Talk to Young People About Drugs and Alcohol

Talking about drugs

Two alarming findings were published recently. First, adolescent drug overdose deaths are up. Second, overall teen drug use is down. The logical conclusion is that drug use is becoming more dangerous for teens, which should compel parents to take a more proactive role in preventing their kids from experimenting with drugs.

The Findings

According to a groundbreaking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, monthly drug overdose deaths among U.S. teenagers tripled from 2019 through the end of 2021. Fentanyl was involved in 84% of those deaths, while opioids of any type were involved in 91%. Further, the CDC reported at least 25% of adolescents who died from overdoses died while consuming counterfeit pills, i.e., potent synthetic opioids made to look like prescription painkillers.

The CDC recorded the following data regarding overdose deaths among adolescents ages 10 to 19:

  • 31 deaths in July 2019
  • 87 deaths in May 2021
  • 51 deaths in December 2021
  • Fentanyl was involved in 84% of overdose deaths
  • Opioids of any type were involved in 91% of overdoses
  • 2,200 adolescents overdosed between July 2019 and December 2021
  • Approximately 70% of the young victims were boys, and 30% were girls
  • 41% of the youths who died had a previous history of mental health issues
  • About 60% of those who died were white, 21% were Hispanic, and 13% were Black
  • About 96% of adolescents who overdosed were teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19
  • Fentanyl alone claimed 21 adolescents in July 2019, 78 in May 2021, and 44 in December 2021
  • 25% of adolescent overdose deaths may have involved counterfeit pills that resemble OxyContin
Teenager boy in hospital

These findings shed light on a public health emergency. Youths are experimenting with drugs in fewer numbers, yes, but those who experiment are at far greater risk of dying than youths who experimented with drugs in previous years. To address this crisis, Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, highlighted the importance of parents talking to kids. She said, “Over the past few years, there has been a marked expansion in the drug supply of illicit fentanyl, a cheap, very potent synthetic opioid drug. While people may seek out fentanyl intentionally in some cases, many people are unaware whether the drug they are using contains fentanyl, which can put them at high risk of overdosing. It is crucial to educate young people that pills purchased via social media, given to someone by a friend, or obtained from an unknown source may contain deadly fentanyl.” Dr. Volkow’s point is well taken. Young people are at more risk now when they abuse drugs than perhaps ever before.

Tips for Parents

Every overdose death among teenagers is preventable. Given modern-day drug toxicity, parents must take extra precautions to keep their children safe. Linda Richter, Vice President for Prevention Research and Analysis at the Partnership to End Addiction, spoke to this point after reviewing the CDC report. She said, “This report should be a wake-up call to all families, communities, educators, health professionals, policymakers, and young people themselves that what was an opioid epidemic is now a fentanyl crisis causing an unacceptable number of completely preventable deaths among teenagers.” With that in mind, a few key points parents should cover with their kids include:

  • What drugs are. Young people often do not have a clear understanding of what drugs are. It might not even be entirely clear to them how and why drugs are harmful. Parents should provide their children with factual information about drugs, including what drugs do to the body and mind, how many people die from using drugs, and how there is never a “safe” way to use drugs.
Dad is talking to his son
  • How to say no to peer pressure. Peer pressure is one of the most critical factors influencing adolescent drug use. Parents should talk to their kids about peer pressure and advise them on how to say no to drugs. That can include helping teens construct ways to extricate themselves from situations that make them feel uncomfortable, recognize unpleasant social groups, and vary a “no” response as many times as necessary until the peer-pressuring individual backs off.
  • Drugs are not a solution to a problem; they are a problem. Parents should create a warm, open family environment to discuss the problems and life issues that might push youths to experiment with drugs. Parents should use factual data about drugs to show their kids how drugs don’t solve anything; they worsen existing problems.

Young People Less Likely to Use Drugs if Parents Talk to Them About the Effects of Mind-Altering Substances

Studies have shown that kids who have regular conversations with their parents about drugs and alcohol are less likely to experiment with such substances. One study showed that teens who learn about prescription drugs from their parents or grandparents are up to 42% less likely to abuse them than teens who don’t. Conversely, teens whose parents are less concerned about prescription drug abuse (compared to illegal drug abuse) were more likely to experiment with prescription drugs.

Conversations about drugs help prevent experimentation. When done consistently and throughout a child’s upbringing, regular conversations about drugs, their harmful effects, and how to say no to peer pressure all significantly reduce the chances that young people will experiment with drugs.

So talk to your kids about drugs. And keep talking to them about drugs as they grow up. You (and they) will be thankful you did.

Sources Cited:

  • CDC. “Drug Overdose Deaths Among Persons Aged 10–19 Years—United States, July 2019–December 2021.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.
  • NIH. “Percentage of adolescents reporting drug use decreased significantly in 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic endured.” National Institutes of Health, 2021.
  • USNews. “Pandemic Brought Surge in Teen Drug Overdose Deaths.” U.S. News, 2022.
  • KidsHealth. “Talking to Your Child About Drugs.” Kids Health, 2022.
  • CSN. “When Parents Talk about Prescription Drug Abuse, Kids Listen (with Infographic).” Children’s Safety Network, 2014.


Editorial Staff