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For many young people, using alcohol, drugs, or other substances like cigarettes is just part of growing up. Many of them try these substances only a few times and stop, while others may continue to use them on a more regular basis.
Young people may try a number of substances, including alcohol, household chemicals (inhalants), prescription and over-the-counter medicines, illegal drugs, and cigarettes. They use alcohol more than any other substance. They use alcohol and cannabis (marijuana) more than any other substances.
Young people use these substances for many of the same reasons that adults do—to relax or feel good. But they may also have other reasons for using substances. For example, they may want to know what it feels like to get high. Or they may want to rebel against their parents or fit in with their friends.
Using alcohol or drugs can affect young people's general health, physical growth, and emotional and social development. It can also change how well they make decisions, how well they think, and how quickly they can react. And using alcohol or drugs can make it hard for young people to control their actions. For some young people, alcohol or drug use may turn into a substance use problem.
Parents can play a key part in teaching their children about alcohol and drug use by talking honestly and openly about the effects that alcohol and drugs can have on their children's health, schoolwork, and relationships.
Substance use still remains a leading cause of injury and death in young people. It also causes social and health problems.footnote 1
Even casual use of certain drugs can cause severe health problems, such as an overdose or brain damage. Many illegal drugs today are made in home labs, so they can vary greatly in strength. These drugs also may contain bacteria, dangerous chemicals, and other unsafe substances. There is no quality control for illegal drugs like that required for prescription drugs.
Alcohol and drugs target a part of the brain that allows people to feel pleasure. This causes the brain to release certain chemicals that make people feel good. At first, these substances may make a person feel happy, energetic, social, self-confident, and powerful. But after the "high" from the alcohol or drug wears off, he or she may feel the opposite effects. Depending on the substance used, a person may feel tired, anxious, or depressed after the substance wears off. Or he or she may be more sensitive to pain, have sleep problems, lose interest in everyday activities, or withdraw from family and friends.
Since the pleasure only lasts a short time, people crave more of the substance to get the good feeling back. Over time, the brain adjusts to the substance by making less of the "feel good" chemicals. With less of these chemicals, the brain can't function as well, and it becomes harder to feel pleasure. So people use alcohol or drugs to get the good feeling back.
Alcohol and drugs also affect the parts of the brain that deal with judgment, decision making, problem solving, emotions, learning, and memory. They change how the cells in the brain send and process information. These changes in the brain make it harder for people to think and make good choices. And they may be less able to control their actions.
Young people use alcohol and cannabis (marijuana) more than any other substances.
Below is a list of the type of substances young people may use and what problems they may cause.
The leading cause of death for young people is car crashes related to alcohol. Drinking also can lead young people to have unprotected sex. This raises the chance of pregnancy and infection with sexually transmitted infections, such as herpes, chlamydia, and HIV.
Drinking too much alcohol can harm the liver, pancreas, heart, brain, and nervous system. It can also cause some cancers. If used during pregnancy, alcohol can harm a developing baby (fetus).
Alcohol can also cause mood swings and affect young people's sleep and their ability to think, learn, reason, remember, and solve problems.
Young people should delay drinking for as long as possible. They should follow the laws for the legal drinking age where they live.
Cannabis (marijuana) can affect young people's ability to think, learn, reason, remember, and solve problems. It can also cause mood swings, anxiety, and depression.
Cocaine can cause abnormal heartbeats, which may cause a deadly heart attack, seizure, or stroke. Its use can also increase the risk of car crashes and violent behaviour. The chance of these things happening increases when cocaine is combined with alcohol.
Other substances young people use include:
Young people also use tobacco. Because the effects of cigarettes are felt right away, they may be the most habit-forming substance available. Smoking can cause cancer and heart and lung problems. Smokeless tobacco like chew or snuff can cause dental problems and cancers of the mouth.
For many young people, using alcohol or drugs is just part of growing up. They may use substances for many reasons. They may want to:
Young people tend to try new things and take risks, so they may use alcohol or drugs because it seems exciting.
It can sometimes be hard to tell if your child is using alcohol or drugs. Parents may worry that their child is involved with alcohol or drugs if he or she becomes withdrawn or negative. But these behaviours are common for young people going through challenging times.
It's important not to accuse your child unfairly. Try to find out why your child's behaviour has changed. Tell him or her that you are concerned.
Experts recommend that parents look for a pattern or a number of changes in appearance, behaviour, and attitude, not just one or two of the changes listed here.
It's important to remember that drugs can include more than illegal drugs. Young people could also have problems with medicines a doctor prescribes or medicines they can buy without a prescription.
If you think that your child is using alcohol or drugs, one of the most important things you can do is to talk honestly and openly with him or her. Urge your child to do the same. This may be a hard conversation to have. Try not to use harsh, judging words. Be as supportive as you can. Let your child know that you were his or her age once and can understand how hard it can be to say "no" when someone offers alcohol or drugs.
When talking with your child about alcohol or drug use:
If you think your child may have a substance use problem, talk with your doctor or a counsellor. Or call your local alcohol or drug helpline to find out what resources are available in your area that can help your child manage his or her alcohol or drug problem.
Keep in mind that most young people who use alcohol or drugs don't develop a substance use problem. Most who want to cut back on or stop using alcohol or drugs are able to do so on their own. But others may need help.
If your child wants to cut back on or stop using alcohol or drugs and needs some support, encourage your child to talk to someone he or she trusts. That person might be you or someone else in your family, your doctor, a school counsellor, an adult relative, a minister or clergy member, or a friend's parents. Or your child might find it helpful to call a helpline and talk to someone about his or her alcohol or drug use. Some schools have programs for students that provide support and alcohol and drug education.
If you're worried that your child is having a hard time cutting back on or stopping alcohol or drugs on his or her own, talk with your doctor. This is especially important if your child is having withdrawal symptoms when he or she tries to cut back on or stop using alcohol or drugs. Symptoms of withdrawal may include sweating and feeling sick to the stomach, feeling shaky, and feeling anxious.
Talk to your doctor about whether your child may need treatment. You and your doctor can decide what treatment approach is best for your child.
Some treatment approaches may involve:
If your child needs help, look for a program with the components he or she needs. These may include a school program or opportunities for parents to get involved in their child's care.
If you feel that your child has an alcohol or drug use problem, get help. The earlier your child gets help, the easier it will be for him or her to cut back on or stop using alcohol or drugs.
Young people who don't use alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes are less likely to have problems with them as adults. Efforts to prevent substance use should begin early in life with education, encouragement of healthy behaviours, and good family bonds.
Positive self-esteem, a supportive family, and positive role models help children gain confidence to make good choices.
If you live in a high-risk neighbourhood or your child is at high risk for having a substance use problem, a community program can help your child learn skills to avoid substance use.
By age 9, your child will have opinions about substance use. So start early to help your child learn the skills needed to avoid substance use.
CitationsJohnston LD, et al. (2012). Monitoring the Future national results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2011. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan. Available online: http://monitoringthefuture.org/pubs/monographs/mtf-overview2011.pdf.
Adaptation Date: 6/13/2023
Adapted By: Alberta Health Services
Adaptation Reviewed By: Alberta Health Services
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