We all have relationships with substances; whether it’s the beer on the dock helping you blissfully forget your stress, the morning Starbucks that you cannot let go of lest you spend the rest of the day as a zombie – with a headache – or the over the counter pain relief after a neck aching day hunched over your computer. 

We don’t think too much about how substance use – legal or otherwise – has permeated our daily life. A glass of wine at supper. A smoke with friends you haven’t seen in so long. 

Another Starbucks so help me I cannot stop!

And what are your tweens and teens picking up on?

There’s a bit of a hypocrisy sometimes when we look at our relationships with substances contrasted with our anxiety around teen’s social outings, substance use, and experimentation. 

The next few weeks are going to explore teens and substances; What you should definitely worry about (hello, overdose crisis!), what you can change your mind about (phew!) and what to look out for to know the difference between teen’s normal explorations and teens at risk. 

This isn’t a staunch anti-drug newsletter and it’s not a free for all! Let’s get at the heart of teen’s decision making around substances (including vaping! – yes that controversial conversation), and learn how to help them make choices that you can trust and that will keep them healthy, safe and in control. 

The biggest concern parents bring to our experts regarding substance use and teens is, of course, addiction. How do I ensure my teen doesn’t get addicted? How do I make sure they don’t fall into the wrong crowd and try things that will make them lose control? 

We have all been touched in some way or another by addiction. Whether it was ourselves or a loved one, even a friend of a friend, we have either heard, experienced or witnessed the devastating effects addiction can have on an individual, and those around them. 

And it makes sense that you would be scared. 

You may also think back to your teen years and cringe at the things you did and tried. You DEFINITELY don’t want your precious little one* to do what you did. 

*Yes, when it comes to protecting tweens and teens, even our 19 year olds are our little ones. A scared parent is always wanting to protect their “baby”.

But…we also know that they aren’t babies anymore. They are teens – or almost. They are at that tender age where they are first thinking about drugs or alcohol or even trying them out. Guess what age that is? 13!!

Yup! 13!

Pause for taking a deep breath and letting the panic pass. 

Perhaps your kids are almost adults. They may be already using substances, socially – or to cope with difficult mental health issues. 

You worry that they are relying too heavily on substances as social lubricant or as emotional regulation strategies. 

Whether they are 12 and already seeing alcohol or vaping in their friend group, or if they are 19 and off to college and goodness knows what is happening, you are worried. 

And you’re wondering…ok, should I be? Not my kid, right? I don’t need to panic. 

Do I?

Pull up a chair. Grab a drink (tea, perhaps???) and let’s chat!

Here’s some information for you to ponder (without judgement – these are snippits that deserve compassion and context***) 

– We are still in the midst of an over-dose crisis
– Many substances are “cut” with unknown and potentially deadly additives
– “Legal highs” (sold in stores in the UK as novelty items) can cause serious damage
– Vaping is on the rise and definitely NOT a safer alternative to cigarettes
– The average age for kids trying alcohol is 13
– Pot is legal, and some youth smoke while driving
– Some youth report that pot is used throughout the day to help relax, to help sleep, or to enhance the day
– Kids in competitive sports take up vaping at higher rates than other substances
– Prescription drug use is on the rise in the US
– The pandemic actually decreased drug use in tweens and teens as social engagements were in decline
– The root of addiction is difficulty coping. The pandemic was hard to cope with. 

So now that social engagements are on the rise again, and we’re still carrying around the damage of the pandemic, how are teens going to navigate this new landscape? 

Because not only is the world opening up again, and thus teens may be uncertain about how to step back into social-life after two years away, it is also a vastly different landscape than the one we grew up in. 

Remember the “Just Say No” campaigns? They were really effective at…getting teens to HIDE substance use from their parents, instead of getting the help they needed when they were in trouble. 

But here’s some hope too: 

This generation of teens and their parents are all about prioritizing mutual respect, open conversation, and emotional support and validation. Three things that create a strong foundation to help youth cope with difficulties in life without turning to substances AND to know that they can seek help without fear of judgement if they do find themselves in trouble. 

But that doesn’t make these conversations any easier or more comfortable. In fact, since we can’t rely on the “just say no” approach, we have to be more nuanced! Are you struggling to balance feeling like you’re going to come across as too stuffy, too permissive, or just be flat out ignored? 

Even tweens and teens with the best of intentions can find themselves in a tough spot simply because the options for substance use and the confusing information around what is safe, OK, and legal versus what is on offer and available doesn’t always align. 

The bottom line is this: The landscape teens have to navigate when it comes to experimenting with alcohol & drugs is starkly different than it was when we were growing up. That means it requires a starkly different response from us.