A new UBC study is challenging the ‘just say no’ messaging some parents use to talk with their teenagers about drugs and alcohol.Researchers led by Emily Jenkins, a UBC professor of nursing, interviewed 83 teenagers in B.C., and what they found was that teens are more receptive to harm reduction education than being told to abstain.Researchers spoke to teens, aged 13 to 18, about substances that are mainly used in their social circles, like alcohol and cannabis, rather than harder drugs like heroin or crystal meth, Jenkins said Friday.However, Jenkins noted it is still important to open up a dialogue with young people about all substances, whether they are used for medicinal, ceremonial or recreational purposes.“What we found from our participants is that when there is zero-tolerance abstinence or the ‘just say no’ messaging, it created a space where there were no trusted adults to go to when things become a problem,” said Jenkins.“It’s really helpful to have early discussions around the spectrum of substance use. It occurs in all societies and has since the beginning of time, and the spectrum runs from beneficial use to more problematic use and substance abuse disorders, and everything in between, like social use in moderation.”The report, published in Harm Reduction, says zero-tolerance continues to be promoted as the most socially acceptable strategy for parents in talking to their children about substance use. But the researchers found that these messages do not resonate with the realities of youth life or perspectives on using substances.For example, those with parents who promoted using substances in moderation, for example, drinking only one glass of wine with dinner (at the legal age of 19) learned to establish healthy limits, and were discouraged from binge-drinking.
Emily Jenkins is a UBC professor of nursing and lead author of a study on how teenagers perceive the ‘just say no’ drug and alcohol talk. The study finds teens are more open to harm reduction education than zero-tolerance abstinence.
UBC handout /
How do you approach the subject of harder drugs with teens like heroin without a zero-tolerance approach?“It’s being educated about the impacts of different drugs and the way they cause harm. So a harm reduction approach might be that alcohol and cannabis are less harmful than some of those other drugs, and then you have conservation about how you might use those and not the other things,” said Jenkins.She notes that many parents have a fear that talking about moderation will somehow encourage substance use.“This study helps to address this concern as it provides, for one of the first times, a youth perspective to harm reduction. Instead of feeling like use was permitted or encouraged by harm reduction, it resonated with youths’ everyday experiences.” said Jenkins.In this way, she said, it honours their experiences and ability to make informed decisions.For parents, Jenkins recommends helping their kids understand that there is a spectrum of drugs and drug use, and how to make healthier decisions if they are going to choose to use substances.The researchers found that youth described the approach of permitting use while encouraging moderation as “relaxed.” The teens felt that parents who acknowledged that some substance use would occur had more realistic and reasonable expectations of young people.Some of those who used substances despite their families’ zero-tolerance approach reported feeling disconnected from their families.One participant, for example, who consumed alcohol occasionally, experienced difficulties speaking with her mother, who never drank.The report concludes that while harm reduction messaging may be more beneficial to teens, parents need more resources for guidance or support in communicating with their children.However, Jenkins said there are some resources to get started. She recommends the Sensible Cannabis Toolkit developed by the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Jenkins said while the focus is on cannabis it does apply to other drugs in terms of the approach.Another resource for parents seeking guidance for the harm reduction talk is Cycles, created by researchers at the UBC school of firstname.lastname@example.org