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Visions Journal

Talking about Substance Use with Your Child

Cindy Andrew

Reprinted from the Families, Friends and Substance Abuse issue of Visions Journal, 2024, 19 (2), pp. 19-20, 23

stock image of mother and son talking

Parents and caregivers often wonder about the best way to approach talking about substance use with young people. There is no single right way to have these conversations. The goal is to open up communications and set a tone that helps your child feel comfortable and supported.

It’s also wise to avoid “conversation stoppers” that close the door to honest communication, like when adults shame or command young people (see Related Resources for a link to many more “stoppers”). 

What you say and do is valuable and makes a difference. Here are some tips and resources you might find useful as you help your child(ren) successfully navigate this aspect of life.

Keep connected. Strong relationships with caring adults help promote health and can be helpful in protecting against harmful substance use. Start with making relationships with teens trusting and transparent, and see the Related Resources for a fuller list of strategies to strengthen bonds.

Listen first and get curious together. Be positive and caring, and allow time for reflection. Join your child in getting curious about learning more about substance use. You might say: “I see a lot of vaping happening and wonder why and what are the potential health risks?” Having open, honest conversation about drug use offers a lot more promise and learning than facts, stats and scare tactics. 

Be mindful of adolescent development. As youth move from childhood to adulthood, their brains and bodies go through a lot of change. These changes often affect their emotions and behaviours. Teens often focus on relating to youth peers. Respect that your child may need some time and space to think and feel their way through a new situation.

Build their skills. Help your child to solve their own challenges instead of solving them for them. This helps build their confidence and resilience, and it sets the stage for other skills, such as critical thinking, decision-making and stress management, plus learning how to be ready for difficult conversations in social settings and how to plan ahead. 

Have fun. Observe and identify the interests and passions of your child and purposefully make time to recognize, value and celebrate those things. 

Be informed. Youth may use substances for many reasons, including wanting to feel good, cope with pain or stress, or have fun. Understanding what’s going on in your youth's life and that substance use, if present, might be meeting some needs, can help you support them.

Share clear, consistent expectations. Be clear with your child(ren) about setting boundaries and guidelines related to substance use. The more you discuss these openly with your child, the more likely it is that they will understand your intentions and the reasons for them, and that they will be able to adopt them.

Be aware and available. Pay attention to what’s happening in your child’s life. Note sudden changes in mood or schoolwork. Respect their need for independence, but let them know you are there for them and ready to help. Make time for conversation. Letting your child know their opinions matter helps set the stage for bigger conversations during more challenging times. Comments like “I noticed you seem pretty stressed lately. Anything I can do for you?” are positive. Listening more than talking helps too. 

Expect to be challenged. Be respectful and prepared to negotiate, but clearly communicate your position and your own values.

Learn from mistakes. Life presents many chances to learn, including those times that involve substance use. Use mistakes as an opportunity to learn together.

Be a positive role model. How do you have fun, spend time with friends or deal with stress?  From an early age, your child will watch and learn behaviours from you. They see how you manage, limit or turn down chances to use substances. Having conversations with your child about your behaviours or experiences can help spark some helpful learning and demonstrate that parents aren’t perfect either. 

Put their safety first. Prepare your child to be safe in case they choose to use a substance. Help your child learn how to reduce substance-related harms by discussing steps they can take to be safe, including not too much, not too often, never alone and never when dangerous (e.g., when driving).

Worried that your child may be using substances in a problematic way? Supporting a loved one can be stressful and confusing. It’s important to find information and support you can trust. Please visit the ABCs of Youth Substance Use website: And check out the Related Resources, where I share other information sources that might be helpful for you.

Related Resources

Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre
offers a wide range of resources, including their Substance Use and Youth section, which includes information on substances, why youth use substances, how substance use can become a problem and what you can do to support young people.

Keep having conversations with kids
is a resource prepared by HealthLinkBC to guide communications with young people, including what not to say (e.g., avoid sentences like “You should know better”).

7 ways to build authentic connections with teens
from KidsHelpPhone has a great list of easy ways to improve adult–teen relationships.

Preparing parents and caregivers for substance use conversations
from the ABCs of Youth Substance Use includes resources for adults and youth related to substance use. 

Substance use: Talking alcohol, vaping & other drugs with your kids
is an episode of the podcast Where you Are, intended for parents and caregivers, produced in partnership with the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre and the ABCs of Youth Substance Use.

Substance use and young people: A guide for families and their caring communities
is a guide produced by the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research (CISUR) for HeretoHelp, structured in four vignettes drawn from real-life situations, that includes helpful questions and strategies an adult might use to support a young person.   

About the author

Cindy Andrew is a team member of The ABCs of Youth Substance Use, a BC Ministry of Health initiative to enhance substance use prevention supports, education and resources in BC schools. A parent of two, former teacher and long-time health promoter, Cindy is grateful to live, love and work on territories of the Esquimalt and Songhees nations, also known as the west shore of Victoria

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