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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Responding to Teen Drug and Alcohol Use

A guide for parents

Robb McGirr

Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp.12-13

As parents, we all seem destined to come to grips with the role drugs and alcohol may play in our teens’ lives. Most of us will experience one of three scenarios:

  • Anticipation… Your son or daughter is entering senior high school, or is coming of an age where their territory and social groups are expanding. It is likely they are going to come into contact with drugs or alcohol. They need more information so they can make well-informed choices.

  • Suspecting… Your teen has a new group of friends who are making your radar go off. They are moodier and more distant. Your teen’s school performance is slipping. You’re hearing fragments of suspicious conversations.

  • Knowing… Your teen has openly admitted using drugs, or you’ve otherwise confirmed that they are using.

Parents who suspect or know will probably be filled with questions like, What should we do? or How should we do it?

While some parents end up dragging their teen—willingly or otherwise—to the nearest counselling office, the fact is that the majority of parents try to deal with the issue within the family. This is an undertaking that can be filled with stress and conflict.

Understanding and following some simple strategic guidelines, however, will help parents send needed messages in a way that their teen can benefit from.

How do you move from confusion to a clearer understanding of what is going on and how to respond to  it? Simply put, you need to stop and take the time to do what is often referred to as a “risk assessment.” Gathering information before you react will help reduce the conflict that would likely arise from premature conversations with your teen.

Risk assessment

Two primary pieces of information you may want to gather are your teen’s level of use and what drug or drugs they are taking. Triggers for use is another important piece of information.

Escalating levels of use

  • Curiosity: A healthy state—and one that invites you to help provide accurate information on drugs and alcohol. Listen to your teen’s opinions and help them search out the answers to their questions.

  • Experimental use: First- or second-time use to satisfy their curiosity or to find out if using the drug helps them in a social setting.

  • Recreational use: Using drugs or alcohol, mostly on weekends, and almost always in a social setting.

  • Coping tool: Drug use has escalated beyond recreational use. Some typical signs are use at or during school, or when alone.

  • Dependence/Addiction: Drugs or alcohol are now a part of your teen’s daily life. Social groups and activities are almost completely associated with drug-related activity.

“Hard-core” vs. “soft-core” drugs

While I think these terms are overly simplistic, they do provide a framework for understanding about the drugs of choice for teens.

Early intervention with teens beginning to use “hard-core” drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and heroin, for example, is far more challenging than for so-called “soft-core” drugs such as alcohol, marijuana and ‘magic’ mushrooms. The time frame for effective early intervention with hard core drugs can be measured in weeks, as opposed to perhaps months with the softer drugs. Also, the escalating levels of use don’t really apply to harder drugs, because the potential for addiction develops so quickly, and the potential for serious harm from even single use is so high.


“Triggers” are not the things that make your teen use, but rather the circumstances in which they are more likely to use. People, places, days of the week, times of the day, state of mind or even special events—these can all be triggers.

The most common trigger that parents first identify is people—a group or crowd that your teen is now hanging out with. Other common triggers for teens are boredom, social stress and particular hangout locations. Understanding your teen’s unique triggers helps to forecast high-risk moments for your teen and to provide alternatives for them.

Don’t make assumptions about what your teen’s triggers are. It will require close scrutiny and lots of conversations with your teen, their friends, teachers and others in their lives to get a sense of what their triggers may be.

Risk assessment to response

Doing a risk assessment helps you focus your energies and respond in an appropriate manner. Your response will probably fall into one of three categories:

  • Education/Prevention: For dealing with curiosity, experimentation and perhaps even recreational use of so-called soft drugs

  • Early intervention: To help your teen make some modest changes before their use becomes more problematic

  • Treatment/Rehabilitation: To address serious problematic use, consider resources outside the family

This evaluation process will give parents a clearer perspective on what their teen needs to hear in order to make better choices. More importantly, it can reduce the fear and anxiety that all parents feel as their teens begin to make lifestyle choices beyond their parents’ control.

About the author
Robb is a retired police officer who now works as a school-based drug and alcohol prevention counsellor for Alouette Addictions Services in Maple Ridge. For 16 years he has presented drug prevention and early intervention workshops throughout BC. Robb has also developed prevention resources for parents, teens and teachers.

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