rehearsed responses can help such as telling their peers that you drug test at home or a canned children can say if they feel peer pressured to try a drug in a group setting.

Seek Professional Help If Needed

If you suspect your child may be facing drug-related issues, don't hesitate to seek professional assistance. A mental health professional or counselor can provide support and guidance to both you and your child throughout the process.

As you enter the new school year ahead, having an open dialogue about drugs is key to encouraging a relationship and culture of openness with your child, despite their age. By talking to our kids about drugs as they head back to school and leading by example, we can equip them with the tools they need to make informed decisions to create a safe and supportive environment that helps our children navigate life's challenges with confidence and not succumb to peer pressure.

About the author

Karynne Witkin is the Executive Director of California Prime Recovery.