A little before Daisy was born, a friend of mine suggested I join the neighborhood mom’s group on Facebook, called the “Fishtown Mamas”. I was a bit skeptical of this online friend group but it quickly became my go-to resource for everything motherhood related.
Recently, one of my fellow “mamas” asked for advice on how to talk to her kids about substance abuse. Our neighborhood is an up-and-coming part of the city which borders a rougher section of town known for drug trafficking, and, as a result, it isn’t uncommon to see needles on the ground or addicts nodding out on street corner. This mom posted:
“I know I'm super early on this conversation, our son is only 9 months, but I'm wondering how people talk with their young children about drug abuse? We see so many people struggling with addiction in our community and I want to use the right language when we get there. Anyone talk with their kids about this?”
I loved that this mom was already anticipating the questions her son might have and wanted to equip herself with the right language and tools to manage the conversation. As you might imagine, a provocative discussion ensued. Some moms shared their horror at seeing junkies shooting up near the playground and their disgust with the choices those people make. Other moms offered valuable ideas for approaching the subject of addiction with children and catalogued family members and friends lost to the opioid epidemic. I shared my own story and thoughts on addiction and based on the positive response it garnered, I thought I would bring this topic to my blog.
As an addict in recovery and mother of a one-year-old daughter, addiction and the growing opioid epidemic is something I think about on a near-daily basis. I am terrified that my daughter will be tormented by the demons that I battled for so many years and have claimed the lives of so many promising people I have known. There is no definitive answer on whether addiction is hereditary but it certainly runs deep through the veins of my family tree and I have nightmares about passing this predisposition onto my daughter.
Even if you have not a single relative who has ever battled addiction, your child may be at risk, and they will almost certainly be exposed to others who are. Here are some pieces of advice I shared with my fellow Fishtown Mamas based on my own personal experience and research:
1. Remember, and teach your children, that addiction is a disease that affects many, many people in all walks of life. Yes, it is something that often affects at-risk neighborhoods and is often a symptom (or by-product) of poverty, but, it is also something that affects the wealthiest and most educated in our country's most affluent communities like Wall Street, Hollywood and Capitol Hill. Kids who grow up in loving homes in beautiful neighborhoods are not immune.
2. Addiction is a disease. It is defined as such by most medical associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine. It is so important to teach our kids that many, many people are born with a natural allergy to alcohol and drugs - some of us can drink alcohol and use drugs and then put those things down and others can’t stop once they have started. This is a simple result of bodies processing things differently and by the time we learn we are predisposed to addiction, it's often too late.
3. Keep your kids away from painkillers at all costs - that is almost always where heroin addiction is born. Seemingly normal, innocuous childhood events like wisdom teeth removal and sports injuries are very often an accidental pathway to a lifelong battle with heroin addiction. You will never be able to know if your child has addictive behaviors until they start taking habit-forming substances so try to steer them away from these at all costs. If pain management is necessary, talk to your kids about the dangers they carry, monitor daily intake on a family spreadsheet and keep pills under lock and key.
4. Talk to your kids openly and honestly and make sure the lines of communication stay open. Kids need to know they can come to their parents without fear of punishment when they experience something for the first time or are making a decision and don’t know what to do.
5. Have compassion for those in the throes of addiction. The man who soiled himself on the train or the swaying woman on the corner flagging down cars – they are people, too. They were children once with dreams and hopes and potential. He never imagined he wouldn’t have a place to lay his head and she never wanted to be a sex worker. Somewhere along the way they fell into a hole that they cannot get out of. Often they lack the resources or support to get help and other times their addiction is so deep-seated it is nearly impossible to overcome. Have love and forgiveness in your heart for those people. They never wanted to end up where they are.
6. Demonstrate healthy behaviors at home. Show your babies how to feel their emotions and turn them into something positive. As a society, we often model for children that moms drink alcohol to manage stress. Every meme, sitcom and funny YouTube video seems to put forth the idea that the solution for everything is a glass of wine. This sends kids the harmful message that the way to cope with emotion is with substances. Eventually, the line between one thing that makes you feel better (wine, pills) and another (heroin) becomes blurred. Instead of "mommy deserves a glass of wine" or "mommy needs a cocktail", show your kiddos examples of channeling emotions in a constructive way. I.E. "whew, I had a really stressful day at work. I'm going to take a yoga class to cool down" or "I had a hard conversation with Nana. Let's go for a walk and get some fresh air". Actions speak louder than words. You can tell your kids to stay away from drugs but if they see you hitting the bottle every night because you "need" wine, they are taking away something much different than what you intended.
Don't be this mom! People who "need" wine are alcoholics.
Some great resources:
Talking to Your Child About Drugs – from Parents Magazine
How to Talk to Kids about Addiction – from the Chicago Tribune
Talking to Kids About Past Drug Use – from the New York Times
Talking to Your Child About Drugs - Kids Health from Nemours
Talking to Your Kids About Drugs - Today's Parent
For me, when the time comes, I plan to be completely open with Daisy about my struggles with drugs and alcohol. I want her to know what it was like, what happened and what my life is like now. I want her to always know that she can come to me without judgment and I will be there to listen, to share my experiences and, hopefully, lead by positive example ❤