Conversations On Substance Use

How to keep your conversation on substance use age-appropriate

Talking About Substance Use, Middle School: Ages 9–12 years

Traits: Independent, Vulnerable, Emotional, Self-absorbed, Inquisitive

Tweens are engaging and interesting. This is a time when they may feel torn between the safety and security of family and the excitement of being with friends. Some kids may be more vulnerable to substance use and other negative behaviors. They may start to spend more time engaged in social media and other technology. They may become very “body conscious” and they might experience peer pressure, low self-esteem and a “roller coaster” of emotions. As parents, what we say and how we say it will have an impact on their thinking, decision-making, risk taking and choices.

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Tips that may help you connect with your tween about substance use:

• Tone is everything. Think discussion, not lecture. Ask them calmly what they know about drugs and what they see most often in their school and community, and actively listen to what they say.

• Focus on smoking, alcohol, and cannabis, as these are most often the first substances tweens try. “What do they know?” “Where do they get their information?” “How would they know if it is reliable?”

• Communicate that you are concerned about substance use and be honest if you do not know all of the information. “To tell you the truth, I’m not completely up to date on all of the harmful substances out there. Maybe we can learn more together.” Research “unknowns” or misconceptions about drugs together.

• Be aware of the impact on your own actions—your tween is watching you.

Other suggestions:

• Get to know your tween’s friends. Invite them to your home. Engage with the parents. Establish clear, realistic and attainable rules and consequences.

• Agree on the rules as a family. Follow through if they slip up. Consistency is important, especially when establishing safe rules around substance use.

• Celebrate good choices. Be genuine with your praise.

• Find healthy activities to do together as a family.

• Be aware of the impact on your own actions—your tween is watching you.

Talking about Substance Use, High School: Ages 13–18

Traits: Social, Emotional, Defiant, Passionate, Independent

This pivotal age is one of the most exciting and maybe even challenging for parents. Teenagers are developing their own individuality, ideals and dreams. They may be passionate about a cause, an educational endeavour, a sport or anything else that interests them.

Suggestions for talking with your teens about drug use:

• Pick a time when you’re doing something together to bring up substance use. Respect any refusal to talk calmly and let them know you’re ready when they are. “Well, when you want to talk to me, I’m here.”

• Keep your cool, and don’t use fear tactics. Encourage mutual respect and honesty in your conversations by discussing, not lecturing. You listen—they listen.

• Alcohol, nicotine and cannabis are the most widely consumed substances by teens, and the popularity of vaping has increased. Spend extra time discussing these substances. “What are their opinions about using these substances?” “Why do they feel this way?”

• Get to know their friends and express any concerns in a non-judgemental way.

• Remind them of the importance of not taking any medication that is not prescribed to them and discuss opioids such as fentanyl and oxycodone. Talk with them about tainted street drugs that cause death, even the first time.

• Establish code words with them for any “I need help” or “Come and get me” situations that may save them from harmful conditions or negative peer responses.

Other suggestions:

• Get to know your teen’s passions and interests. Do something together to promote positive choices.

• Get to know their friends. Notice if the group of friends suddenly changes and talk to your teen about why this happened.

• Set up a volunteer experience for your teen—something they can do with you, their friends or a trusted adult. Consider helping at a soup kitchen, mission or neighbourhood community service centre.

• Talk about the experience with them.

• Work with your kids to help them develop strategies to use or things they can say to help them get out of uncomfortable or potentially harmful situations that might involve drugs and alcohol with their peers.

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