This daughter of two parents who struggled with addiction has real advice for caregivers.
Ask The Expert: Dr. Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD
by Melissa Jacobs
How should you talk with kids about drugs and alcohol? If you’ve had experience with addiction or it runs in your family, those discussions are even more important. But those conversations, while well-intentioned, can be fraught with ultimatums, scare tactics, parental anxiety, or guilt.
Dr. Geri-Lynn Utter, PsyD suggests another approach. She wants caregivers to give kids candid and accurate information about drug and alcohol use. “Education will help empower kids to make good decisions when they feel pressured by peers to use drugs and alcohol,” says the Montgomery County psychologist. “The discussion should include how drugs can affect every aspect of your life, including your physical health, mental health and relationships with your family, friends, coaches, teachers, etc., especially if you have a family history of addiction.”
Utter’s first book, Mainlining Philly: Survival, Hope and Resisting Drug Addiction chronicled her life as the daughter of two parents who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Her new book, Aftershock: How Past Events Shake Up Your Life Today, provides tools and road maps that Utter hopes people will use to overcome adversity and improve their mental health.
MLT: How should someone with addiction in their own history or their family history talk with their kids about drugs and alcohol?
Utter: The goal is to educate your kids about the fact that they have a higher risk of addiction than other kids. Say it clearly. “Your friend Joey may be able to have a few drinks or smoke weed and it won’t be a problem, but it may be different for you because addiction runs in our family. Addiction is a brain-disease that has a strong influence on how we behave. At first, the drugs may make you feel good, but that feeling doesn’t last very long. When someone becomes addicted to drugs they have a hard time making good decisions and cannot stop themselves from using drugs. And, when you abuse drugs you can cause serious damage to your physical body and your mental health. The more drugs you use, the more drugs you will need. Before you know it, you feel terrible mentally and physically.”
MLT: But we don’t want to shame kids about their own family histories.
Utter: Not at all. But now we know that addiction can be genetic and therefore generational. If we are honest with kids about that, it can help them make decisions that could prevent them from falling into the cycle of addiction. If you had a family history of heart disease or diabetes, you wouldn’t hide these medical diseases from your children, right? My hope is that we can also be open about addiction because it too is a disease.
MLT: What is the right age to talk to kids about drugs and alcohol?
Utter: The younger the better. However, it is important that they are developmentally mature enough to understand what you are saying. By 5th grade, your kids should be fully aware of the dangers of drugs. You want them to enter middle school prepared for what other kids are doing. Don’t let the first time they hear about drugs be from another kid or social media.
MLT: Many kids take medication for ADHD, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Does that predispose them to using pills as recreational drugs?
Utter: No, but it is important that parents teach their kids about pills that are prescribed as medication versus pills they can get from friends – or friends of friends. We should teach kids that we go to the pharmacy to get medications from a pharmacist that are prescribed by healthcare professionals. They come in bottles that have our names on them with directions on how to take them. It is important to reiterate that the only pills they should consume are what is prescribed to them. Something that comes in a baggy – or is just handed to you – is not okay to take.
MLT: What do parents need to know about the modern reality of drugs? What’s changed from when we were young?
Utter: Now, you don’t know what you’re getting when you take drugs. Back in the ‘80s or ‘90s, marijuana was marijuana and cocaine was cocaine. As odd as it sounds, you knew what you were getting from the street. Today, we have illicitly manufactured fentanyl and xylazine crises which have contributed to a number of deaths, even with children and adolescents.
Counterfeit pills may look like prescription medication, but they are adulterated or “laced” with illicitly manufactured fentanyl. Marijuana and vape oils may also be contaminated with fentanyl. It is imperative to educate our kids about the illicit drug market. Seemingly simple experimenting can lead to an untimely death.
MLT: What role does social media play?
Utter: Now, drug dealers are contacting kids through social media platforms like Snap Chat. It’s literally a social network. The dealer sells to one kid, then connects to that kid’s friend and so on. These interactions can be invisible to parents because it is all done on their smart phones. Kids also know how to hide their social media accounts from their parents. So instead of trying to catch them, we need to educate them and trust that they make good decisions when we aren’t around to protect them.
MLT: How can parents do that?
Utter: Keeping open lines of communication is critical. It is much better for accurate education to come from you and not their peers or social media. Creating an environment where they can come to you with questions and will not be punished or shamed is essential. The risk of sending your child out in the world without this information can be far more detrimental than the discomfort you might feel as a parent.
Dr. Geri-Lynn Utter, Psy.D. is the author of Aftershock: How Past Events Shake Up Your Life Today, Mainlining Philly: Survival, Hope and Resisting Drug Addiction and the director of the new documentary Utter Nonsense. For more information, visit her website.
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