Substance Abuse


Along with being one of parents’ greatest fears, substance use in teenagers is also a concern to society as a whole. While some parents may remember drinking in high school, those who study teen drinking today say the patterns have changed. “Bigger parties and considerably more binge drinking occur”. Also, a wider range of youth are trying or using substances - particularly “younger teens and more girls”. These are alarming trends! The Edmonton Community Drug Strategy Task Force states “alcohol and illicit drug misuse among Alberta youth today, is particularly disconcerting.” In 2005, the Alberta Youth Experience Survey (TAYES) was conducted with 3900 Alberta students in grades 7 to 12. Its purpose was to measure the alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug use among these teens. Results found that 63% of Alberta teens surveyed had “consumed alcohol” in the year prior to the survey, with 31% admitting to “binge drinking” during that same period. Alongside alcohol use, 27% of teenage students surveyed admitted to using marijuana in the preceding 12 months. When it came to illicit substance use, female teens were more likely to have tried/used them (32%) than their male counterparts (26%).
Research confirms that “adolescent substance use problems are not limited by geography, social or economic status, ethnicity, gender or age.” They can occur in any family, at any time. Substance use problems currently cost Canadians an estimated $18 billion each year, and damage the lives of countless families. A member of Edmonton’s Drug Strategy Task force says parents are surprised to learn of their teen’s substance use, as they are often the last to know. This is not unusual, as secrecy and the need for privacy are well documented behaviors found during adolescence. As a result, it can be particularly challenging to stay connected with teenagers during these high school
years. However, research shows this connection is one of the most vital roles for parents. Unsuspecting parents, upon learning of their teen’s substance use, initially may panic (remember Jeremy’s mom in the cartoon – all he did was ask a simple question, she over-reacted!) The important role parents have in these situations is to respond rather than react. In order to respond to the problem, it is important for parents to be informed about the facts on substances and their use. This in turn allows for discussion and problem-solving around the substance use issue, rather than escalating into alienation and conflict between teens and their parents.
So, why are today’s teens at such risk when it comes to substance use? Research points the finger at the adolescent brain and the strength of the peer culture that exists today. As previously discussed, the adolescent brain has a naturally impulsive and thrill-seeking quality. Combine this desire to experiment with “having fun” with 24/7 access to peers, and the availability of substances, and the stage is set for a potentially unsafe situation.
In spite of newer, more dangerous substances, the ones that remain the “greatest burden to society today” continue to be alcohol and tobacco. According to local research, youth consistently report alcohol as their most frequently used drug. Alcohol and tobacco can often be the “gateway drug” for teens choosing to try other more potent substances. The early use of tobacco and alcohol by teens and pre-teens therefore, needs to be taken seriously. Research has shown that addictive behavior patterns starting at younger ages often lead to similar patterns in adulthood.
Here is some of what research has learned about substance use and the adolescent brain:
• the adolescent brain is more susceptible to damage from the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs because the brain growth in adolescence is so rapid. In the literature it is compared to the impact these substances have on an unborn baby.
• the part of the brain that “governs impulse and motivation” is not fully formed and so teens are left at higher risk for unhealthy behavior choices (like driving impaired, early sexual activity and violence).
Research identifies a wide range of risk factors that can influence a teen’s choice to try/use substances. The following chart highlights the key findings from the research.

Community Factors:
• Peer influence – teen’s peers heavily influence the choice to use substances.
• Increased access to their peer group through technology e.g. instant messaging, cell phones
• Teens who socialize with ‘partying’ friends may be at greater risk of choosing substance use
Media messages – ‘cool’ images of tobacco and alcohol in the media can portray the use of these substances as ways to be popular and successful.
Roles with Substance (pun intended!)
• Being connected and involved with your teen is vital. Research identifies a close relationship between a teen and his/her parents as a significant deterrent to substance use.
• Being aware of your teen’s activities and their friends lets you notice if changes or problems arise in your teen’s life.
• The 24/7 connection today’s teens can have with their peer group is often unsupervised. This can put them at higher risk for experiencing peer pressure to choose behaviors they might not normally. Negotiate boundaries with your teen around technology and monitor its use. For example, choose a limit to cell phone and instant messaging use, particularly late at night. Discuss why these boundaries are important, and be clear about your teen’s responsibility for honoring them.
 • Share your beliefs and values and establish clear, consistent expectations for behaviors and choices when it comes to substance use. Studies have consistently shown that there is a lower rate of substance use among teens who know that their parents strongly disapprove of them using tobacco or alcohol.
• Teens need protection and guidance when it comes to substance use. As discussed, their natural impulsivity and risk-taking, along with their inability to foresee the consequences of their choices, can leave them at risk. Teens need to understand the possible outcomes when choosing to try/use alcohol, tobacco or other substances.
“Alcohol is particularly risky for adolescents as it “impairs the decision-making process; spurs impulsive behavior; and reduces inhibitions”.
• Preparing teens to deal with the issue ahead of time, lets them know what they will say if pressured to use substances. This gives them the opportunity to think ahead, rather than being “caught in the moment”.
   • Talking facts rather than exaggerating about substance use is important for teens. Research found
that teens whose parents who were not educated about the facts on substance use were less likely
to come to them if they encountered issues/concerns with drugs.

A Reference Guide for Alcohol and Street Drugs (2006) can be found on the Edmonton Community Drug Strategy website, in the Parent Toolkit (available in 9 different languages). This chart shows pictures of what the substances look like; lists physical signs & symptoms of substance use; risks & long-term effects. This reference guide can be shared with your teenager as you discuss the facts surrounding the hazards of substance use.