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8 Real Drug Facts Kids Need to Hear

When a doctor handed my husband a prescription to painkillers five years ago, I had no idea how our lives could unravel. The denial, the deception, the near-death scares—a simple chemical cocktail completely changed him, controlled him, until I was sleeping next to a stranger.

Throughout the next hellish five years, I woke up. I educated myself on addiction, found compassion and forgiveness for his human struggles, and ended up seeing our War on Drug culture through a clearer perspective. We have a child together, a child who, statistics say, is more at risk to follow in his father’s path. And so that little boy has been our motivation to better understand and cope with addiction and recovery.

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One in four teens has misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime, and much of the abuse is happening before the age of 14.

At one point, I found myself in a large community forum packed with strangers. We were all there to learn and talk about the growing opiate epidemic strangling our quiet, safe surburban area, an epidemic playing out throughout the country. And one of my biggest takeaways was when a researcher presented her findings on the heroin usage in … wait for it … middle school. She found that the most at-risk kids aren’t the ones who say that their parents think drugs are good or bad; the kids most at risk have no idea what their parents think.

Parents, we need to talk to our kids about drugs, and sooner than we think. I know some conversations are scary and difficult—better left to D.A.R.E. officers and after-school specials, we assume. But this fear-based, broad-stroke approach to drugs inevitably backfires. It just does. And trust me, I know about fear! I can’t fathom watching my son stumble down the same path as my husband; it’s an excruciating prospect. But being dishonest about the reality of drugs or putting my head in the sand, hoping he’s a “good kid” who doesn’t do “bad things” is pure delusion.

And parents now have an even more alarming risk: prescription drugs. According to The Medicine Abuse Project, one in four teens has misused or abused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime, and much of the abuse is happening before the age of 14. Prescription drugs are at the root of our opiate and heroin epidemics, and they’re killing our children in record numbers.

Again, our kids need us to talk to them! I know that as my son gets older and the questions start coming, I hope to instill these honest lessons about drugs:

1. We will never live in a drug-free world, and we probably wouldn’t want to.

Let’s start by being honest about drugs, in all of their forms and varieties, illegal and legal. Whether we like to think about it or not, drugs will be a part of our children’s future. As a society, we use substances to achieve different states all the time—whether to wake up in the morning (caffeine), or numb our pain (opiates), or bond and connect with friends (alcohol).

And guess what? Sugar is a drug, too. A growing body of research, including the recent documentary "Fed Up," is shedding light on just how drug-like sugar is. Perhaps including sugar in the drug conversation will help our kids understand just how benign-looking and pervasive drugs really are.

2. Not all drugs are created equal.

Lumping drugs in the same category ... is dishonest and shortsighted.

Marijuana is not meth; psilocybin mushrooms are not tobacco; sugar is not cocaine. Grouping all drugs under one umbrella term and circling them with a giant red X doesn’t do much to teach our children. It’s actually quite lazy.

All drugs have the possibility to be abused, but they don’t affect our bodies in the same way. Some have a much higher propensity to destroy our lives and bodies, but maybe if we can approach the topic in an honest and educational way, they’ll trust our judgment when we say things like, “Just don’t pick up a cigarette. Nothing about it is worth it.”

And, in my opinion, psychotropic drugs need to be another talk entirely, as the experiences of ayahuasca, DMT and psilocybin are becoming more mainstream and accessible. Lumping these types of drugs in the same category as, say, “speed” or “crack” is dishonest and shortsighted.

3. Some of the most dangerous drugs are legal.

It’s time to stop propagating this idea that the most dangerous drugs are the illegal ones. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 114 people die from prescription painkillers every day, and pharmaceuticals cause over 1.4 million emergency department visits per year. Prescription drug overdose has now moved to the No. 1 cause of injury death, over car crashes, more than cocaine and heroin combined. And do you know the third leading cause of preventable death? Alcohol, also legal, which kills nearly 88,000 people annually. And then there’s the cigarette.

Do you know how many people have died from cannabis in the history of the world? Zero. I’m not saying I’ll hand my kid a joint, but kids should be aware that the real dangerous stuff could be picked up at any drug store or supermarket.

4. Addictions go deeper than drugs.

When it comes to addiction, drugs aren’t the problem; drugs are typically the solution to a bigger, deeper problem. Drugs make it easy to avoid the hard realities of life and escape to a different place—but those patched holes aren’t a sustainable solution. It might work for a year, five years, even 20 years, but the leaks will come. The structure will crumble, I promise you. The longer we cover up our problems with something like drugs, the harder life gets. I hope to teach him that there are healthy and unhealthy ways to cope with life, and drugs are a self-destructive, losing battle.

5. Addictions are miserable.

Even the smartest, coolest, superhero-like people aren’t immune.

Parents are good at saying NO, but perhaps we need to do a better job at explaining WHY. The real mechanics of addiction, how it affects our brain and our lives, need to be emphasized, preferably by someone who has been there. This is where I’m hoping my husband can step in and show my son that even the smartest, coolest, superhero-like people aren’t immune to the trappings of addiction.

6. He’s genetically predisposed to addiction.

Some parents hide their struggles with addiction, out of fear that their child will think they’re weak or unworthy of respect. But kids predisposed to addiction—which is a lot of children—need to understand the odds stacked against them. Addiction and alcoholism become family legacies, and while it’s easy to cling to those few people he’ll meet who can dabble in recreational drugs and drinking, he’s rolling a dice.

7. Not now, maybe later

Rather than broadly declare, “NEVER EVER” with a wagging finger, I want my son to understand the very real, scientifically confirmed problems that drugs—including marijuana and psychedelics—has on developing brains. So no, not right now. Allow your brain to develop in a healthy way. But when you’re older, in your 20s, you can make that choice for yourself. Odds are, any consciousness exploring or drug experimentation will be done a bit more responsibly because he’s not, ya know, a 13-year-old child.

8. He can always talk to us, and we’ll always listen without judgment.

This is, hands down, the most important component of the drug talk: not for parents to say they’ll listen without judgment, but for them to actually do it. Sometimes life is hard, and people stumble into unhealthy coping strategies—it happens. Just because he might make a bad choice, doesn’t mean he’s a bad person.

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And if he does find himself hooked on drugs, I want to look at the deeper hurt and issues going on. No emotionally healthy person with self-worth and self-love needs to rely on drugs to get through the day, or engages in such self-destructive habits. The lines of communication will be wide open. I want him to know that no matter what happens, he can be OK. And we will always listen to him, no matter how hard it is to hear.

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