Substance Use
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Substance Use 101
 December 2022

As a parent or caregiver you are in the best position to provide your teen with reliable  information about substance use that is evidence based rather than fear based.

It‘s beneficial to know as much as possible about the substances that young people may be curious about, have heard about, or been exposed to in order to better understand the effects they can have on youth.
Supporting parents to educate themselves in order to protect their kids is critical because 
60% of illicit drug users are between 15 and 24 years old and 90% of all addictions begin in adolescence.
63% of teenagers 13 to 19 years old reported that they get their information on drugs from their parents and in the classroom

36% of teenagers have been offered drugs at a party, and nearly half don‘t know how to refuse them

The following substances were used by students in grades 7-12 across Canada: 
  • Alcohol: 44% 
  • Cannabis: 18% 
  • E-cigarettes: 20% 
  • Sedatives/tranquilizers, stimulants, and prescription pain relievers:7%
  • Opioids: 11% reported the non-medical use of prescription opioid painkillers
Substances   101
It can be helpful to get to know the substances youth may be hearing about. The five substances that your teen is most likely to come across are nicotine (vaping), alcohol, cannabis prescription medications (pain relievers, sedatives, stimulants) and over-the-counter substances (cough syrup, cold medicine).
These are common substances that most youth have relatively easy access to. They are often the drugs that youth will experiment with first. Many teens think that taking someone else’s prescription from a doctor is safe and harmless which is not the case. 

Youth culture, performance pressure and getting a quick and inexpensive high have given rise to a wide variety of ordinary substances that are used by youth in different ways. Ecstasy at a dance party,  over the counter medications mixed with grape juice as well as Rohypnol (sleeping pill) and GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), when mixed with alcohol it has a depressant effect that can cause someone to black out. 
Opioids (fentanyl, heroin) and stimulants (meth- amphetamine, cocaine) are highly addictive. They are exceptionally dangerous because they can damage the developing body and the brain, and they can often be fatal. 

Additional substances include  inhalants (paint thinners, glue) and anabolic steroids.

For more detailed information you can download the Drug Guide for Parents
Why Do Teens Use Substances?
Young people give a variety of reasons for using substances based on what they are seeking to accomplish from using them. Most reasons fall under four categories: to feel good, to feel better, to do better or to explore.

The reasons why youth use substances, influences their risk of harmful  consequences. For example:
  • If it is mostly curiosity, occasional or experimental drug use may follow.
  • If the reason for using substances is ongoing  (mental health problem), then more long-lasting and intense substance use may occur.
  • Reasons for intense short-term use (to fit in, have fun or ease temporary stress) may result in risky behaviour with high potential for acute harm.
Risk and Protective Factors
To understand problematic substance use it is important to be aware of the connection between risk factors and protective factors. These concepts are well supported by many years of research.

Risk and protective factors help to explain why a problem occurs. They suggest why certain individuals are more or less likely to become involved in unhealthy behaviours.
Risk factors are life events, experiences or conditions that have a negative influence in the life of an individual. Conversely protective factors are positive influences that can improve the health and well-being of an individual. 
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Research shows that youth with low protective factors and high risk factors are at a much greater risk of developing substance-related harms. That said, risk factors alone do not predict harm. 

See the Middle Snapshot for more detailed information on risk and protective factors.

Talking About Substance Use
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Parents can be the first line of defence when it comes to early substance use. It is important to have open, honest, and meaningful conversations with your teen so they can make informed decisions for themselves about the use of substances.  Below are some  steps you may take to start the conversations and build strong connections with your child to help prevent early substance use.
Take time to learn the facts about the use of substances your teen may hear about every day – like cannabis, alcohol, and nicotine – as well as the non-medical use of medications and illegal drugs. Then have ongoing conversations with your teen about the risks to their physical and mental health.
Don‘t always focus on the negative outcomes of drug use, instead try and encourage more healthy behaviours. Talk about the positive possibilities of having a variety of choices and opportunities when they‘re older.
Encourage their participation in doing the things they love. Engage your teen in after-school activities. Encourage their participation in supervised educational programs or a sports league.
Get to know your teen‘s friends and their parents. Invite them out for coffee or talk with them at your teen‘s soccer practice, dance rehearsal, or other activities.

Stay in touch with the trusted adults your child knows (coaches, employers, teachers). That will make it easier to ask if they‘ve noticed any changes in your teen‘s behaviour.
Consider developing a family mission statement that reflects your family‘s core values. Talking about what they stand for is particularly important at a time when teens are pressured daily by external influencers on issues like drugs, sex, violence, or vandalism.

Establish guidelines for substance use in your family. Explain that the rules are there to keep them healthy and safe. Set limits with clear consequences for breaking the rules. Older teens and young adults may already be using substances, make sure they are aware of safe practices to reduce the harm that substances can cause.
Click here for ideas to create family rules.
Spend regular time together as a family and be involved in your child's life. This builds connection and trust between you and your child so that when you have to set limits or enforce consequences, it‘s less stressful.
Harm Reduction for Problematic Substance Use
Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use. As a parent you are in the best position to get the help your child needs to reduce the harms that problematic substance use can cause a young person. 
Have a safety plan. Discussing a safety plan with your child as a precautionary measure can help reduce any chance of being caught alone in a dangerous situation, or an accidental overdose. A safety plan can help reduce these risks, as well as letting your child know that you care and you want to stay involved in their life in a positive way.

Get an evaluation. To determine the best course of action an evaluation with a Certified Addictions Professional is the first step. Your child’s primary care physician may be able to suggest a reliable professional to conduct evaluations.

What options are available? For those who need more help with their substance use disorder, treatment occurs in a variety of settings, forms and time frames. An Addictions Professional can recommend the best level of care to meet your child’s needs. Treatment programs usually address an individual’s physical, psychological, emotional, and social issues in addition to substance use.
The opioid crisis in Canada continues to have a devastating effect on families. If you know that your child is using opioids act immediately. It’s important to keep naloxone on hand and know how to use it, in case of an accidental overdose.
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The content provided through the Snapshots is for information purposes only. The Snapshots include information that is general in nature and cannot address the many individual child rearing challenges parents and caregivers may experience. Therefore it is the readers‘ responsibility to determine the suitability of the information for their specific needs.

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Resources and Sources

Statistic Sources
  • Health Canada, CSTADS Survey Summary 2018-2019
  • Drug Free Kids Attitudinal Tracking Survey 2020
  • Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction – A Drug Prevention Strategy for Canada‘s Youth

The Boys and Girls Club is offering a series of online programs helping parents of teens, pre-teens, and children gain confidence, discover practical tips and resources, and find support from other parents. 

In cased you missed it... last month's Snapshot was on the Power of Sleep!

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