The stats on drug use can give a parent chills: One in 10 Canadians aged 15 and over responding to Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey: Mental health and well-being report physical symptoms suggesting drug or alcohol dependence. And one in five Ontario teens say they have abused prescription drugs, with three-quarters of those admitting to stealing them from the family medicine cabinet, says a survey of student drug use and health by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

“Most parents aren’t even aware this is happening,” says Marc Paris, executive director, Partnership for a Drug-free Canada. “Parents have to educate themselves about what’s going on in their kids’ lives.”

The teen years can be a challenging period of self-doubt, experimentation and boundary-pushing. It’s often during this time that many are introduced to recreational and prescription drugs, and to alcohol.

Some teenagers may dabble in drugs a handful of times and decide to move on with their lives, making the right choices. Others may develop addictions, becoming physically or psychologically dependent on drugs.

The important thing is to prevent a problem before it starts — and to know how to distinguish between youthful experimentation and more serious drug abuse or addiction.

Start drug education early

Preventing a substance abuse problem is often easier than treating addiction, says Dr. David Wolfe, RBC Chair in Children’s Mental Health at CAMH in Toronto. “We have to teach kids the values of personal safety — but not scare them to death,” he says.

This includes teaching kids from the time they are nine or 10 about what to expect from their peers and how to say no to drugs without feeling pressured or ostracized, and ensuring there are consequences if the rules around drugs are broken. “Partner with your kids and develop strategies on how to confront drugs,” says Paris.

Wolfe recommends parents not adopt zero-tolerance policies, in which breaking the rules once results in serious punishment. “It’s a simplistic way of seeing things,” he says, “when this is not a cut-and-dried issue.” He believes the practice can alienate a vulnerable teen and cause further isolation from parents.

CAMH has a list of 10 tips for talking to your kids about substance abuse.

Drug addiction warning signs

Despite best efforts, sometimes preventive measures fail. If that happens, keen observation skills come into play. Teens hooked on drugs usually leave unintended clues for parents and friends who are watching and communicating with them regularly. While these can overlap with normal teen phases, KidsHealth lists these warning signs:

  • Changes in personality. Some adolescents become moody, irritable, angry, withdrawn or unnaturally passive. While some of these changes are perfectly normal, drug-addicted teens may have more extreme displays of emotion or wilder mood swings.
  • Loss of interest in favourite activities. Perhaps your teen no longer wants to skateboard or jam with friends – activities he used to love. Or she wants to stay home instead of going on a family vacation.
  • Switching friends. Teens who do drugs usually seek out other teens who are substance abusers. If your teen is suddenly hanging with a new crowd and avoiding long-time friends, that may be a sign of drug use.
  • Stealing. If your teen is caught shoplifting or stealing your money or possessions, he may be trying to fund his habit. Or you may notice your prescription drugs are missing.
  • Physical changes. Drugs can cause shakiness, hallucinations, disturbed sleep, anxiety, sudden weight gain or loss or a neglect of personal hygiene.

Addressing a drug problem

Identifying a drug abuse issue is hard enough. Taking action is even more difficult. Many adolescents may feel that they’re just having fun with their friends and can stop at any time. Others feel that parents and concerned friends shouldn’t meddle in their lives.

If you believe your teen’s drug use is spiralling out of control:

  • Talk to a substance abuse professional. And try to get your teen immediate medical help to begin the process of weaning off drugs and addressing underlying issues that may be feeding the habit.
  • Don’t demonize your son or daughter. Making him or her feel bad can backfire and encourage sticking with the addiction. Instead, focus on what positive things she is doing to kick her habit, such as avoiding events where drugs are being abused or making friendships with sober teens.
  • Ensure you keep communication lines open. Being honest and non-accusatory can go a long way in ensuring your teen trusts you enough to let you help, says Wolfe. Meaningful chats about the dangers of drugs can cut the chance teens will try them by as much as 50%, says Paris.

Three ways to help your teens avoid drug abuse:

  1. Maintain an open dialogue about the drug use they see around them.
  2. Lead by example. Commit to ending your own addictions to smoking, alcohol or drugs.
  3. Keep your medicine cabinet up to date and hide any strong pain medications.