Families in Connecticut are mourning the death of a 13-year-old who overdosed on the painkiller fentanyl while at his Hartford school. It’s a tragic reminder of the dangers of drugs around kids. 

If you’re a parent or caregiver, it can be hard to know how to talk to your child about what happened, and how they can stay safe around drugs.

Melissa Santos, PhD, Connecticut Children’s division head of Pediatric Psychology, shares advice.

When your child is 8 or 9 years old, start talking to them about drugs.

If your child gets in the habit of talking with you while they’re young, they’ll feel more comfortable coming to you when they’re older. That’s true for any sensitive subject.

When it comes specifically to talking about the dangers of drugs (and alcohol and tobacco), the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests starting around age 8 or 9.

  • For younger kids, look for opportunities to bring it up casually. Maybe you and your young child are watching TV, and a character is smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. Or maybe an athlete is in the news because of steroid use. Explain what that person is doing, and what it does to their body.
  • For teens, you can also ask what they know about the other consequences of substance abuse, like what might happen if they get in the car with a friend who’s been drinking or using drugs. In addition to jail time and fees, talk about the possibility that they or someone they care about might be killed or seriously hurt.

The key in having these conversations is to ask questions in a nonjudgmental way, be curious, and take time to listen. Down the road, that will help your child feel safer coming to you if they have questions or need your help.

> Related: How to Talk to Your Child About Suicide

Check in with your child about recent events.

The Hartford school overdose is a tragedy, and it’s important for your child to know that they can talk to you about it if they need to. But they might not know how to bring it up. You can start the conversation for them.

  • It’s OK to be direct. Ask your child, “Have you heard what happened on the news?” or “What are they saying at school?” Ask them about what they already know, and how they’re feeling about it. Don’t push them to talk about it they don’t want to, but let them know you’re there for them.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, that’s OK – be honest about that. Focus on really listening to your child, and validating their feelings. That will help them open up.

Let your child know that it’s normal to feel worried, sad or scared. But there are steps they can take to keep themselves safe – like the strategies below.

> Related: How to Talk to Kids About Scary or Tragic Events in the News

A dad talking with his son outside

Help your child practice their response if someone offers them drugs.

It’s hard for kids to know what to do or say when they’re put on the spot by their peers. You can prepare them by coming up with a strategy ahead of time.

Talk to your child about what it might feel like if someone offered them drugs, alcohol, cigarettes or another harmful substance. Together, make a plan for what they can say and do.

  • Come up with a simple response, like, “No, I’m not interested,” or “No, I don’t want to do that,” and walking away.
  • You can even role play the conversation to get your child used to how it feels to say no and physically walk away. Like any skill, practice helps, especially when we’re feeling under pressure.

Here are more tips to help your child deal with peer pressure.

Talk to your child about what to do if they spot drug or alcohol abuse at school.

Schools have special resources on hand to keep students safe from dangerous substances and get them the support they need.

  • Help your child think of a trusted adult at school who they can talk to if they see or hear anything. Is there a teacher, past or present, who they feel comfortable with? A guidance counselor? Coach? The school nurse?

Here, too, you can practice what your child can do and say to start the conversation – like knocking on a door and saying, “I need help right now. It’s important.”

Watch for warning signs that your child might need help.

Be on the lookout for changes in how they normally are, from their mood to physical changes like headaches and tummy aches. That can mean that they’re feeling anxious or depressed, and could use some extra support.

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