Talking About Drugs and Substance Use and Misuse with Teens: What Parents Should Know

Chantal Vallerand - Substance Use and Misuse

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Mar 15, 2022

Drugs and substance Use with teens

As the mother, Chantal Vallerand engages in a variety of important conversations with her teens, aged 16 and 13.  Professionally, she helps parents, caregivers, educators and others spearhead and support key discussions about drugs and substance use and misuse in their own environments.

“You have to have those conversations early,” Vallerand told Lianne Castelino, during an interview for Where Parents Talk. “… take the drama and the personal aspect of it out of it. When I’m talking about age-appropriate conversation, it can start as early as three or four years old,” she says.

As Executive Director of Drug Free Kids Canada, she and her team provide educational tools to various audiences to discuss drug, alcohol and substance use and misuse.

While some trends in Canada in this space are moving in a positive direction she says, others are not.

Here is an excerpt of the Where Parents Talk’s interview with Chantal Vallerand, Executive Director of Drug Free Kids Canada:

What trends are you seeing relating to drug use and abuse among Canadian teens and young adults that are most concerning?

Overall, teens are not using as much as before. Having said that, there are some specific trends that are concerning, mostly with vaping.

At this point, we have found that in the past couple of years, there’s an increase of usage and vaping of 74% among teens, 16 to 19 years old 23% of kids in in high school have admitted to using an e-cigarette.

What’s concerning with that is the fact that lots of the kids don’t know what they’re vaping. We can be vaping nicotine, or we can be vaping cannabis. And there’s a wide difference between the two.

With internet and online buying is access to the black market. So are our kids getting substances through a legal source or an illegal source? Unfortunately, the black market is still very much alive. Even though cannabis has been legalized, kids can buy pills online, kids can buy cannabis extracts, cannabis oils that have very high potency. These kinds of trends are very concerning if the kids is not equipped with the right information to make informed decisions.


Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is the executive director of Drug Free Kids Canada, a not for profit organization focused on educating parents and others about substance abuse, addiction and prevention. Chantal Vallerand is also a mother of two teens. And she joins us today from Ottawa.
Chantal, thank you very much for being here.

Thank you for having me.

It’s safe to say on this subject matter that there’s never been a time where the exposure that kids have to Drugs and substances has been greater it they’re everywhere they can have access to them, as well as the exposure we’re talking about vaping and cannabis, e-cigarettes, alcohol, etc, etc. What trends are you seeing relating to drug use and abuse among Canadian teens and young adults that are most concerning?

What I must say, I’m the bearer of good news tonight, though, overall, what we’re looking at is a downward trend. So it may not look, it may look like there’s a lot more visibility when we’re talking about legalization of cannabis and seeing every second store opening being a cannabis store. So it, it is a lot more visible. But overall, when we’re looking at the overall trend, teens are not using as much as before, having said that, there are some specific trends that are concerning, mostly with vaping. At this point, we have found that in the past couple of years, there’s an increase of usage and vaping of 74% among teens, 16 to 19 years old 23% of kids in in high school have admitted to using an e cigarette. And what’s concerning with that is the fact that lots of the kids don’t know what they’re vaping. So we can be vaping nicotine, or we can be vaping cannabis. And there’s a wide difference between the two. And the other thing too is with internet and online buying being very much when we’re talking about accessibility, is access to the black market. So are kids getting substances through a legal source or an illegal source? So these are the kind of trends that we’re seeing, unfortunately, the black market is still very much alive. Even though cannabis has been legalized. Kids can buy pills online, kids can buy cannabis extracts cannabis oils that have very high potency. These kinds of trends are very concerning if the kids is not equipped with the right information to make informed decisions.

So on that note, what would you say are the key contributing factors are root causes to these to this trend?

A lot of things right. So there’s a there’s a big correlation between mental health and substance use. But we also have to know that the average initiation age when we’re talking about cannabis, for example, is 14 years old in Canada. So we can talk about you know, what causes this it could be trauma, it could be ADHD, there’s also a strong correlation between kids suffering from ADHD and self medicating themselves with substances be it alcohol or cannabis to somewhat get a hold of their ADHD. It’s about really fine kids finding their own coping mechanism through substances, dealing with anxiety, dealing with history, right? So if there’s some we know and it’s been proven through evidence base research that if there’s history of addiction in the family, there’s a higher chances of develop doesn’t mean that you know, if you’ve had suffered from an addiction, if somebody in your family has suffered from addiction that you will pass it on to your kids. But it’s a risk factor that parents should be, you know, paying attention to.

Now, in doing research for this interview, one of the statistics that really jumped off the page of me and I’m sure many people would have this reaction is one that came from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse that says that substance abuse in adolescents is responsible for 90% of addictions down the road. Talk to us about that in terms of how important it is for parents to have these conversations when their kids are of that adolescent and those developmental year ages in order to prevent bigger problems down the line.

So 90% of people suffering from addiction started using When they were adolescents, right, so it doesn’t mean that 90% of people that are used so so but, but having said that, understanding that the earlier the experimentation happens, the higher chances of developing a problematic usage down the line, there’s a correlation there. So it is important to have age appropriate conversations. At Drug Free Kids, Canada we heavily promote starting at a very young age, but we have some, you know, suggestions on how to have them at an age appropriate level. But it’s not a matter of having a one time drug, like, it’s not like you’re a parent, and you have a list of things to do to be a good parent, and you have to have the drug talk, and you’ve had the drug talk and you check it, and then you never talk about it. Again, it’s to make sure that those channels of communications are open, make sure that you’re talking about, you know, evidence based science based information, pass them on to your kids explain the brain development, that your brain is not fully developed until you’re age 25. And how that can impact the brain development, like having all of those conversations, because at the end of the day, as a parent, you’re not going to be there when the kid is going to be offered to use or experiment with substances. And what you’re hoping is that you’ve provided all the data and all the information for them to make a healthy decision, an informed decision, the safest decision that they can make in those circumstances.

So on that note, when ideally, what age and under what circumstances should a conversation about drugs, and substances that we’re talking about begin in a household.

So there’s a stigma attached to it, there’s language that we’re using that that may intimidate parents or prevent them from, you know, wanting to have those conversations, there’s that whole concept I’ve heard of in a conference of other isolation. So it doesn’t happen to me or to my kids, it happens to others. And I’m sure happy that, you know, you guys are having these kind of talks and Drug Free Kids exist, but it doesn’t apply to my family, or it won’t apply to my family, before it actually goes down that path. Or it may or may not, you have to have those conversations early. And to take the drama and the personal aspect of it out of it. You know, when I’m talking about age appropriate conversation, it can start as early as three or four years old. Now, let me explain what I mean by that. When you give medication to your kid who’s three or four, it’s often fruit flavor, cherry antibiotics that tastes like banana, or you have funny gummy bears that you know, are multivitamins that the kids going to have every day, they may have an inclination to want more than what’s safe for them to use. This is a good way of starting to introduce the idea that there’s prescription medicine, there’s medicine that’s meant for you to make you feel better. But there there’s a dangerous aspect of them if they’re not taken in the proper way that they’re supposed to be taken. And starting early with those conversation is that when you know you, you get to an older age or they become in their teens, this comes not out of thin air you have started to talk about and implement those, those concepts so that they already have an appreciation that if it wasn’t prescribed to them for a specific condition, they should not be using these things, because we’re talking about substances. But sometimes people forget that prescription medicine or even over the counter medicine can be used as a recreational drugs. And when we have when we asked surveys for kids of you know, where did they because one out of five kids in an Ontario in high school have admitted to using a pill that was not prescribed for them recreationally. And when we asked them when they took them. 55% of them said they took it from home with the impression that if it was given by a pharmacist, or if it was fabricated in a big pharma pharmaceutical factory, then it must be safe. Right? So it’s like initiating those talks at a very early age and being able to implement those concepts and then carrying them on as they grow older and adapting it is the key.

So how about for the parent who perhaps hasn’t happens? Conversations with their child when they were younger and maybe hasn’t even had to worry about this and it’s not been on their radar at all. Let’s look at parents of preteens, teens, you know, adolescents, those key developmental years, where there’s so many changes going on in that child. What would you say they could do in terms of proactive steps that parents could take to prevent drug use from becoming a problem in the first place?

So it’s about as I said, integrating into everyday conversation. Don’t make a big case of it because it may be intimidating to you and maybe intimidating to your kid educate yourself. You can come to a website, you can go to Health Canada website, you can go to the Canadian senator and substance use and addiction website there’s a lot of hard facts about, you know, what are the risks for a teen to use? And what does cannabis look like some parents have never used cannabis. They don’t know the difference between THC and CBD. So educate yourself. So you build a little bit of confidence, and then use everyday life situation to be able to go into this conversation I was talking about, you know, the prevalence of all of those cannabis stores. I’m in Ottawa, I feel like every second store that’s opening right now is not a coffee shop. It’s a cannabis store. You know, I was talking to my teen about that the other day, I was saying, What do you think is the business model behind it? Do you think that you know, how do they differentiate themselves as there’s three of them in a row? Why do you think the government is allowing this so integrating cannabis the business of cannabis into a conversation makes normalizes the conversation. So down the line, if you want to start talking about usage, and the importance of making safe decisions around that, again, it has been normalized. And you’ve talked about cannabis before.

Let’s talk about the parents who suspects that their child may be trying drugs? Any one of them that, you know, we talked about earlier? What kind of tips or strategies can you offer that parent about how they can go about broaching the conversation in a in a positive way to their child who they suspect is using drugs.

That’s not an easy situation. As a parent, you’re concerned, you’re worried. There’s a lot of emotions that come into play. So just like anything else, I’d say, get ready for that talk. You know, if if you have a partner in your life that you can share that with or somebody that you trust, rehearse that conversation, talk about the main key points that you, you would get ready for a big presentation at work or for an important interview. This is a moment that you know, you want to be able to overcome those initial emotions that you are, you have fear, you may have anger, you want to come across as a concerned parents. And interestingly, you know, some parents say, why would I bother I have a 16 year old. So I know sometimes that kid’s even listening to me. At the end of the day, when we ask kids through our tracking studies through the year, who is your reliable source of information when it comes to substances and substance use parents in school come as in the first 63% equal, then after that comes friends, then after that comes social media. So they trust you, they trust that you have their best interests at heart, they trust that you love them. So even starting from that place of saying, Listen, I love you, I’m concerned, I think that you may be using my right and being open to say, I’d like to talk to you. But this is this a good time being humble enough in your approach? And if you’ve rehearsed that, that’s easier to do. Because you may encounter somebody who’s going to say, that’s not true, I don’t want to talk about it. And then you have to be persistent to be able to say, well, actually, it’s important to me. So this may not be a good time, but I really want us to talk about it. So I’d like you to tell me when it would be a good time to talk about and be persistent, go at it. Because you may catch them. You know, we caught them off guard and they’re not ready. But you’ve planted the seed of saying, Okay, maybe not tonight, How about tomorrow afternoon, but be persistent. Practice, get your information and be ready to listen. Because ultimately, the questions you want to ask is, why are you using? Do you know what you’re using? Do you know the content? Like go into the specifics of just, you know, don’t stop at Yes, I’ve smoked a joint once. You have to know like the you kid has to you know, most kids that are using cannabis don’t know the THC level? Where did you get it from? Because the higher the potency, again, the higher the chances of developing problematic use of that. So being able to share those concerns and being able to also be vulnerable and say, I don’t have all the answers. All I know is that I love you. And I’m and I’m concerned. So. So yeah. So I think that that’s that’s a good place to start to be able to say and I want to listen to you. But find out how and when and what they’re using is really important.

There will be parents who watch and listen to this interview and say exactly what you lead with their which is that this is a difficult conversation. I don’t feel competent about having it. I am not equipped to have it. I’m too connected. I’m not going to say the right things. Where should that parent turn to for support?

There’s lots of support out there. But if if it’s a health concern with you kids, I’d start with the pediatrician when we’re talking about like the pediatrician are supposed to be equipped to be having those conversations or the family doctor but to be able to base it on facts to talk about brain development to talk about short term risks to talk about long term risks to talk about, you know, in in then as well as is the health professional in your life should be equipped to be able to say, is this a mental health issue? Is this used as a coping mechanism if the parents doesn’t, so that’s one gateway, Kids Help Phone has a line that you can call and find information on the parents side, Drug Free Kids is about to launch one. later this spring, we’re also going to have a chat box where parents can come and find information. But ultimately, as a as a first step, if there’s a health concern and immediate health concern, I would definitely talk to your family practitioner.

Okay. One of the drugs that, you know, doesn’t really get a lot of attention as a drug or substance, per se, is alcohol. And, you know, recent Health Canada surveys show that it continues to be the top sort of substance of choice for middle school and and high schoolers. So 12 to 17 years old, roughly, what should the messaging be, from parents to their children about alcohol consumption?

You’re right, it is the substance of choice. 80% of kids 15 and older have admitted using alcohol in the past year. And we’re talking about trends earlier. One of the trend though, is also mixing alcohol with cannabis. Which is, which is a dangerous thing. Because again, sharing the facts with the kids drinking alcohol, well, if you go over your limits will make you nauseous, your body will give you signs that something’s not right, right, you either vomit or nauseous, you’re feeling dizzy, your body is indicating you need to slow down when you’re smoking cannabis, it’s actually it’s actually decreasing your ability to recognize those signs. So there’s chances of overconsumption there’s centuries of alcohol poisoning, sharing that with your teen, just right off the bat of talking about the science behind what what’s happening in your body, when you’re mixing those two, that’s important, but also talking about the risk associated with alcohol. Because it’s more visible in our society, because it’s more socially accepted to drink. Kids may think that there’s no potential risk, there’s definitely higher risk of getting behind the wheel, because you think that you’re capable of you being able to detect that somebody else has been drinking, if you have been drinking yourself, lesser. So there’s, you know, drinking and driving is a no no, and being able to share that as a parent and reminding them binge drinking, alcohol intoxication. So just like you would do with, I would say, with cannabis, or vaping, and talking about the risk and the science of how its interacting with your body, and how it can actually harm you to be able to have those conversation. And again, on a spectrum of harm reduction, and making sure that you know, you’re equipping your kids with the best information so that they can make good decisions for themselves. I would advise to talk about low risk, Alcohol Drinking guidelines, the Canadian Center on substance use and addiction shows in a really great graphic, it’s on our website, it’s on their website, what’s the equivalent of a beer of a shot of a cooler of soap, because kids don’t have any idea and the time between those things. And again, it all depends on your weight and everything else, but just getting a sense. I, for example, just use the graph and send it as a text to to, to my kids, just to say Did you know this right, and I just planted the seed and let them deal with it. But providing them with the information and letting them know that alcohol is just like any other substance and there’s risk attached to to use it and they should be aware of what they are.

Along those lines. I mean, kids today, certainly, there are many concurrent pressures that they that they experience around the issue of substance use if we’re talking about peer pressure and bullying, you know, trying to escape using using substances low self esteem, etc, etc. Often these can current situations can exacerbate or even fuel substance use in the first place. Any thoughts about and strategies or approaches on how parents can try to help detangle some of those, you know, underlying causes before it then gets manifested into potential substance use or abuse.

Again, it’s that open, ongoing dialogue to have with your kids to see how they’re doing, how they’re feeling, how does that make you feel? And then going beyond the How was your day? How does that make you feel? And how are you coping with this? How do you make yourself feel better about this, talking about coping mechanism? You know, we’re, we’re just at the tail end hopefully of this pandemic. But and People are working from home. And it’s interesting as an as an adult, you know, a lot of adults were saying before I’d go to work and on Friday, I’d come back home and have a glass of wine at five o’clock just to unwind. And there was the indication that it was entering the weekend, all of a sudden, you’re home and you feel stressed and you have anxiety as an adult and Friday turned into Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I’m coming downstairs and finishing my day, I’m having a glass of wine, the acknowledgement of oh my god, I’m using this as a coping mechanism, even to your teen making you an authentic human being who realizes, listen, I feel that maybe I use that as a crutch as a way of making me feel better. Let’s explore other ways that I could feel better. Let’s go for a walk. Sport makes me feel better taking a bath. But being able to talk these through with your kids and exploring options of how to make yourself feel better how to decrease anxiety, acknowledging those feelings, I think is important, even before making the correlation between with substance use but being able to, as you said, untangle, ask them how they’re doing and how they’re coping with this is a good start.

And as with many things on that point while modeling, certainly and as you said, communication with your children, always so important. Chantal Viva executive director of Drug Free Kids, Canada, thank you so much for your time today.

Thank you for having me.

What would you say are the key contributing factors or root causes of this trend of increases in vaping?

A lot of things. There’s a there’s a big correlation between mental health and substance use. But we also have to know that the average initiation age when we’re talking about cannabis, for example, is 14 years old in Canada.

There’s also a strong correlation between kids suffering from ADHD and self-medicating with substances, be it alcohol or cannabis — to somewhat get a hold of their ADHD.

It’s about kids finding their own coping mechanism through substances, dealing with anxiety, dealing with history. It has been proven through evidence-based research that if there’s history of addiction in the family, there’s a higher chance of develop doesn’t mean that you know, if you’ve had suffered from an addiction, if somebody in your family has suffered from addiction that you will pass it on to your kids. But it’s a risk factor that parents should be, you know, paying attention to.

How important it is for parents to have these conversations when their kids are of adolescents and those developmental year ages — in order to prevent bigger problems down the line?

90% of people suffering from addiction started using when they were adolescents.

The earlier the experimentation happens, the higher chances of developing problematic usage down the line, there’s a correlation there.

It is important to have age-appropriate conversations. At Drug Free Kids, Canada we heavily promote starting at a very young age, but we have some, suggestions on how to have them at an age-appropriate level.

Make sure that those channels of communications are open, make sure that you’re talking about evidence-based, science-based information, pass them on to your kids explain the brain development, that your brain is not fully developed until you’re age 25, and how that can impact brain development.

Having all of those conversations, because at the end of the day, as a parent, you’re not going to be there when the kid is going to be offered to use or experiment with substances. And what you’re hoping is that you’ve provided all the data, and all the information for them to make a healthy decision, an informed decision, the safest decision that they can make in those circumstances.

What age and under what circumstance should a conversation about drugs, and substances that we’re talking about begin in a household?

There’s a stigma attached to it, there’s language that we’re using that may intimidate parents or prevent them from wanting to have those conversations. There’s that whole concept I’ve heard of in a conference of other isolation. It doesn’t happen to me or to my kids, it happens to others.

When you give medication to your kid who’s three or four, it’s often fruit flavor, cherry antibiotics that tastes like banana, or you have funny gummy bears that are multivitamins that the kids going to have every day, they may have an inclination to want more than what’s safe for them to use. This is a good way of starting to introduce the idea that there’s prescription medicine, there’s medicine that’s meant for you to make you feel better. But there a dangerous aspect of them if they’re not taken in the proper way that they’re supposed to be taken. When you get to an older age or they are in their teens, this comes not out of thin air. You have started to talk about and implement those concepts so that they already have an appreciation that if it wasn’t prescribed to them for a specific condition, they should not be using these things.

Sometimes people forget that prescription medicine or even over the counter medicine can be used as a recreational drug. And when we have asked in surveys one out of five kids in an Ontario in high school have admitted to using a pill that was not prescribed for them recreationally. And when we asked them when they took them. 55% of them said they took it from home with the impression that if it was given by a pharmacist, or if it was fabricated in a big pharma pharmaceutical factory, then it must be safe. So initiating those talks at a very early age and being able to implement those concepts and then carrying them on as they grow older and adapting — is the key.

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Chantal Vallerand also discusses:

  • Language to use when discussing substance use with children Drug Free Kids Canada logo
  • Age-appropriate approaches
  • What to do if you suspect your child is using drugs
  • Support services for parents

Related links:

Drug Free Kids Canada.org

 

 

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