Tips and hints for talking with kids about drugs and alcohol


A wellness article from Christine Westland, Clinical Nurse Specialist, Adolescent Mental Health.


Talking to your kids or grandkids about substance use is not an easy topic to write about.  Some statistics in Canada tell us that 60 percent of illicit drug users are youth between the ages of 15 and 24. As parents or guardians, this number lets us know that our children may experiment with drugs and alcohol at an early age. When I reflected on how I might share strategies with parents to help address this issue, I realized that parents are generally the best experts on their children’s needs. You know them better than anyone; therefore, I encourage all parents to create the time and space to talk openly about drugs and alcohol with their children.
Here are some tips and hints for approaching these discussions:

• Be available to listen. Children can bring up the topic in unusual ways. They may share a story about a friend or ask about a family member who struggles with addiction. 

• Be present. When you hear the cue it’s time to put away the cell phone and give your child your undivided attention.

• Listen and reflect on what they say. Ask questions like, “how do you feel about that?” or “you sound really worried about your friend?”

• Don’t interrupt. Then listen without interjecting while they tell their story.  You will be surprised what you learn. 

Lecturing kids doesn’t really work nor does using fear-based tactics. What does work is attending community substance-use awareness activities that celebrate harm reduction, informed decision-making and sobriety or creating family activities that pattern responsible alcohol use, safer substance use, sober behaviour and sober fun. Actions speak louder than words, and children who see their parents and Elders involved in revitalization of language, cultural events and activities are more likely to view life from a wellness perspective. Stories and teachings about how life was lived before colonization and the introduction of alcohol and drugs will help create a strong foundation for a healthy relationship with drugs and alcohol.
These are suggestions to help children create a self-worth tool kit that will support them when they face difficult times. Teenagers constantly face peer pressure and will often experiment with alcohol and drugs. Again, fear tactics may not be best; however, creating a space for discussion is a healthier approach that may allow a parent to have some influence. Kids sometimes do not listen to everything their parents say. Therefore, you may want to call upon someone whom your child trusts to answer questions that they may be hesitant to ask a parent or caregiver.
If your child is currently involved in substance use:
Many people are able to manage their alcohol and drug use so that it does not impact their goals, relationships and responsibilities. Harm reduction is an approach that understands that people use drugs and that there are safer ways to use to prevent and minimize harm. Consider talking with your child about substance use and provide information on harm reduction, safer drug use and early warning signs of substance misuse or addiction. Using a harm-reduction approach takes a non-judgmental perspective, supports people to make informed decisions when it comes to their own health and meets people where they are at.
It is always the decision of the individual who is using substances as to whether or not they want to seek treatment and support. If your child’s substance use overwhelms their capacity to cope and begins impacting their goals, relationships and responsibilities, encourage them to seek support and provide resources on the types of programs, initiatives and resources available within your community. Reach out to your community drug and alcohol worker or youth worker. Native Friendship Centres have amazing programs if you live out of community. Through the Indian Residential Survivors (IRS) program, counselling is available for children related to someone who attended Residential School. Also available are school counsellors, physicians, nurses and traditional healers that may be able to help. If someone else in the family is engaged in addictive behaviour, be honest with your child.
If a child grows up in a family that talks about their feelings it decreases the chances of family members having substance-use challenges, so help your child understand that we have compassion for those who struggle with substance-use. Finally, love your children with boundaries. It is important to set standards and expectations in relationships. If you have trouble with boundaries, a traditional healer or counsellor can help you with creating new ways of setting expectations in your family and interactions. Celebrate your culture, family stories and your children. Substance use can be difficult to talk about and having this discussion can be a wonderful way to show compassion and love for your children.