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How to talk to your kids about drugs. Interview with heroin expert Tim Ryan.

27 Feb 2015 – 12:00 PM EST

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As a parent, Tim Ryan was pretty messed up. For twelve years, he battled an addiction to heroin. The addiction landed him in jail–twice. it cost him his job, his family, and nearly his life. During his second stint behind bars, Tim vowed to turn his life around. This time, he wanted his life to mean something. He wanted to reach out and help others out of the haze of addiction.

As soon as he got out of prison, Tim went to work with a vengeance. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of families and those gripped by addiction. He created a weekly support group in his home town and began drug education awareness in the schools and communities.

Within his own family, heroin had a tight grip on Tim’s 20-year-old son, Nick. Nick was fresh out of a stint in rehab when a fatal dose of heroin ended his life. Tim was devastated. After he dried the tears, Tim jumped into action. It was time to stop being quiet about drugs and addiction and reach out with solutions.

“There’s a stigma about drugs–if a parent has a child with drug issues, they don’t tell anyone–we need to drop the stigma,” Tim said. “Addition is a disease. If a kid has cancer, they tell everyone. If a child is struggling with drugs, they don’t talk about it.”

Parents expect schools to talk about drugs and most schools talk about it for one week. Tim believes they should talk about it every week. “More kids die from drug addiction and drug overdose than car accidents,” Tim said. “As a parent, you tell your kids, ‘wear a seatbelt, look both ways before you drive.’ Yet, we don’t talk about drugs, why not?”

A lot of parents hold the belief that drugs are a problem in troubled or underprivileged families. The truth is, drug addiction can affect anyone and no family is immune. Tim encourages families to start drug education early and often–and in the home. It’s too risky to leave drug education up to the schools–and it may be too late if you do.

“The big mistake that parents make–they don’t talk to kids,” Tim explained. “They’re not involved in their lives. Too many parents turn a blind eye to this. Start talking about drugs as young as third or fourth grade–and make your kids aware.”

It can be hard to talk to a kid who is withdrawn or reluctant to open up. That’s a red flag that needs to be addressed, Tim stressed. This usually indicates a problem going on in the child’s life and parents can’t ignore the symptoms. There’s also the danger of brushing off casual drug use as an experimental phase in a child’s life.

“Every addiction starts at the end of cigarette or marijuana use,” Tim said. “If a kid is trying mind-altering substances go to a therapist or go to treatment to find the why behind the initial addition. Kids are using it for some reason–pain they’re masking with drugs or they’re trying to fit in with the cool group –you need to know who your kids friend are. Kids need to be happy and loved in their own skin.”

Tim’s message boils down this: don’t leave drug education up to the schools. Learn everything you can about how kids are getting high– and begin talking to your kids every way you can.

For more information, visit Tim Ryan’s site: A Man In Recovery and From Dope to Hope.