When Jay Martin was 13 years old and living in Nebraska, he answered the family phone to hear a state trooper explain his brother had been in a wreck and he needed to speak with Martin’s parents.
Martin’s 19-year-old brother was killed in a car accident in which he was driving drunk. The experience hurt not only his family, Martin said, but also others who were involved in his brother’s crash.
Today, Martin is a deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office working with the department’s Y.E.S.S. program, in which officers visit local schools and teach about such topics as online safety, relationship safety and substance use.
But Martin isn’t the only one trying to teach kids the dos and don’ts of alcohol and drug use.
A campaign run by the Colorado Department of Human Services Office of Behavioral Health called “Speak Now Colorado” is targeted at helping parents have those difficult conversations with kids, especially around prom and graduation seasons.
On the Speak Now website, speaknowcolorado.org, parents can:
• Learn how to spot risky behavior.
• Explore hypothetical scenarios to help them prepare for real-life situations involving kids and substances.
• Take a quiz to test their knowledge of drug and alcohol use.
• Get tips for starting and continuing conversations with their children about drugs and alcohol.
Start conversations early
Rob Valuck, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Colorado, has worked in substance abuse prevention for nearly 25 years. He says the main reason for parents to keep their kids away from alcohol and drugs, including misuse of prescription drugs, is to protect their health.
“We really think it’s a critical time in people’s lives — behaviorally and emotionally and psychologically, but also biologically,” he said of adolescence. “There’s a lot of changes going on in people’s bodies up until about age 25.”
Mainly, he said, a person’s brain is still developing during those years. Drugs and alcohol affect how the brain functions, and possibly impact a person’s reward system and self-control.
“We know that there’s issues if people start to use substances in those early years,” he said.
When talking to kids, he recommends parents start young, even as early as grade school age, he said, although using age-appropriate terms. It’s important for young people to know their parents don’t think using drugs and alcohol is acceptable.
“It’s not a moral thing,” he said. “It’s a safety issue.”
Valuck also cautions that people’s risk assessment of substances has decreased, and he reminds people of all ages that no substance is perfectly safe, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
“There is no totally safe drug,” he said. “Every drug has side effects.”
Personal stories connect with kids
When it comes to teaching kids about substance use and the power of prescription drugs, Martin believes they have to be reached on an emotional level.
So, he’s willing to get personal.
In those Y.E.S.S. sessions, he opens up about undergoing back surgery a year and a half ago. Martin was prescribed strong painkillers. He says he felt firsthand the effects of becoming reliant on the drugs and then the withdrawal symptoms that followed when he took himself off the drugs to avoid addiction.
And it wasn’t just physical side effects, Martin said. In addition to cravings, Martin said he also began having thoughts and feelings he’d never had before.
Both Martin and Valuck advised parents to let their children know that the “everyone-is-doing it” mentality is a big misconception.
“If you truly want to fit in with your peers,” Martin said, “most kids are not using.”
Martin also recommends that parents stay up-to-date on what’s new in the world of substances. For example, he said, the sheriff’s office has encountered many students with vape pens that look like USB ports, which can contain a variety of drugs.
“It’s not always nicotine,” he said. “They can be swapped out for THC. We’ve found heroin in them.”
Most importantly, Valuck emphasized that parents shouldn’t doubt the impact they can have on a child by openly discussing the dangers of drugs and alcohol — not only around times like prom and graduation, but also year-round.
“Research has shown,” he said, “that they listen to us more than we think.”