The Road Ahead: A Guidebook for Parents of Young Teens about alcohol and other drugs

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Author: Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research


Getting familiar with teen territory

Chances are you’re noticing changes as your child becomes a teenager. You might even be thinking back to when you were approaching the teen years to remember what it felt like. Do you recall how you felt about your...

Sense of self:

As children become teenagers, they undergo many changes while developing an independent and internal sense of who they are and what they believe in. While parents are still very important during this time, a teenager will seek control over their own life. Your young teen will probably express opinions that are different from yours. You may notice an increase in mood swings and challenging behaviour. And like everyone else in this world, your child will want to feel a sense of belonging. As a result, they may become increasingly preoccupied with people outside the family, particularly their friends.

Risk-taking and Experimentation:

Some young teens will experiment with tobacco, alcohol, cannabis or other drugs. It’s natural for a young person to want to push boundaries, but using drugs at a young age (for instance, earlier than age 16) can cause problems with their physical, mental and emotional development. Using alcohol and other drugs during the early teen years can increase a young person’s risk of developing a problem with substances later in life.

  • Do you know?Top three substances used by BC teens:
    • Tobacco
    • Alcohol
    • Cannabis
    • 19% of 12- to 14-year-olds have tried smoking cigarettes
    • 20% of 12- to 14-year-olds have tried marijuana
    • 33% of 13-year-olds have tried alcohol

McCreary Centre Society (2005), British Columbia Youth Health Trends: A retrospective, 1992-2003.

  • Fast fact #1:

    Alcohol causes the greatest amount of death and disability among young Canadians, even though we are often more fearful of “street” drugs such as crystal meth and heroin.

  • Fast fact #2:

    Marijuana is not a risk-free drug. Smoking anything can damage your lungs. Marijuana can affect your concentration, reaction time and alertness. Because teenagers are still developing physically and emotionally, regular marijuana use can negatively affect memory and school performance. It is also linked to depression in early adulthood.

  • Fast fact #3:

    A close family atmosphere can make a difference. For example, studies show that teens who regularly eat dinner at home with their families are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

Gearing up for forks in the road: Understanding why teens use drugs

About drugs

A drug is any substance that changes the way you naturally think, act and feel. Some common examples of drugs are caffeine (in coffee, energy drinks and many soft drinks), nicotine, alcohol, THC (in cannabis) and codeine (in Tylenol 3). A drug may be used to treat an illness, relieve a symptom, enhance an ability or alter the state of mind (e.g., make someone experience a different form of reality, or change someone’s mood). Some drugs are legal for adults (alcohol and tobacco) while others are illegal (cannabis). Legal or illegal, all drugs can be misused. Even prescription and over-the-counter medication taken outside a doctor’s recommendations can be harmful.

All drugs are potentially harmful to pre-teens and young teens because their minds and bodies are still growing.

Drugs & your teen

A wide variety of substances are accessbile to young people. While there’s no need to expect your child will use tobacco, alcohol and other drugs on a regular basis, there is a possibility that they might at least try them at some time in their teen years. To better understand when or how this might happen, it’s helpful to think about some of the underlying reasons why a young person might use substances.

Why teens use drugs

Curiosity: Young people might try alcohol or other drugs for the experience. Perhaps they are curious about how a drug will affect their thinking and behaviour. As risk-takers with limited life experience, many young people aren’t likely to consider the potentially harmful results of their actions.

Fitting in with the crowd: The desire to “belong” is intensified during the teen years, and most teens have a hard time turning down opportunities to be included. They might feel that using tobacco, alcohol or other drugs helps them to belong by lowering their inhibitions or boosting their confidence.

For something to do: Some kids start and continue using tobacco, alcohol and other drugs because they’re bored and lack an interest or passion in their life that keeps them busy and focused.

Just for fun: Having fun is part of the human experience. Teens sometimes use substances to temporarily change the way they see and experience the world. (And, of course, many adults do the very same thing.)

Temporary escape or relief: Some teens turn to cigarettes, alcohol or other drugs for relief from difficult situations. Unhappy and unstable home/school environments, emotional upset or anxiety, fear of failure and rejection, or feeling depressed may lead to drug use. Young women, in particular, might use a stimulant such as tobacco or methamphetamine because they feel it helps with weight loss.

Staying the course and not getting lost: Tips for staying close to your growing child

At each stage in your child’s life, you’ve been preparing them for the world. Getting your child geared up for the teen years is no different, except that perhaps you have less direct control over what they do and who they spend time with.

The following pages provide some helpful tips on how to stay connected with your child, helping to make their trip through the teen years a positive experience for both of you...

1. Being a guide

As your child enters the teen years, your parenting role becomes more like that of a guide. Here are some things to think about regarding your new parenting role:

Maintain clear and consistent expectations. Expectations, boundaries and rules provide support for young people dealing with new situations and challenges. Your teen may grumble about curfews or consequences for not following house rules, but having clear expectations sends them the message that you care enough to try to protect them.

Create expectations and rules together. Involve your teen in the process of developing house expectations and consequences for not following through.

Recognize we all make mistakes. Try to see mistakes as opportunities for learning about what can be done differently next time.

Pick your “battles.” Be prepared to learn to negotiate on some matters, such as hair-dyeing or curfew, but stick to your expectations on matters related to alcohol or other drug use.

Encourage and support their interests and passions. Be interested in what they are interested in. Teens with goals and dreams that involve staying in shape, having a clear head, or saving money are more likely to turn down alcohol and other drugs.

Expect challenged boundaries. Don’t be surprised when your teen questions the rules. Be respectful, listen to what they have to say, and explain your perspective. Be flexible and willing to negotiate as your teen shows more maturity and responsibility.

  • Driving tip: Let your child grow and learn
    • Try not to take things personally when your teen is being overly assertive or critical. Don’t assume it’s all about you. Instead, try to consider these situations as opportunities for communication.

    • Allow your teen to learn to take responsibility for the results of their actions. “Rescuing” them reduces the chances they’ll learn from their choices.

    • Follow through on agreed consequences. Keep consequences supportive and logical so that they’re about learning and not about “punishment.”

2. Staying connected

Young people who know they’re loved have a stronger sense of self-worth. While your pre-teen or teen may not always be easy to connect with, it’s important to maintain the attachment you’ve been building since your child was born. Here are some ways to keep your relationship strong:

Show your child you believe in them. Kids gain confidence and resilience when they know someone believes in them. Give positive feedback and help them recognize their positive qualities.

Encourage your teen to problem solve. Giving a teen a chance to solve their own issues will help them build self-esteem. Try not to expect perfection, as the early teen years are the time to both succeed and fail. Ensure your child knows that they have your support if they need it.

Resist the urge to know everything they’re thinking or planning. Show an interest in their plans and trust their judgement. Allow them to succeed and make mistakes on their own.

Help your child through failures. Being supportive during the down times will show your child that failing at something isn’t the end of the world, but rather part of life. Help them learn from and accept the consequences of their choices.

Show interest in your teen. Get to know your child’s friends and their parents. Express an interest in their opinions and ideas.

Be aware of transition times. Big changes, such as starting high school or changing schools, can be hard. Your child may need extra support during these transition periods.

Be available. Your child needs to know you’re there to listen and talk to when they need it. By encouraging open and regular communication, you will show your child their thoughts and concerns are important.

“I try not to have only serious conversations with my daughter. I focus on having fun and building our relationship.”

  • Driving tip: Take advantage of times you can hang out and talk
    • Use dinner time or an after-dinner walk as a way to check in with your teen about what’s happening in their world.

    • Spend time together doing something you both enjoy (e.g., shopping, playing basketball).

    • Make an effort to include your teen’s friends in your family life. Make it a practice to spend time with your teen when they have friends over.

    • Designate one night of the week as family night. Play board games, bake or debate current events.

    • Watch the news or a TV show together and talk about it. Open-ended questions, such as “What do you think about…?” can be a useful way to start conversations.

    • Use car rides to and from school (or to and from a social or sporting event) to chat about friends, fashion or even the future.

3. Being a positive role model

Part of being a parent is modelling healthy behaviours and attitudes:

Consider your use of medications. While medicine is extremely valuable, increasing reliance and over-use of medicines may send a message to young people that drugs are an easy way to solve problems.

Avoid smoking. There is simply no safe way to use tobacco. Teens with parents who smoke are twice as likely to become smokers themselves.

Keep your use of substances to a minimum. If you use alcohol or other drugs, be sure to do so responsibly (see drinking guidelines below).

  • Driving tip: Low-risk drinking guidelines

    Alcohol affects people differently, depending on factors like weight, gender, drinking experience. While some people should simply never drink (e.g., people who become angry or mean with alcohol in their system), other people can consume alcohol safely and control their drinking. Here are some general guidelines on low-risk use of alcohol:

    1. Avoid getting drunk in order to avoid immediate harms, such as falls and violent incidents. (One drink per hour, up to a maximum of 4 drinks for men and 3 for women.)

    2. Limit your weekly alcohol intake in order to prevent long-term problems, such as organ damage. (For men, no more than 20 drinks in a week, and for women, no more than 10.)

    3. Take a break from alcohol at least once a week to avoid becoming dependent on alcohol.

    4. Don’t drink at all when it makes the most sense, such as when:

      • pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or breastfeeding
      • driving any type of vehicle or using heavy equipment
      • using medications or other substances.

“When I make a mistake, I try and use it as a way to show positive behaviour by apologizing to my child for my mistake.”

  • Driving tip: Things to think about

    Children get mixed messages when what we say is not reinforced by what we do. Consider how your habits, attitudes and behaviours towards tobacco, alcohol or other drugs impact your children.

    • Do your children see you turn down offers for alcohol?

    • Do you regularly use alcohol as a means to relax?

    • Do members of the family think it’s cool or funny to get drunk or high?

    • Is alcohol always part of your celebrations?

Getting through traffic and roadblocks: Communicating effectively with your child about drugs

Talking about any topic with a pre-teen or teen can be difficult. It’s not always easy to know how to start a conversation, let alone get an important message across without losing your child’s attention or losing your temper. If you’re concerned about how you might be coming across to your teen, try keeping these tips in mind:

Be curious and respectful of your teen’s point of view. Ask questions and listen to what they have to say. You don’t have to agree but it’s helpful to avoid reacting angrily or negatively to what they have to say.

Be cautious of putting your teen on the spot. Young teens often don’t like being the only topic under discussion. When appropriate, share with them memories of your own teen challenges and what you learned from them.

Avoid going into “lecture mode.” Your child will likely tune out if you do all the talking and load the conversation with “You’d better” and “I think” statements.

Take advantage of spontaneous times for talking. You never know when an important question is going to pop up. If you’re able to take on a conversation during an inconvenient time, go for it. If not, tell your child you think the question is really important and come to an agreement on a better time when you can talk about it.

Talking about alcohol and other drugs

There are some things you can do to help prepare yourself for questions and comments that may come your way:

  • Think about and clarify your own substance-related beliefs and values and how you might handle difficult questions.

  • Ask yourself if and when you would accept smoking and drinking in your house.

  • Think about what messages you’re sending your teen by your own tobacco, alcohol and other drug use patterns and attitudes.

Embrace the opportunity to be open, honest and in tune with your child:

  • Make sure your children know how you feel about tobacco, alcohol and other drug use.

  • Talk openly about the teen experience. Be aware that as your teen gets older, there might be times when using substances might be an option. You might ask them: “When do you think you might be in a situation to use substances?” and “How do you think you would handle it?” You might be surprised by their well thought out answers. Hear their perspective on the potential benefits and consequences of accepting offers of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs. Make sure your teen knows that the choice is theirs, not their friends’, and that with that choice comes consequences.

  • Help them gain refusal skills. Let them know they can turn down offers to use alcohol and other drugs. Let them know that they can use you as an excuse: “My parents would kill me if I drank a beer.” You can even practise these skills with them by discussing situations they might find themselves in.

  • Safety is the first priority. Ensure that your teen knows how to contact you or another adult to find a safe way home, regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

  • Keep in mind the teen mind. When talking with your teen about the consequences of drug use, it’s good to remember that teens respond well to examples of short-term harms. Telling a teen that smoking gives them bad breath will likely have more impact than saying only that they’ll get cancer.

Conversation Starters

To get things started, discuss something you’ve seen on TV, or bring up a current situation. For example, if you’ve heard about teens using alcohol or other drugs at the school dance, you might ask them something like:

“I heard there was an incident at the school dance. Did you know about it? What do you think about what happened? Why do you think it happened?”

Resisting road rage: How to act if you think your teen is using drugs

Sometimes teens go to great lengths to keep their use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs a secret from their parents. Even so, most parents know their child better than anyone else and can usually sense when something “different” is going on. It’s important to trust your parenting senses and not deny the situation.

If you suspect your teen is using tobacco, alcohol or other drugs, try not to blame yourself. There are many factors that contribute to a teen’s use of substances, and you may very well have done all the “right” things and still have a teen who uses drugs.

Thinking before reacting

When it comes to responding to an incident involving tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, a good place to start is to think about your particular child. Consider their age, personality and relationship to their friends. Take into account their mental health. If a person struggles with feelings of depression or anxiety, they are more likely to develop a problem with alcohol or other drugs. It’s also helpful to be knowledgeable about the different stages of alcohol and drug use.

The different stages of alcohol and drug use

Not every teen who uses alcohol or other drugs has a problem. Some experiment with various drugs because they are curious. And many decide “this is not for me.” Maybe they don’t like the feeling, or maybe the pros are outweighed by the cons (i.e., cost of the drugs, fear of getting caught, friends don’t think it’s cool, etc.).

Social/occasional use:

This is once-in-a-while. A social user can choose when to use and can stop when they want to. When they use, they don’t experience a lot of negative consequences—they don’t blow off school, they don’t get in trouble with the law and they aren’t spending all their money on alcohol or other drugs.

Harmful involvement:

This is when someone uses substances despite the problems created by the drug. Using substances becomes the focus of what they do when they party or hang out with others. They start to have problems with friends, family, school and work because of their use. They might spend a lot of their money on alcohol or other drugs. They may no longer feel good about their use.


At this stage, the body is physically hooked on the drug and it is needed to feel normal. When they quit drinking or using, they often experience withdrawal symptoms that can range from quite mild to very severe. It’s also possible to develop “psychological dependence” on a drug, meaning that the user thinks they function better when they are high or drinking/drunk. When a teen becomes dependent, they will need help in order to stop using. It’s not uncommon for someone who has a dependence to deny they have a problem.

  • Driving tip: Changes to be aware of

    Many changes are part of normal adolescent development. If your teen exhibits several of the following changes, you will probably want to pay attention. They may be signs that your teen needs special support. Some warning signs of possible substance use include changes in:

    • school performance
    • friends
    • weight or physical appearance
    • eating or sleeping habits
    • attitudes toward sports and other activities
    • behaviour
Responding to Use

Alcohol and drug problems develop over time. No one starts out thinking that their use will become a problem. As a parent, you will want to intervene at the experimentation and social use stages. Any use of alcohol and other drugs is potentially harmful when a person is in their early teen years (under age 16). Experimental and social use in the later teen years is also not risk-free. There is a risk of using too much, making poor decisions (such as using and driving, engaging in risky sexual activity), or taking a drug without knowing the ingredients and effects.

If you think your child is using alcohol or other drugs, you might want to seek assistance from an addiction professional or a counsellor at the school. The Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service provides information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can provide information on how to get professional help in your community, and help you get support on how to handle a situation. Call them toll-free at 1-800-663-1441. In Greater Vancouver, call 604-660-9382.

Example of how to respond

Your 14-year-old comes home late and is visibly drunk. You can smell alcohol and notice that they’re swaying when walking. Here are some ideas on how you might choose to deal with this type of situation:

  • Don’t attempt to address the situation that night. Let your teen go to sleep, if it’s safe to do so. If they appear sick, you’ll need to stay with them.

  • If you are a two-parent family, discuss the situation with your partner and agree on how to handle the situation. Consider possible courses of action before engaging in a discussion.

  • The next morning, give a deadline to your teen for when you plan to talk with them about what happened the night before.

  • Begin by asking your teen what happened. Show that you care about what they think and feel.

  • Tell your teen how you feel and why.

  • Talk about the consequences of their behaviour. Ask for your teen’s input regarding consequences. Keep consequences related to the incident.

  • Reinforce expectations and boundaries. Let your teen know what kind of behaviour will not be accepted in the family.

Dealing with your teen’s alcohol and other drug use

Try not to panic. While you may feel angry, frustrated and concerned, it doesn’t help to yell, show anger or lecture.

Talk with your teen in an open, supportive way. Invading their privacy or using bribes, threats or guilt may only make the situation worse. Let your teen know that you care about them and are concerned about their health and safety.

Get informed about what your teen’s using and how often. Find out as much as you can about your teen’s experiences and attitudes toward tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. Ask them to help you understand their perspective.

Educate yourself. Learn about alcohol and other drugs and let your teen know that you’re studying up on substance use. See our list of websites at the back of this resource.

Seek help. Often it can be helpful to talk to someone about your child’s behaviour. To find alcohol and other drug support services in your community or to talk with a professional about your options, call the Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service (provides information 24 hours a day, seven days a week). Call them toll-free at 1-800-663-1441. In Greater Vancouver, call 604-660-9382.

  • A Parent’s Story—Suzanne, Vancouver, BC

    I got a divorce when my two children were teenagers. For the most part, my kids did well with the change. They obeyed curfew and did well at school. I knew their friends and their friends’ parents.

    Then, one night, my son Jack (13) didn’t come home before dark. I phoned all of his friends’ houses and found out that the other kids were at home. I went out into my backyard and there he was, face down and passed out. I immediately phoned the emergency room. When they asked me if he was drunk, I said, “No, of course not. He’s only 13!” But it turned out he was drunk.

    That was my wake-up call. That day, my education started. I realized I was parenting a teenager, which is quite different from parenting a young child.

    The first thing I did was tell myself not to panic and to focus on safety. That night, I stayed up with him to make sure he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit. In the morning, I had to go to work so I left him a note. It read: Jack, stay home today and drink lots of water. I will talk to you when I get home. Then, we set up a time to talk when both of us were available. At this time, Jack had no idea what I was feeling.

    The next day we sat down and talked about consequences. He told me what he thought he should do, and I told him what I thought should happen. In the end, we agreed that he would phone everyone he had inconvenienced that night (parents and kids who had been out looking for him). He also agreed to pay back any liquor he and his friends had stolen from parents.

    Jack broke his collarbone when he fell off his bike, so that was a natural consequence. He couldn’t do sports for six weeks.

    My son is now a grown-up. He still remembers this as a pivotal moment in our relationship. He tells me that he put off further drinking for at least two years and told his sister that I was someone he could talk to “when things got rough.”

Preparing for the bumps along the way: The ABCs of drugs sometimes used by young people

Name of drug

Also known as

What it looks like

How administered

Short term (and some long term) effects

Legal status


Booze, alcopops, beer



Initial sense of well-being, relaxed, loss of inhibitions, dizziness, loss of coordination

Illegal under 19 years


Tobacco, cigarettes, smokes, fags, cigs, butts



Increased blood pressure and heart rate, decreased appetite, new smokers often experience coughing, dizziness, nausea and headaches

Illegal to sell to anyone under 18 years


Pot, weed, wacky tobaccy, ganja

Dried leaf or oil or chunk of brown/black

Mostly smoked, sometimes eaten

Relaxed, colours seem brighter, slowed thinking and reaction time, some people feel anxious and others feel happy and laugh a lot, loss of memory while ‘high’


Ecstasy (MDMA)

‘E’, love drug, Adam, lover’s speed, XTC

Usually in a pill - capsule or tablet


Increased feelings of empathy towards others, increased (tactile) sensitivity to touch, relaxed and energetic, loss of appetite, sweating, jaw clenching and teeth grinding, forgetfulness, some experience anxiety



Blow, coke, C, Charlie, crack, snow, toot

Cocaine is a fine white powder, crack is chemically-modified into a rock

Snorted, injected, smoked (crack)

Increased heart rate, breathing and blood pressure, increased energy, increased mental alertness, enlarged pupils, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, can increase aggression, irritability, paranoia and anxiousness


Methamphetamine and other amphetamines

Crystal, glass, meth, speed

Shards of glass, can also be in pill or powder

Smoked, injected, snorted, swallowed

Rush of pleasure feelings, increased heart rate, increased energy, increased mental alertness, loss of appetite and sleeplessness, anxiety, sweating, can increase aggression, irritability, paranoia

Illegal (some forms of amphetamine are prescribed)


Acid, dots, blotter

Small tablet or liquid absorbed on blotted piece of paper


Hallucinations (seeing and hearing something that isn’t there), increased heart rate and body temperature, enlarged pupils, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, quick change in emotions (feeling ‘high’ and then fear), some have ‘bad trips’and experience intense fear/sadness


Mushrooms (Psilocybin)

Magic mushrooms, 'shrooms

Mushrooms, often dried

Swallowed - can be used in tea or other food

Hallucinations (seeing and hearing something that isn’t there), increased heart rate and body temperature, upset stomach, some people feel anxious or nervous or suffer from sleeplessness, some have ‘bad trips’ and experience intense fear/sadness



Brown sugar, dope, H, horse, junk, smack

White or brownish powder

Smoked (on foil), injected, snorted

Intense feelings of pleasure, reduced pain, warm flushing of skin, nausea, slows down heart rate and breathing, pupils become smaller


Prescription drugs

An increasing number of young people are regularly using prescription medications such as pain relievers to get ‘high.’ They use these drugs because it is believed they are medically safe. But the truth is there are significant risks when used other than prescribed.



Mental Health Information Line:

Safe Kids Help Line:


BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information:

Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research:

BC Partners for Responsible Gambling:

For parents:

BC Council for Families:

Parent Support Services of BC:

Parents Together:

From Grief to Action:

To get help anywhere in British Columbia, call Alcohol and Drug Information Referral Service 1-800-663-1441 (throughout BC) or 604-660-9382 (in Greater Vancouver).


About the author

cisur logo

The Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, formerly CARBC, is a member of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. The institute is dedicated to the study of substance use in support of community-wide efforts aimed at providing all people with access to healthier lives, whether using substances or not. For more, visit