Talking with teenagers about drugs and alcohol

Why teens use drugs and alcohol, tips for talking to teens, and information for parents

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Reasons to talk with teens

Alcohol and drugs (including cannabis, illegal drugs and prescription medications) can be dangerous, especially to a teenager's developing brain.

Talk with your teen about drugs and alcohol regularly, and before there is an urgent need. This is important because your teen may:

  • need information to make informed choices about drugs and alcohol
  • hear wrong information from their friends, the media or other sources
  • think that "everyone uses drugs or alcohol", which is not true
  • be concerned about someone else who is using drugs or alcohol
  • already be using drugs or alcohol and might need help
  • have questions but are too nervous to ask

Why teens use drugs and alcohol

  • To cope with trauma, stress, or pain
    • Some teens may attempt to deal with mental or physical health issues, such as pain, by using drugs or alcohol
  • Social norms
    • Teens may see parents or other adults drinking alcohol, using cannabis or other drugs. Also, the advertising and promotion of alcohol use, including through social media, can normalize it
  • Popular culture
    • Movies, television and music often glamorize drug and alcohol use, and so teens may imitate this to stand out or look cool
  • Pressure from peers
    • Many teens use drugs or alcohol to try and fit in with others
  • To experiment
    • Teens are curious and often seek new experiences, especially those that seem risky or exciting
  • For perceived benefits
    • Teens may think that drugs or alcohol will improve their focus, physical appearance or fitness, or other areas of their life
  • To feel good
    • Drugs and alcohol can produce feelings like euphoria, pleasure, or relaxation which make them appealing

Tips for talking about drugs and alcohol

Know your goals for the conversation
  • Before the conversation, think about what you would like to achieve, for example:
    • to start an ongoing conversation
    • to understand how your teen feels about drug or alcohol use
    • to express concern and offer support
Find the right time and place
  • Pick a place where you both feel comfortable or offer them control to pick the time and place
  • Don't rush the conversation, come back to it another day if needed
Set the tone
  • Be casual
  • Be aware of your body language
Actively listen
  • Listen openly
  • Do not interrupt
  • Your teen is more likely to have a conversation if they feel respected and understood
  • Try to have an open, 2-way conversation so your teen can participate and ask questions
Show you care
  • If you are worried, tell them why and reassure them that your main concern is their well-being
  • Tell them you are trying to help them make good decisions by giving them information that they may not know
Avoid being judgmental and keep an open mind
  • Be positive, open and remain calm
  • Resist the urge to lecture or use scare tactics
  • If your child feels judged or blamed, they may be less receptive to what you have to say
  • If your teen has used drugs or alcohol, try to understand the reasons why
  • Be honest about your own drug and alcohol use
  • Answer any questions honestly
Give factual information
  • Factual information can help your teen make good decisions
  • Ensure the conversation is age-appropriate
  • Focus on facts rather than emotions or fear
  • Talk about the short- and long-term effects that drugs and alcohol can have on their mental and physical health and safety
  • Explain that they may not always know what they are taking, and that some drugs are deadly (for example: counterfeit pills mixed with fentanyl)
  • Remind them about the laws around drugs and alcohol in your province or territory, like the legal drinking age or legal age to buy, possess, or use cannabis

Important information about drugs and alcohol for parents

Drugs and alcohol pose risks to a teen's health, safety and wellbeing. They can:

  • impair a person's ability to think and make decisions
  • slow reaction-time
  • negatively impact mental health

Learn about the effects and risks that alcohol and drugs can have on teens before your conversation:

  • Alcohol is a depressant. This means that alcohol slows brain functions and thought processes. It can also affect other bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate.
  • Alcohol has the same effect no matter which alcoholic beverage is consumed. Exactly how it affects people depends on factors such as the amount consumed, sex, age and body size.
  • Drinking too much alcohol at one time may lead to immediate health risks such as decreased attention, concentration and judgement, sleepiness, nausea and vomiting.
  • Severe alcohol intoxication can lead to alcohol poisoning.
  • Lower alcohol consumption is better for reducing the risk of addiction, organ damage and cancer.
  • To reduce health risks, it is recommended to follow Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines for teens and youth.
  • Cannabis can make people feel relaxed and happy but it can also create feelings of anxiety, paranoia and low mood. It can reduce the ability to make quick decisions, concentrate and remember, multi-task, slow reaction time and affect a person's ability to drive.
  • When smoked, cannabis can be harmful since it has many of the same chemicals found in tobacco smoke.
  • Adolescents and young adults are at greater risk of harms from cannabis. Daily or near-daily use over a prolonged period of time can harm brain development and function.
  • Frequent and continued use of cannabis containing THC can negatively impact mental health and harm brain development over time. Daily or near-daily use increases the risk of dependence and may bring on or worsen anxiety and depression.
  • Cannabis use has also been linked to development of psychosis and schizophrenia in some people.
  • Cannabis use can become problematic at any point in life but especially when use begins early and continues regularly over time.
  • Learn more about the health risks of cannabis use in youth and young adults.
  • To reduce health risks, it is recommended to follow Canada's lower-risk cannabis use guidelines.
Prescription Drugs
  • Some prescription drugs like opioid pain relievers, stimulants and benzodiazepines are used to get high because they have psychoactive (mind-altering) effects.
  • Taking a prescription medication without a doctor's approval can be dangerous and even deadly. It is also illegal.
  • Prescription drugs, when used outside of a doctor's instructions, can present serious health risks.
  • Prescription drugs, like opioids, can be obtained illegally (examples: fentanyl and oxycodone).
  • Psychoactive pharmaceuticals are the third most commonly used drugs among Canadian youth, after alcohol and cannabis.
Illegal Drugs
  • Teens may also hear about or potentially use illegal drugs such as cocaine or MDMA (ecstasy).
  • The street supply of drugs is increasingly toxic. It is not possible to know exactly what other substances may be in drugs that are obtained illegally, their potency or the dose.
  • Learn more about the uses, effects and mental and physical health risks of controlled and illegal drugs.

Get help

If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol or drug use, help is available:

For more information

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