Substance Use
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The Substance Use Conversation
December 2022

In this complex world there are many influences on young people from many different sources. But you are your children's most important teacher. Your words and actions help shape their ideas about substance use.
This is why talking to your children about substance use and continuing with regular dialogue is so important.

This Snapshot offers information parents can use to help their child develop the knowledge and skills they will need to make decisions about vaping, alcohol and other drugs as they grow.

Defining Substances
Substance use refers to the use of alcohol or drugs, including nicotine, caffeine, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs. Substances make us see, think, feel and behave differently than we usually do. 
Substances can be classified as: 
  • Legal (caffeine, over-the-counter drugs) 
  • Legal but regulated (nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, prescription drugs) 
  • Illegal (heroin, cocaine, ecstasy) 

Types of substances: 
  • Opioids - such as heroin, fentanyl or prescription drugs such as Oxycontin 
  • Cannabis - also called pot or weed 
  • Depressants - also called downers (alcohol, Xanax, Valium, barbiturates) 
  • Stimulants - also called uppers (cocaine, speed, nicotine) 
  • Hallucinogens - also called psychedelics (magic mushrooms, LSD ) 
The effect any substance can have on a person depends on:
The type of substance
(depressants, stimulants) 
Individual factors
(age, past experience, genes) 
The context
(how much, how often, other drug use) 
Why they are using the substance
(see below for more information) 

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.
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The reasons why youth use substances, impacts their risk of harmful consequences.
  • 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.
Although the vast majority of youth will not have problematic substance use, the adolescent years in general, are a period of high risk for substance-related harms. Relative to adults, youth are more vulnerable to substance-related harm due to many factors, including: 

  • Body size 
  • Stage of brain development and capacity to make decisions 
  • Lack of experience
  • Emotional and psychological development 
  • Emerging social skills 
Risk and Protective Factors
To further understand problematic substance use it is important to understand 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. These factors suggest why certain individuals or groups 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. Some risk factors may include:
Social disconnection. Youth may use substances if they don’t feel attached to family, school and community. Feeling connected can strongly protect and help to lower the chance of a youth using substances in problematic ways.

Emotional or physical pain. Youth may use substances to self-medicate as a way to deal with physical or emotional pain, such as grief or unresolved trauma. It may help to dull emotional pain or make the condition seem more manageable, but the effect is only temporary.   
Mental health challenges. Some youth start to use substances to help them cope with stress, anxiety or depression. Sometimes substance use is linked to eating disorders. Youth may begin vaping because they think it will lower their appetite or control their weight.

Ongoing conflict. Youth who experience regular conflict at home, school or among their peers may use substances as a form of relief or escape.

Existing conditions. Some youth are more likely to take risks than others, because they have low impulse control, high sensation seeking or conditions like bipolar disorder or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Discrimination. Youth may use substances to deal with stress and unfair treatment because of their race, sexual orientation, cultural identity, age etc.
Social influences. Youth are exposed to many different influences every day. Some may make substance use look cool and fun and with little consequence. From friends and peers to technology and social media - there are many opportunities for youth to learn about or witness substance use. They may become curious, want to fit in or feel pressure to use substances.
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Protective factors are positive influences that can improve the health and well-being of an individual. Some protective factors that may prevent substance misuse include:
  • Resiliency 
  • Parent involvement
  • Opportunities for positive social involvement
  • Recognition for positive behavior and achievements
  • High self-esteem 
  • Strong bonds with family, school, community
  • Clear and consistent expectations from family, school and community about substance use
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. 

As parents, it is most important to focus your attention on what you can do to increase the number and quality of protective factors while doing your best to minimize some of the risks your child may be exposed to. See the Elementary Snapshot for tips on enhancing protective factors.

Talking About Substance Use
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Parents and caregivers often wonder about the best way to approach talking about substance use. There is no single “right” way to have these conversations. Here are some suggestions you might find useful as you help your child navigate this aspect of life successfully. 
Stay connected. Strong relationships with caring adults help promote health and can be helpful in protecting against harmful substance use. The goal of connection-oriented parenting is to establish a respectful, trusting and reciprocal relationship. This results in your child being motivated to accept your advice, follow your lead and internalize your values.

Listen first. Be positive, caring and allow time for reflection. 
Be aware and available. Pay attention to what is going on in your child’s life. Note sudden changes in mood or schoolwork. Respect their need for independence but let them know you are ready to help. Make time for conversations, letting your child know their opinions matter and sets the stage for bigger conversations during more challenging times. 
Be mindful of adolescent development.  As youth move from childhood to adulthood, their brains and bodies go through a lot of change. These changes often affect their emotions and behaviours. Respect that youth may need some time and space to think and feel their way through a new situation. 
Share clear, consistent expectations. Be clear with your child about setting boundaries, guidelines and rules related to substance use. The more you discuss these openly with your child, the more likely they will understand your intentions, the reasons for them, and the more likely they will adopt them. 

Substance Use: Talking Alcohol, Vaping & Other Drugs with your Kids

It’s important to talk openly with your child about substance use from an early age, but as parents and caregivers we don’t always know where to start. Kelty Mental Health professionals sit down with 2 parents who are professionals with 30+ years of experience working in the field of youth substance use within BC schools and communities, to discuss how to talk about substance use with your child.

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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

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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