Opioid Awareness

Conversation starters for parents and kids about fentanyl and addiction.
Roughly 71,000 people lost their lives to fentanyl in 2021.  Photograph by Johannes Plenio

By Natasha Silver Bell

The late weeks of summer are bittersweet: Final swims in the lake are cheered by the arrival of autumn apples, and fading sunburns from beach days past are brightened by the first glimpses of incendiary fall foliage. Parents’ relief when children settle back into the school year is tempered by the knowledge that our success is measured by how well we equip our children to live without us. We watch them run for the subway or school bus, each wave goodbye a testament to Kahlil Gibran’s words: “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

Parenting is like walking on a tightrope strung between love and fear. To master—and survive—their craft, tightrope walkers must achieve equilibrium. Within each step is the “moment of inertia”: a real-time internal assessment that allows the tightrope walker to correct their position (usually with the help of a long pole) and stay balanced, lest they plunge to the ground below. The thin scrim of the safety net is barely considered; the key to success—and survival—is in preventing a fall.

How might parents prevent the type of catastrophic falls endemic to our children’s lives today? Beyond the competition of the football field and anxiety of perfectionism lie the darker dangers of drugs more potent than anything we encountered in our youth. Synthetic opioids such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl are up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Roughly 58,000 people lost their lives to fentanyl in 2020; that number ballooned to almost 72,000 in 2021, and continues to climb. Against this background of horror, how can we ensure our children stay smart, safe and secure?

While our children will always be our babies, engaging them as young adults is critical. Open-ended questions grounded in respect and curiosity keep the doors of conversation open when preaching and moralizing threaten to slam them shut. Share what you know with your teen, asking them how it squares with their knowledge. “I just read some intense facts about fentanyl; what have you heard?” Chances are, your kids know more than you think they do: They likely have acquaintances or friends who are using drugs, and they may know someone who has overdosed or even died. When our fear tempts us toward lecturing, we can use our “moments of inertia” to self-correct, initiating a conversation or exploration instead. We can join our children in an investigation: “What’s going on in our culture? Why is this drug killing so many young people?”

Parents often ask me if they should share their own experiences with their children: “I get it. I did ____ when I was your age too, but…” While sharing our histories may occasionally be appropriate with older children, projecting our stories onto children of any age is not. They are their own people, and their experiences do not mirror ours. Our job is to foster an environment where we—and they—can be heard. Impactful conversations can happen anywhere and at any time. A walk on the beach, cooking a meal together, or even watching back-to-back episodes of a favorite TV show provide opportunities to learn more about our children and how they are navigating their lives.

We want to protect our children, and the best protection is prevention. Every skinned knee cannot simply be kissed away. In the words of the great Robin Williams, our directive is clear: “You can’t keep picking people up. You have to stop them from falling.” silverbellcoaching.com


Find help here:

•Contact the New York State Office of Addiction and Supports’ Project COPE (oasas.ny.gov/projectcope) for assistance with getting fentanyl test strips from BTNX Inc., community overdose prevention education and more.

•Naloxone, the drug that reverses overdoses from opioids, is available in more than 2,600 pharmacies in New York State. Go to health.ny.gov/diseases/aids/general/opioid_overdose_prevention/docs/pharmacy_directory.pdf for a list of pharmacies where you can obtain the drug.

•SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 800.662.HELP, is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (available in both English and Spanish) for individuals and families who are dealing with substance use disorders.