Talking to your teen about substance use

It might be one of the most important conversations you have with them.

According to Dr. Daniel Siegel’s book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, the teen brain undergoes four profound changes during adolescence: novelty seeking, social engagement, increased emotional intensity, and creative exploration. At least three of those shifts can lead to the desire to experiment with or regularly use substances. Therefore, it’s important to consider what teens might be going through when you have conversations with them about substance use.

Does your teen seem stressed out? Emotional? Hormonal? Angry? Obsessed with keeping up appearances and owning the latest devices? Worried about grades and what to do after graduation? These are just a few of the stresses teens face every day. Not to mention:

  • Feeling pressure to look or dress a certain way, including the “need” to present a certain way on social media
  • Challenges with body image and self-esteem
  • Changes in physiology and psychology (including hormonal changes, first loves, heartbreaks)
  • The stress of balancing schoolwork, friends, extracurricular activities, and family life
  • Grappling with identities – social, cultural, religious, sexual, gender
  • Bullying or peer pressure

This is in addition to any negative experiences leading up to (or during) the teen years such as the death of loved ones, and other traumas. And, if your teen struggles with any added physical, mental health, or emotional challenges, this also increases the likelihood of them wanting to experiment with substances, and potentially the likelihood of challenges with substance use in the future.

In short, it’s not easy being a teen, and there are many roads that lead to experimentation with substance use.

When to talk to your teen about substance use

The answer is simple: sooner rather than later, and when you are both in a calm frame of mind and safe environment. There is a good chance that your teen has already experimented with substances or is thinking about doing so. According to the most recent Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey:

  • Most students claim that alcohol, cigarettes, and cannabis are easy to obtain/readily available.
  • About one-in-seven (15%) high school students and 22% grade 12 students report drinking hazardously or harmfully (as measured by standardized Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, AUDIT).
  • About one-in-five (22%) of students in grades 7-12 report using cannabis in the past year, and about 2% report daily use.
  • One in ten (11%) of students in grades 7-12 report using a prescription opioid pain reliever without a prescription in the past year.

The importance of parental guidance when it comes to teen substance use

While teens often start to individuate from their parents as they navigate young adulthood, it can be easy to take their rebellion to heart. Stress, puberty, hormones, and the like, can often lead to tension between parents and adolescents. While it’s important to discuss substance use with teens, it’s best done as just that – a discussion, rather than a lecture – and in a calm environment. If you find your teen under the influence at any time, it’s best to delay the conversation until they’re sober. If this is the case, expressing anger, frustration or  setting hard limits with them (no drinking while you’re under my roof!), is counterproductive and may cause them to want to rebel.

Give your teen a safe space to share, be that to acknowledge if they’ve used substances, plan to, or are curious about using substances. It’s vital to keep the doors open this way, which is key when helping your teen engage in reduced-risk behaviors – which we’ll discuss –  such as driving under the influence.

According to global studies, parents are one of the most important influences when it comes to teen substance use. So it’s better to have a potentially awkward or heated conversation with your teen, or at least open the doors for discussion, than leave it up to your teen’s school, circle or friends, or social media to teach them what they need to know. When possible, lean on your own experiences to convey any lessons you’ve learned the hard way. Hangovers from hell, bad decisions, even your own experience with addiction, if relevant, help humanize the conversation and remind your teen that you were also once their age.

Harm reduction and safety planning

Say no to “Just say no.” Moving away from “zero-tolerance” and “abstinence-only” rules.

“Say no to drugs,” “Just say no,” and “Don’t do drugs” – are a few of the messages you may have heard growing up, but in the last few decades, studies have shown that abstinence-only messaging isn’t the best approach when talking to teens about substance use. This draws parallels to sex education for teens, where research shows that abstinence-only education actually increases the rates of STDs and teen pregnancies.

According to one UBC study, zero-tolerance messaging is “tuned out” by most teenagers as it doesn’t reflect the “reality of their lives.” The study by UBC professor of nursing Emily Jenkins and colleagues interviewed 83 teenagers across British Columbia. Their findings indicated that teens were most attracted to the harm reduction message rather than the traditional advice not to use substances, aka “don’t do drugs.”

Harm reduction and teen substance use

An abstinence-only approach to drug education discourages teens from using alcohol and other drugs. A harm reduction approach, however, teaches teenagers how to keep themselves and their friends safe when they encounter or experiment with substances.

For example, an abstinence-only approach might say, “stay away from drugs, you might overdose!” This message may come across as alarmist and not resonate with teens.

A harm reduction approach to that scenario would be to educate teens on the risks involved with different substances, along with the knowledge of how to recognize warning signs and how to get help if they think someone might be overdosing or suffering from alcohol poisoning.

It is important to note that harm reduction is not an approach that encourages substance use, but rather a safety-conscious approach that equips people with critical skills and information. In some cases, having all the information might discourage substance use altogether.

Let’s talk about harm reduction from a teen’s perspective. Your teen might associate the idea of harm reduction with “hard drugs” and “needle exchanges,” but there is much more to harm reduction. Some examples of harm reduction tips to discuss with your teen include:

  • When possible, choose to consume in a safe environment with trusted friends.
  • If you are choosing between controlled substances such as alcohol or cannabis from reputable sources and “street” drugs, it’s likely less risky to go with the controlled substances.
  • Learn the benefits of pacing yourself. For example, when drinking, don’t do it on an empty stomach, and drink one glass of water every other drink. Find out about lower-risk  drinking guidelines here.
  • Don’t mix substances. Sticking to one substance only helps reduce the risks of potential side effects. It’s also important to research possible drug interactions if someone takes any medications. For example, antidepressants can intensify the effects of some drugs, while drugs can reduce the efficacy of antidepressants. Teens can find out about potential drug interactions on the youth-developed site
  • Become smoking and vaping aware. While smoking and vaping aren’t always included in discussions about substance use, they carry a unique set of harms. And while teen smoking rates are down, vaping rates are higher than ever between nicotine and cannabis oil. And since vaping is still relatively new, there is little research on its long-term health effects, but there is evidence that it negatively affects the lungs.

Safety planning and teen substance use

Helping teens stay safe is one of the most important things we can do for them. Whether your teen might be using substances to deal with stress, give into peer pressure, explore new sensations or otherwise, it’s great to help them develop a general safety plan to help minimize risks. Examples include:

  • Recognizing that drinking or using substances can greatly lower inhibitions and impulse control. Encourage the buddy system and avoid going anywhere alone or with a stranger when under the influence.
  • Always have a safe ride home, and be okay with turning down a ride from friends under the influence. They may not feel like calling parents or a ride-share/taxi, but it’s always the best option when using substances.
  • Keeping a mostly-charged phone on hand in case you need to call for a ride, call for help, or get out of a sticky situation of any type.
  • Being prepared – even if they’re not planning on having sex, it’s helpful to be armed with protection and general knowledge of how to prevent STIs and pregnancy. On that note, encourage them to explore their boundaries and learn about consent while sober to better communicate when they’re under the influence and considering sexual activity.
  • Never accept drinks from strangers, or consume their drink after it’s been left unattended in case someone tampers with their drink with date-rape drugs such as Rohypnol (roofies), GHB, Ketamine, or ecstasy.
  • Germs happen. When sharing drinks or otherwise, be aware of what they might be taking in or passing on. It can be tough to learn the hard way that colds, viruses, and cold sores can be transmitted this way. Skip drink sharing and if sharing a joint or otherwise, get creative and use their fingers as a filter rather than directly inhaling from the joint.

Considering Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

Most importantly, if nothing else, teens need to become aware of the risks of different drugs, including the potential effects of drugs and alcohol on the developing teenage brain. There is also evidence that early onset and frequent substance use in adolescence may increase the likelihood of mental health challenges as well as problematic substance use in adulthood.

If substance use disorders are present in the family, there may be both a psycho-social and biological effect on the brain when a teen starts to use substances. This means they may be more likely to develop a substance use disorder if they start consumption at a younger age.

With mental health, if your teen struggles with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or otherwise, substance use can have more adverse effects on them and potential drug interactions. Finally, it’s important to note if psychotic disorders, especially schizophrenia, run in the family as early consumption can lead to the onset of the disorder. Cannabis use, cocaine use, nicotine use, and severe alcohol consumption also contribute to risk scores for schizophrenia.

Time to have the talk?

These are some great starting points when talking to your teen about substance use. If you’re interested in learning more about harm reduction, check out our recent article “Abstinence isn’t the only way.” It talks about harm reduction from the angle of someone struggling with substance use but is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn more about it.

Want to dive into your own consumption patterns or get more support around supporting your teen or loved one who might be struggling with substance use? Access the ALAViDA TRAiL.