Researchers study strategies for talking to teens about substance use

The researchers found that the young people interviewed were more receptive to harm-reduction messages encouraging dialogue rather than zero-tolerance approaches. (AFP Relaxnews pic)

What’s the best way to talk to teens about alcohol and drug use without them clamming up or tuning out?

Researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Calgary in Canada have been studying the question.

Together with her colleagues, Emily Jenkins – a UBC professor of nursing, specialising in substance abuse among young people – interviewed 83 young people between the ages of 13 and 18.

The study, published early April in the Harm Reduction journal, found that the young people interviewed were more receptive to harm-reduction messages encouraging dialogue rather than zero-tolerance approaches.

“Youth were more receptive when their parents talked – in a non-judgmental way – about substance use or could point to resources or strategies to help minimise the harms of use. This approach seemed to work better in preserving family relationships and youth health,” Jenkins explained.

However, the research also found that teens still valued the setting of limits. “An overly lenient approach to substance use did not work either,” noted Jenkins.

For example, one participant explained that she did not know how to reduce her alcohol consumption, as she thought that her parents did not care much about what she was doing. “I could go home drunk and they won’t do anything,” said the teen.

Aim for ‘open dialogue’

“This study goes beyond the typical approach, which features adult perspectives, and brings youth knowledge and expertise, a critical missing element in substance use programming,” said Jenkins.

She considers it important for parents to have access to reliable information to ensure they have an informed strategy for talking to their children about substance use.

“The recent legalization of cannabis [in Canada] further strengthens opportunities for parents and other caregivers to have open and honest dialogue with youth about substance use and related harms, in a way that is developmentally appropriate and positions youth to make informed – and hopefully healthier – decisions,” Jenkins concluded.