Teenagers are more receptive to harm reduction messaging on substance use than “say no to drugs”

An image of a parent and daughter to illustrate harm reduction rather than zero tolerance approach to substance use
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Research from the University of British Columbia shows that teenagers prefer harm reduction messaging to a zero tolerance on substance use.

A zero tolerance approach to drugs, cigarettes or alcohol from parents does not resonate with teenagers, with participants of the study telling researchers that they generally tuned out. The study found that harm reduction philosophy which acknowledges substance use and establishes limits, rather than ignoring or condemning it, is preferential.

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

One participant whose family took a zero tolerance position was unable to help a friend struggling with cannabis use, whose family also had an abstinence-only approach. He said: “An overly lenient approach to substance use did not work either. One participant who drank alcohol frequently said she was ‘sick of it’ but did not know how to scale back her drinking as her parents ‘don’t really care about what I do. I could go home drunk and they won’t do anything.'”

She added: “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 minimise the harms of use. This approach seemed to work better in preserving family relationships and youth health.”

Setting the limits of substance use

However, the teenagers studied still valued the setting of limits rather than complete lenience. Jenkins commented:”An overly lenient approach to substance use did not work either. One participant who drank alcohol frequently said she was ‘sick of it’ but did not know how to scale back her drinking as her parents ‘don’t really care about what I do. I could go home drunk and they won’t do anything.'”

The importance of asking young people

Jenkins explains: “The numbers show that the greatest levels of substance use and related harms occur amongst young people, yet youth perspectives are often missing when we formulate parental approaches to substance use. This study goes beyond the typical approach, which features adult perspectives, and brings youth knowledge and expertise, a critical missing element in substance use programming.”

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