Juhl: How to talk to your children about drug use

While drug use might appear to be in decline, there’s another, vital factor. Street drugs are getting uglier.

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It’s about fear. Not theirs — ours.

The fear starts the moment our children first go to school and begin to truly have a life outside ours. We can’t and shouldn’t monitor their every thought and move, but it’s hard to lose control. The best we can do is set our kids up to succeed and make good choices. That includes talking to them about drug use.

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Let’s get the statistics out of the way: The Institut de la statistique du Québec surveyed more than 5,000 high-school students in 2019, discovering that 18 per cent of them had used drugs in the preceding 12 months. That’s down from 2013’s 24 per cent, but not a small proportion.

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“As with alcohol and cannabis, the use of other drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamine or heroin, is in perpetual evolution,” the institute said in its report, calling drug use among children a public health issue.

Tobacco use is declining, with nine per cent of students in 2019 reporting they’d smoked, compared with 12 per cent in 2013. Vaping, however: that jumped to 21 per cent from four per cent in 2013. Once students reach Secondary 5, that proportion leaps to 35 per cent.

The appeal of cannabis is waning, with 17 per cent of students saying they’d used it vs. 23 per cent in 2013. Fewer than five per cent reported using another drug or non-prescribed medication to get high.

While drug use might appear to be in decline, there’s another, vital factor. Street drugs are getting uglier.

Mathis Boivin, a 15-year-old Montreal boy, died in December after taking one dose of the drug isotonitazene, a street drug that is reported to be more potent than fentanyl.

Christian Boivin told media his son Mathis had been open with him about drug experimentation and that he had vaped and smoked cannabis. When Boivin learned Mathis was interested in trying oxycodone, he told his son: “Don’t take the blue pills, please.”

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“He thought he was taking OxyContin,” Boivin said on Facebook. “He was poisoned. Please share with all the young people you know so that it doesn’t happen to others.”

If you don’t talk to your kids about drugs, someone else will. Like all uncomfortable talks that are shadowed by fear, it will work best if the conversation begins early, in small bites, and continues throughout childhood in an age-appropriate manner. Younger children can be taught about medicine — why and when they take it, and how you as a caregiver are a partner with the child’s doctor. You can introduce the idea that not all drugs are appropriate for all people and can be dangerous.

Always stick to the facts. Don’t exaggerate to try to scare them, because you are building trust here. Find out what they know or think they know about drugs. Your responses should not be in the form of a lecture. Listen to your child and pay attention to their body language. If they don’t seem ready to talk about it, let them know you’re around to answer questions and bring it up another time.

Listening, educating, gauging their reactions and learning how they feel about drug use is the first step. The Quebec Health Ministry has further guidelines to helping your teenager navigate peer pressure and their own innate curiosity.

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The backbone of those guidelines is teaching children how to say “no,” building their self-esteem and modelling the behaviour you want to see. More tips from the ministry include:

  • Put them in a decision-making position: Allow them to buy their own clothes, manage their pocket money, etc.
  • Teach them how to manage difficult situations, set goals and wait to get what they want.
  • Encourage them to ask for help if they need it, for themselves or for someone else, and praise them if they do.
  • Support them in their efforts and highlight their successes.
  • Help them adopt healthy lifestyle habits regarding diet, physical activity, sleep, relaxation, etc.
  • Encourage them to take part in leisure activities that make them feel good.
  • Educate them objectively. This way, they will be more likely to believe you and continue to trust you.

There are signs that could indicate your child is using drugs, according to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. They might have new friends, their relationships with family and friends might be falling apart, their behaviour and grades might be sinking.

If you discover your child has been using drugs, stay calm, try to control your fear, and take a hard line. If the drug use doesn’t stop, it’s time to get professional counselling, the Children’s advises. Help is available 24/7 via Info-Social, 811, Option 2.

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