In 2016, more Americans died from drug overdoses (64,000) than were killed in the entire Vietnam War. Drugs take more lives each year than car crashes and gun violence, too.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers is down. According to a December 2017 survey, past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana is holding steady at its lowest levels in more than two decades: 5.8 percent among eighth-graders, 9.4 percent among 10th-graders and 13.3 percent among 12th-graders. The percentage of high school teens who reported ever using alcohol has fallen significantly as well.
Experts say this promising trend is a result of increased awareness about the dangers of drugs and alcohol — awareness that comes from adults like you.
To keep young people headed in the right direction, Scouting magazine spoke with experts to uncover effective, data-backed strategies to lower a young person’s addiction risk.
“My most important advice is, tell the truth,” says Dr. Cynthia Kuhn, best-selling author of Just Say Know: Talking With Kids About Drugs and Alcohol. “Kids know if you’re lying. A kid may say, ‘Nobody ever died from marijuana.’ The knee-jerk response is, ‘Well, you shouldn’t do it anyway.’ Kids will tune that message out.”
A better argument? Marijuana harms memory, learning and problem-solving skills.
So start by educating yourself. A strong factual foundation will help your credibility. Start at drugabuse.gov, an excellent resource from the National Institutes of Health and the source of the statistics in this article.
Before you talk to young people about drugs, get ready emotionally and mentally.
“Don’t be confrontational or critical,” says Dr. Ashwin Patkar, Duke University professor and teen-addiction specialist. “Listen and understand. Be calm, have a plan, and don’t blame or accuse.”
Do you drink? Smoke cigarettes? Young people might see that as hypocrisy.
“Parents have to think about their own attitudes about drugs,” Kuhn says. “Be very thoughtful about what message you want to give your kids. If you get smashed every night, then tell them alcohol is evil, they’ll dismiss you.”
Take the First Step
Many adults stay silent because they think their words won’t matter.
“Kids do listen to their parents when it comes to drugs,” Kuhn says. “They may roll their eyes and slam the door, but the data suggest consistent parental messages have an impact.”
Conversely, not talking can have devastating effects. Just ask Corey Eisert-Wlodarczyk, whose brother died of a heroin overdose in 2012.
“My parents never fully understood the extent of what Collin was doing until it was too late,” Corey says. “It was a complete shock.”
Corey, an Eagle Scout from Troop 52 in Erie, Pa., became determined to save others from his brother’s fate. For his Eagle project, he made a trailer outfitted like a teen bedroom. The goal? To teach adults to spot the hidden-in-plain-sight signs of drug abuse.
“The No. 1 thing we preach,” Corey says, “is just being able to talk about it.”
Kuhn agrees, seeing drug education as a process — a series of conversations instead of a single event.
“Parents say, ‘I can’t talk to my eighth-grader about it,’” Kuhn says. “Well, when are you going to talk to him? After there’s a problem?”
Make it Personal
Not sure where to start? Ask a young person.
“Kids know surprising stuff,” Kuhn says. “Ask what they’ve seen and what they have questions about.”
That can provide a starting point without challenging them about their own behavior. Next, share personal stories.
“If there’s a family history of substance abuse, it’s really helpful for parents to talk about it because it gives kids ammunition,” Kuhn says. “If some kid says, ‘Oh, come on, have a drink,’ it can give them power to turn down their peers.”
Let Someone Else Talk
As an adult, you’ve already got a strike against you.
“For me, advice from teachers or adult speakers has always fallen on deaf ears,” Corey says. “I would always say, ‘Oh, this is an adult. Of course he’ll tell me not to do drugs.’”
To have a deeper impact, bring guest speakers to troop meetings who can share personal stories. That’s especially effective if the speaker is a teen.
“It’s much more powerful to tell them, ‘The experience I’ve had is not something you ever want to be a part of,’” Corey says.
Show How Drugs Can Hurt
Referencing a child’s hopes and dreams is powerful.
“Put it in the context of: ‘You want to function at your best in life. You have goals. Maybe that’s being an Eagle Scout, an athlete, a good student or going to a good college,’ ” Kuhn says.
Dr. Tom Rushton concurs. He’s the Scoutmaster of Troop 1061 in Huntington, W.Va., an area considered ground zero in the opioid epidemic. He’s also the director of infectious diseases at St. Mary’s Medical Center.
“There’s this idea of personal health and fitness,” Rushton says. “Drugs and alcohol will harm their body, mind and soul.”
Reinforcing and discussing the Scout Law can give kids a lifeline to stay focused on the straight and narrow.
Give Them Better Options
For some teens, no amount of talking helps.
“A lot of the substance use in our area is learned behavior,” Rushton says. “Kids get it from their parents, who learned from their parents.”
Still other children have psychological or genetic risk factors. Getting them involved early in positive activities is key.
“Scouting is huge,” Kuhn says. Any kind of strong interest helps, whether it’s computer programming, music, church or sports. “Anything that isn’t drugs.”
A Scout leader can introduce and fuel those healthy passions. Beyond that, Scouting can teach problem-solving as opposed to problem-fleeing.
“Life is full of problems,” Rushton says. “But that’s not a problem; it’s a challenge.”
Things like merit badge work and backpacking trips can provide teachable moments.
“We can show them that if you’re faced with a problem, you can actually sit down and discuss it and find a solution,” Rushton says. “You don’t have to run away from it chemically. And there’s nothing more powerful in anybody’s life than actually tasting success.”
Telltale Signs of Drug Use
Here are some things to watch out for:
- Spending time with questionable friends
- Falling grades
- Not as social
- Not as happy; moodier
- Sudden weight changes
- Constant use of credit cards
- Money or possessions suddenly go missing
What do you do if you do spot evidence of drug use? “The most important thing to help a child in that situation is to get them to a clinician and get them treatment,” says Dr. Cynthia Kuhn.