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How to Prevent Substance Abuse in Teens [Drugs + Alcohol]

A young girl feeling upset and misunderstood, being helped up by her parent

Substance abuse can affect people of all ages, and even children can be at risk. While there are support systems available for families who are already afflicted, we also recommend prevention as one of the greatest ways to combat substance abuse. Continue reading to learn more about substance abuse, how to speak with your child about it, and how to prevent it. 

What is Substance Abuse? 

Substance abuse is a major global crisis, and it can especially affect teens and young adults. Approximately 60% of illicit drug users in Canada are between the ages of 15 to 24 years old, and these substances can significantly affect their development. Because younger brains are still developing, children can learn new things quickly, which can cause the brain to easily form drug and alcohol habits when exposed

Substance abuse can be defined as excessive use of a drug in a way that is detrimental to oneself. This drug can refer to any sort of substance, but common sources of dependency for teens can include: 

  • Alcohol 
  • Cannabis
  • Cigarettes
  • Vaping 
  • Prescription drugs

Substance abuse can easily lead to addiction, and approximately 21% of Canadians will meet the criteria for addiction in their lifetime. When teenagers become engaged with substances, they can display several changes in their behaviour. Keep an eye out for the following warning signs: 

  • Irresponsible behaviour 
  • Lack of interest
  • Extreme or sudden changes in life (friends, eating habits, school, etc)
  • Breaking rules 
  • Withdrawing from family 

Substance abuse can be a major cause of anxiety in families, so learning how to speak with your children in a way that has a positive impact on their behaviour is essential. 

How to Speak with Your Child

Avoiding the topic of drugs and alcohol may seem like a good idea, but you should not treat substance abuse like the boogeyman. It’s likely that at some point in their lives,  your child will encounter a type of substance. Before they enter a situation where they may not know how to respond, speak with your child about the dangers and risks of substance abuse. 

The key is to not lecture your child, though this may seem counterintuitive at first. When you were younger you likely did not want to be lectured and told what to do. Speak with your child respectfully and listen to their thoughts and feelings. 

Starting the habit of speaking and listening from a young age can help you cultivate a respectful relationship with your child, and can make discussing a sensitive topic such as substance use much easier. With this in mind, how do you prevent substance abuse in older children or teenagers? 

Young girl and her mother having a conversation while sitting on the couch

Tips to Prevent Substance Abuse

To prevent substance use, there are a variety of methods you can employ. Finding the methods which resonate with your child most are important, and you can continue to reinforce these as they grow older. Below are a few tips for preventing substance abuse through engagement with your child. 

Speak with your child (& listen as well) 

Bringing the topic of substance use up with your child can remove its negative associations, but remember to treat your conversations with respect: allow your child to voice their thoughts, and do not lecture them. Teenagers may engage in substance use for a variety of reasons, including: 

  • Fitting in with others
  • Curiosity 
  • Emotional or psychological pain 
  • Socialization 

Ask your child their opinion on drugs and alcohol and gauge their knowledge of it. They may believe it is something everyone does, or they may have limited knowledge in general. Share your own experiences and opinions to let them know they can communicate with you if they need. 

Approach your child with openness

It seems simple, but keep an open mind when speaking with your child. It’s difficult to hold a productive conversation when someone is refusing to listen to the other’s perspective, so ask your child open-ended questions to encourage in-depth answers. 

Express your own opinions with “I” statements. Let them know how you feel, and the conversation can feel more organic. Utilize active listening as well by letting your child finish their thoughts before responding and not interrupting. 

Learn about the harmful effects of drugs 

Educate yourself about drug and alcohol use. A good place to start is speaking with your doctor. You can use this knowledge to teach your child about the possible negative effects and to correct any misinformation your child has on drug and alcohol use

Be a good example

Your child looks up to you, and your actions can influence them. If you ever drink around your child, always do so in moderation and never drink and drive. 

You can set a good example by encouraging your child to explore their interests and remaining invested in them. Enroll your child in sports, dance, art classes, or whatever else they may be interested in. For example, if your child enjoys playing video games, spend time with them doing the activities they love and cultivate a loving relationship. 

Teach them how to make good choices 

It is your duty as a parent to teach your child how to make good choices. You can help your child develop a positive sense of self-worth and demonstrate right from wrong by praising them for making good choices and noticing their efforts.

Teach them what real friends are

Pressure to fit in with peers can be a major cause for teenagers to engage in substance use. Teach your child that: 

  • Real friends do not pressure others to do things they are not comfortable with
  • Real friends do not reject you for saying no 
  • They have no obligation to do things just because others are doing it

Teach them how to say “no”

It can be much easier to reject an offer of a substance when your child knows how to say no properly. Their peers may not accept the first instance of rejection and become more forceful. Teach your child different excuses or deflections so they can be prepared to reject any advances. Some examples of this include: 

  • Giving a reason for not using (“my parents will be mad”)
  • Suggesting another activity
  • Using an excuse to leave (class, home, practice)
  • Firmly saying “no”

Always let your child know they can use you as an excuse to leave an uncomfortable situation. If your child can call you, even to pretend, they have a safe excuse to leave a situation where someone will not take no for an answer. Practice these responses through roleplaying and your child can be prepared. 

Empower Your Child

These methods may not guarantee a future free of substance use, but you can set your child up with the knowledge and confidence to approach their future responsibly. 

You will always be there, but your child may be in situations where they are pressured. Through your relationship, you can help your child make good choices for their future. If ever needed, experts can help

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  • Written by Hermina Hoskins

    Community Manager Hermina is a graduate of Mount Royal University and has worked in our Community Housing program since 2014. As Community Manager, her role primarily consists of supporting case managers with clients, working to improve staff and client care, and ensuring that Accreditation standards are followed. Hermina was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to Abbotsford, BC, before deciding to call Calgary home. Prior to working at the Calgary Dream Centre, Hermina ran a drywall company, where she worked alongside her husband. In her spare time, she enjoys puzzling, walking her dogs, and spending time with her family.

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