Parents, Have You Had the ‘Fentanyl Talk’ Yet?

The Critical Back-to-School Conversation Your Child Needs to Hear.

By Published on September 14, 2023

Here’s a sober reality to face as your child heads back to school: The fentanyl crisis isn’t slowing down. This deadly illegal drug has caused countless accidental overdoses in school-age children and young adults alike. That’s why, as you’re doing your last-minute school supply shopping and gearing up for fall sports, I encourage you to hold a tough but crucial conversation about the risk of accidental overdoses from counterfeit pills. 

Don’t assume your child knows better than to mess with fentanyl. It’s every parent’s responsibility to have a direct, honest talk with their children about the dangers of this drug. Your kids need to understand, viscerally, that even one pill can end their lives.

Preventing a Tragedy

This isn’t about scaring your children. It’s about educating them and preventing a tragedy. Fentanyl has now made its way into all kinds of counterfeit pills that children can access. They can buy them through dealers on Snapchat and other social media sites, or even from their friends, without knowing the risks. Telling them the unvarnished truth is tough love, but it is still love.

Your son or daughter may think they’re buying a real Percocet, when in fact, it’s a pill containing fentanyl, which is highly addictive and can kill. Sit them down and ask them what they know about fentanyl. Chances are they don’t know the whole truth, which is that even a crumb of this drug can kill them. Even if a trusted friend offers it to them, they should know to refuse.

Even Young Children Can Benefit

Talk to your children even if they are elementary school-age. Children as young as nine and ten can benefit from age-appropriate conversations that parents can continue as they grow older.

It Happened to Me

I have a deeply personal interest in stopping substance misuse. In 2012, my son Hudson nearly died from a drug overdose at his fraternity house. Thankfully, Hudson made a full recovery. But in 2013, I found the body of my firstborn son, William, after he died from an accidental drug overdose — a story I share in my award-winning book Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss.

Time to Get Serious About Kids’ Mental Health

While I believe we can help our young people avoid misusing fentanyl and other substances, it’s not just a matter of warning them about the dangers of fentanyl. We must also get serious about helping our children improve their mental health. It will take parents, educators, and communities working together to solve the complex knot of problems our young people face. This is why I created the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing and the William Magee Center for AOD and Wellness Education at the University of Mississippi.

Here is crucial information about the fentanyl crisis and what we can do to help young people navigate it:

First, Understand What Fentanyl Is…

Fentanyl is a highly potent and addictive drug that is fast and easy to manufacture. Today, fentanyl is often added in minute amounts to counterfeit pills to keep buyers coming back again and again. But when crude production gets the recipe wrong— or when even a tiny clump of the drug makes its way into the pill—the results are lethal. If you happen to get the wrong pill (the one with a crumb too much fentanyl), you die.  

…And Who the Drug is Killing.

It’s not just high school and college-age students who are overdosing and dying from fentanyl. The drug has made its way to younger children as well. Some of the students who overdosed in Texas were 14-year-old middle schoolers, and children even younger have become addicted to this substance that could easily kill them.

Talk to Your Children About Substance Misuse Starting in Elementary School

They must understand in no uncertain terms that using substances increases their risk of dying. This means explaining the “single crumb of fentanyl is deadly” issue. This conversation needs to happen earlier than many parents think. As the Carrollton community has taught us, starting these talks in middle school is too late. Elementary school-age children should be told about the dangers of substance use and warned, in particular, that fentanyl kills.  

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It’s crucial to reach children early for two reasons. First, when they are older, they likely already know people who are using fentanyl and believe that since nothing has happened to them (yet) that they too are safe. Second, older children are more likely to have already tried substances themselves. They may even be addicted already, and you can’t “scare” a person who is addicted into stopping. At that point, they know they are putting their lives on the line, but are usually unable to stop on their own. Prevention is a much more effective strategy.

Focus on Your Children’s Mental Health

Drug use is often related to mental health struggles. Anxiety and depression rates are higher than they’ve ever been. Suicidal ideation is also skyrocketing. Students everywhere are buckling under a constellation of challenges that are taking a toll on their wellbeing. They face academic pressures. They are addicted to social media. They have weak social skills and poor health habits. A several-years-long pandemic coupled with social and political unrest only made matters worse.

With all these factors at play, it’s really no wonder we’re seeing this steep rise in substance misuse in our children. But when parents try to find help for them, they discover that the support systems available are broken, or so disjointed they’re extremely difficult to navigate.

Understand the Joy Connection

There are many things parents can do to support their children’s mental health and set them up for resiliency through their teenage years and into adulthood. It comes down to helping children find their joy, which is what children and young adults crave most. But too much social media use, lack of fresh air and exercise, lack of strong relationships, substance misuse, and mental health issues are stealing that joy.

Fentanyl is everywhere, and telling your children the truth about it is one of the most loving things a parent can do.

Young people need someone in their corner cheering them on and guiding them in their pursuit of what brings them joy and wellness. Conversations about joy, including what brings joy and what takes it away, can’t happen early enough in your child’s life.

Get in the Habit of Asking Open-Ended Questions 

Instead of telling children what you think they should do, ask open-ended questions to get them thinking and communicating with you. These are questions that require more than a one-word answer. So, instead of asking, “Do you want to become a doctor or a lawyer?” try, “How does it feel working a math equation?”

Questions like these are the gateway to engagement. Your children’s answers will not only be delightful but also illuminating for you and for them.

Build Their Wellbeing Toolboxes

These tools are the actions and habits that will support their minds, bodies, and spirits: getting enough sleep every night, spending time walking or jogging in the fresh air, being intentional about social media use, finding something bigger than themselves to believe in. When taking care of themselves becomes second nature, they’ll have the resources to create and nurture a lifetime of joy.

Remember that children are more likely to embrace these wellness tools when you lead by example. So it’s crucial to get serious about addressing your own joy thieves and changing your behaviors if you need to.

Horrifyingly, you may not get a second chance to teach this important lesson. Fentanyl is everywhere, and telling your children the truth about it is one of the most loving things a parent can do. Send them to school with this priceless lesson, so they can come back home to you safe and sound.


David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss — a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings — and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s a creator of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. Learn more at

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