Back To School-Tips For Parents During An Opioid Epidemic

By: Louise Stanger & Jim Holsomback

Opioid Epidemic

Seeing those first ‘Back to School’ signs elicit a lot of different feelings for teens and parents. At its best, school can add structure, socialization and the promise of a successful year of learning. At its worst, school can prompt anxiety, conflict and trauma. While parents and teens try and balance socialization with stress, academics with anxiety, purpose and pressure, schools also wrestle with the ‘new norms’ of striking their own balance with the availability of phones, access to substances and a rising suicide rate amongst preteens and teens that is approaching epidemic numbers in the United States.

Without a ‘one size fits all’ instruction manual for teens, families often feel that they are in reaction mode, which often can feel unpredictable and driven by emotion rather than thought and logic. Recommendations and support typically follow behavior that is concerning or scary and, even with the best of intentions; rules typically fade with time when they are born from anxiety or crisis around substance use. As important as structure, consistency and organization are, they can fade by mid-October in the same way New Year’s resolutions often do. So how can parents identify useful guidelines that can help create a smooth transition from the beginning of the school year through the academic term?

Parents often report feeling immense joy when the structure and stability of the first day of school arrives. The most successful families; however, start planning for school long before “First Day of School Eve”. In fact, setting an effective plan in place about 2 weeks prior to the beginning of school can help reduce anxiety and sleeplessness when the big day arrives. Families that start to RESET about 14 days before school begins help provide a smooth transition to school. What does RESET mean?


Recovery: Often summer can be a very risky time for teens to manage their recovery. Parties, holidays and fun often go hand in hand with substance use for adolescents. Without the structure of school, or fear of getting caught by more vigilant parents or the suspecting teacher, folks who specialize in recovery often look toward summer as a high-risk time to use. However, the stress of academics and seeing friends that often have found new experiences with substances during the summer can often create new and unexpected temptations to lapse in recovery, especially for those who use drugs to manage stress, anxiety or depression. Parents can use the beginning of the school year as a time to invite their teens into a conversation around recovery and substances and begin an ongoing dialogue around use. The more you speak about it, the more comfortable they will feel discussing it. Make recovery convoys a part of weekly dialogue to open the door to proactive conversations.

Eating: For a lot of kids, hot dogs can become one of the major food groups during the summer. Meal times are often inconsistent and the meals themselves may not be as structured as they would be during the school year. Using the two weeks prior to school can be a great way to recalibrate eating, both in terms of the times families eat as well as what they are actually consuming during the meal. Eating balanced meals can have a profound effect on moods and mental health, so getting into the swing of a balanced meal and consistent time can help that transition back to school.

Sleep: This is another cornerstone mood regulator that can really shift in the summer. Between the longer days and not having to get up and prepare for school, the amount of sleep that children and adolescents get can vary during the summer. Getting kids and teens on a regular sleep schedule and ensuring that they are getting the recommended amount of sleep is an integral task before the school year begins.

Exercise: For some kids, exercise is not a problem when the weather is nice and school doesn’t get in the way of play. For others, however, exercise can get lost in all the fun of sleepovers, barbeques and days at the beach. By getting exercise on board in a regimented fashion, children and teens can begin a routine that can last through the darker (and for some, colder) winter months.

Telephones: Have you forgotten what your child looks like because their face has been hidden behind a digital device all summer? Are you worried that your child’s school picture may feature a tablet instead of his/her head? Well, that may be because their head has been on their tablet for the better part of the summer. While all the conveniences of digital devices help kids stay connected, they can also become problematic when free time is replaced with homework. Having your family set up a digital plan a couple of weeks prior to the school year can be a great way to remember what they look like without a tablet or cell phone and can actually promote better sleep.

The hardest part of having a difficult conversation is the beginning. As parents, we care deeply about our children. We often helicopter over them or scoot like a submarine underneath. How can parents effectively bring up their anxiety around tough teen topics such as substance use, suicide, sex, bullying and friends (The Big FIVE)? Here are some tips that can help parents ease their way into the conversation pool without feeling like it is too frightening to stay and chat…..

1. Own It! Most of the awkward conversations that happen (or don’t happen!) between parents and teens are elicited by mom and dad’s anxiety. Often, parents try and bury their anxiety in those conversations. Start the conversation by owning it. “This is just my ‘mom’ anxiety, and I want to talk about…..” can be a great conversation opener that helps teens understand that they may not have done anything wrong and they may actually be helpful in easing a parent’s anxiety (and teens, more than anyone, know that anxious parents do crazy things!)

2. Avoid Making The Conversation an Annual Event! While every difficult conversation around substance use, suicide, sex , bullying and friends may not go perfectly well, the more frequently parents and teens have the conversations, the more they will be integrated as topics that families discuss. It isn’t a secret that the difficult teen topics affect every adolescent; not treating it in a secretive manner can help make it easier to discuss.

3. We Are Opening an Amnesty Program! Teens often hate conversations around The Big FIVE because they are afraid of ‘getting caught’ or having parents snooping for information. As parents, we would be surprised if our 12-18 year old isn’t affected or worried about such topics. Adolescents are far more likely to have open discussions about The Big FIVE if the hammer of discipline isn’t waiting for them at the end of a conversation.

4. Win, Lose or Draw! It can be easy to focus on winning a debate or conversation, catching a teen red handed like an episode of Law and Order or feeling like we know everything about our kiddo. The real ‘win’ is the conversation and the opportunity to have another. It is hard to feel effective as a parent when scary behaviors like substance use and self-injury go underground. The more parents can feel comfortable that their kids will be honest and approach them if scary behaviors affect them or their friends’ lives, the easier it is to parent.

5. Don’t Forget Sticker Charts and Other Strategies! Remember when we relied on sticker charts to reward behavior? They helped create pee in the potty, clean rooms and completed household chores. Why did they work? Behaviorism! We didn’t pull all the stickers off the chart at the first sign of a messy room, yet parents often fall into the trap of taking everything away when things aren’t going well and doing nothing when things are going good. If the reward of having ‘good teen behavior’ around The Big Five is just ‘not being punished’, behavioral principles won’t work.

6. Remember How Important things like Relationships, Trust, Feedback, Compassion and Time is to Our Teens? They are more powerful than stickers and work in very similar manners for eliciting the values and behavior we hope our adolescents exhibit.

Jim Holsomback (MA – ABT) is the Director of Clinical Outreach for
Paradigm Malibu Adolescent Treatment and Program Director of
Triad Adolescent Group Therapy Services.

Dr. Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, clinician, and
interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach with
complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and
process addiction clients. http:/