By Lou Corpuz-Bosshart

Zero-tolerance messaging tuned out by most teenagers

For many parents, talking to their children about substance use is like navigating a field of landmines. It’s difficult to know exactly what to say and how to say it.

But a new study from researchers at the University of British Columbia and University of Calgary is showing the way forward. Emily Jenkins, a UBC professor of nursing who studies youth substance use, and her colleagues interviewed 83 teenagers across B.C. Interestingly, they found that a harm reduction message resonated the most with teens, instead of the typical “don’t do drugs” talk.

“Teens told us that they generally tuned out abstinence-only or zero-tolerance messaging because it did not reflect the realities of their life,” said Jenkins. “Either they or their peers were already using substances, or substance use was happening in their own family circles.”

Harm reduction is a philosophy and set of practices that acknowledge that substance use – be it drugs, cigarettes or alcohol – is a part of life. It aims to reduce the harmful effects of substance use, rather than simply ignoring or condemning it.

“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 minimize the harms of use. This approach seemed to work better in preserving family relationships and youth health,” said Jenkins.