For parents, talking to their children about drug and alcohol use can be like navigating through a field of landmines. But a new study is shedding light on what to say and how to say it.
Researchers at the University of B.C. and University of Calgary released their latest findings Friday, which found that the traditional “don’t do drugs” messaging doesn’t reach teens as well as talking about harm reduction.
The study involved speaking with 83 teenagers aged 13 to 18 from across B.C. about substance use.
“Teens told us that they generally tuned out abstinence-only or zero-tolerance messaging because it did not reflect the realities of their life,” UBC nursing professor and researcher Emily Jenkins said in a news release.
“Either they or their peers were already using substances, or substance use was happening in their own family circles.”
Harm reduction is a philosophy that has been taken on widely by health officials and drug advocates across the province to combat the current overdose crisis. The method acknowledges that substance use – including drugs, cigarettes or alcohol – is a part of life, and focuses on reducing risk and harmful effects instead of condemning it.
“Youth were more receptive when their parents talked – in a non-judgmental way – about substance use or could point to resources or strategies to help minimize the harms of use. This approach seemed to work better in preserving family relationships and youth health,” said Jenkins.
According to the study findings, some teens who used substances despite their families’ zero-tolerance approach reported feeling disconnected from their families.
One teen that participated in the study and who admitted to drinking occasionally said she experienced difficulties with her mother, who never drank.
“When she was a teenager she never did any of that…so to her, that’s like, I’m going to hell,” the study read.
Researchers also found that teens who were from a zero-tolerance household faced difficulties helping and supporting friends who were struggling with substance use.
Earlier this year, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in an annual report that 16.5 per cent of kids 12 years and older engage in “hazardous drinking,” and has been on the rise since 2009.
Seventeen youth between 10 and 18 years old died from an illicit drug overdose last year. A further 297 died at the ages of 19 to 29.
But the study also found that teens still value setting limits, Jenkins said.
“An overly lenient approach to substance use did not work either,” she said. “One participant who drank alcohol frequently said she was ‘sick of it’ but did not know how to scale back her drinking as her parents ‘don’t really care about what I do. I could go home drunk and they won’t do anything.’”
So what can parents do before initiating a chat with their kids?
Jenkins recommended that parents use the legalization of cannabis as an opportunity to have open and honest dialogue, but also educate themselves first.
Parents can look to the Sensible Cannabis Toolkit developed by the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy, as well as Cycles – a guide created by the UBC school of nursing researchers on youth and substance use.
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