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How Can We Prevent Drug Use in Children

Drug Use Prevention
Image Source: Pinterest

Recently, we had an excellent parent workshop at school on the prevention of drug use in children from Kari Yuen, FCD Prevention Specialist. Substance abuse is one of those topics that is always worrying for a parent. Whether we are reformed abusers from our youth or if we managed to navigate the challenging years unscathed, most of us are probably wondering what we can do to make sure our children don’t end up on the wrong train. Having Kari talk to us about her experiences and sharing her knowledge on the subject was extremely insightful and informative. It was reassuring to know that our school is working with her to help us reach our kids.

Inside the Teenage Brain

Before we can talk about prevention of drug use in children and the nature of addiction, we need to understand a little about what’s going on inside the teenage brain. It used to be thought that the brain was pretty much set by the time a child is 5 or 6 years old. Scientists have since discovered that there is a second period of massive change in the brain just before puberty. This second stage of development is like the first – the brain over-produces connections between brain cells which are later pruned back following a “use it or lose it” principle. The connections that are frequently used are strengthened and those that are not are pruned away. The pruning process allows the brain to consolidate learning.

This makes the period of adolescence even more critical because what our teenagers do or do not do during this period can affect them for the rest of their lives. If they are engaging in music and participating in sports, these are the connections that will be reinforced. If they are actively consuming alcohol and drugs, then these will be the connections that are reinforced.

Another factor that is important to be aware of is that the brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s. The part of the brain that is still developing is the prefrontal cortex – the CEO of the brain – which is required for reasoning, regulating behaviour, and making good decisions. Having an immature prefrontal cortex means that teenagers are prone to taking more risks and making bad decisions because they cannot weigh out the consequences. To add fuel to the fire, the nucleus accumbens (the part of the brain that seeks pleasure and reward) is already very well developed in the teenage brain. This only serves to increase their likelihood of engaging in rebellious and risky behaviours.

For most adults, climbing hotel balconies or skateboarding off roofs of houses sound like awful ideas. Their prefrontal cortex curbs any impulse to do so, because the possible negative outcomes outweigh any potential thrill. But teenagers may try these things because they’re seeking a buzz to satisfy the reward center, while their prefrontal cortex can’t register all the risks these actions entail.

This behavior is evident on a much smaller scale as well; when a teenager goes to the mall to watch a movie but comes back with an iPod – the prefrontal cortex did not curb the impulse buy. If a teenager spends an hour on the Internet instead of focusing on homework, it’s because the teenage brain doesn’t register delayed gratification. Even though the teenager can vaguely register that there will be parental punishment later on, the appeal of fun now is too strong.

– How Stuff Works: Science

The teenage brain, therefore, is extremely vulnerable to alcohol and drugs because:

  • As it is, the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, making them prone to poorer decisions. When plied with alcohol and drugs, which confuses their brains even more, we can hardly expect them to self-regulate and say when enough is enough.
  • The fully functional nucleus accumbens drives their thrill-seeking needs.
  • The massive period of brain development will reinforce whatever behaviours they are engaging in.

How Addiction Occurs

According to the NCADD, “if a person repeatedly abuses drugs or alcohol as the result of environmental or other social factors, it can permanently rewire the brain. Every time a person abuses alcohol or drugs, it strengthens the wiring associated with these substances, and the more one chases the effect of alcohol and drugs, the greater the chance of developing an addiction”. If this is the normal progression of addiction in a regular individual, imagine what it must be like in a teenager whose brain is primed for reinforcing repeated behaviours.

Studies have shown that teenagers are more likely to become addicted to alcohol and drugs. In that developing prefrontal cortex, synapses are selected based on whether they’re used or not, so behaviors that shape the brain are more likely to be maintained if started at this age. – How Stuff Works: Science

Risk Factors for Addiction

  • Family history
  • Age of first use
  • Cravings
  • Tolerance
  • Surroundings

Family History

If there is someone in the family who suffers from some kind of addiction, it will increase the risk of addiction for your child.

Numerous scientific studies reveal that alcohol and drug dependence runs in families. Genes are responsible for about half the risk for alcoholism and addiction, and while genetics are not the sole determinant, their presence or absence may increase the likelihood that a person will become alcohol or drug dependent. NCADD

Studies of twins found a 60% rate of similarity regarding addiction in identical twins vs. a 39% rate of similarity in fraternal twins. Children adopted in infancy who were studied for addiction risk in adulthood found that biological sons of alcoholics were four times more likely to become alcoholics, even when the adoptive parent had no issues with addiction, so the l factor of family environment was minimal. –

While we need to be aware of the added risk of family history, we also need to be conscious not to turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Age of First Use

Exposing a child to alcohol and drugs early increases their risk for addiction.

The results of the current study, published in the October issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that adolescents who were exposed to drugs and alcohol before the age of 15 were 2 to 3 times more likely to become dependent on substances, contract STDs, drop out of school and have criminal records. In addition, teen pregnancy rates were higher among females who used drugs and alcohol before the age of 15 compared to those who did not use illicit substances at a young age. – Association for Psychological Science

According to Kari, the statistics show that every year we delay our children’s experience of drugs and alcohol, the better their chances of NOT developing serious problems (See also: NIH – Drug Abuse and Addiction). This runs contrary to the thinking that if we expose our children to alcohol in the controlled home environment, we can teach them to better manage their alcohol consumption when they start drinking outside with friends.

A preadolescent or adolescent who smokes tobacco or drinks alcohol is 65 times more likely to use marijuana, for example, than someone who abstains. – Pediatrics

The fundamental message is this: DO NOT start them young.

Prevent Drug Use in Children
Source: NIH


There is another thought that if we allow our children to have a taste of cigarette smoke, perhaps we can show them how awful it is and prevent them from ever smoking later on. In theory, this works out quite well. But, as Kari pointed out, what if they like it? If they like it, they’re going to want to do it again and you’ve just opened a can of worms.


Another misconception that we have is that tolerance is good – the ability of an individual to drink alcohol and not get drunk means they can handle it and are less at risk. This misconception also gives our children a false sense of control of their alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, tolerance also means that the individual is more likely to consume larger and larger amounts of the drug in order to achieve the “high”. This may also lead to the consumption of harder drugs.

When a substance user begins to use a particular substance, such as heroin, they often take relatively small amounts of the drug in comparison with what a more seasoned user would need. Many heroin users describe the first time using the drug as the best with each subsequent use showing a gradual incline in the drugs perceived effects. This leads to users switching deliver methods (from snorting to smoking, or smoking to shooting), or increasing the quantity of each dose in order to replicate the feeling they had on their first use. – Prescott House

Tolerance is often misunderstood. It is assumed that if we no longer get the “high” from a drug, we are also unaffected by the other negatives associated with the drug. This is simply not so. Increasing the quantity of the drug to establish the “high” increases the dangers associated with using the drug because of the potential for overdose. It also increases the likelihood of using the drug again.

Tolerance is a problem in that it minimizes the “high” from a substance, while still delivering the same chemicals that put your body in duress from using. In addition to overdose, having a high tolerance to a particular substance also generally points to consistent and continued use. This alone could lead to numerous health or interpersonal problems. – Prescott House


There are a number of environmental factors that can increase the risk of drug addiction:

  • Peer pressure – which I think we are all aware of.
  • Lack of parental involvement – during the teenage years is when parents and children start to separate. It is important for parents not to allow this to happen. Even as our children grow up, it is vital that we continue to develop our relationships with them.
  • Stress and difficult emotions – challenging times in their lives can increase a child’s likelihood to turn to drugs or alcohol to help them cope.
  • Availability of drugs and alcohol – ease of access will also increase the likelihood of trying and using.

For those of us ignorant parents, it was surprising to discover how easy it is to get hold of drugs and to hide it in plain sight.

What are Your Kids Watching and Listening to?

TV and music are probably our children’s first exposure to drugs and alcohol. Overt advertising on cigarettes and alcohol may have been banned, but the real danger now lies in programs and music that depict the use of drugs and alcohol. Many of us are missing how significant this exposure can be on influencing our children’s perceptions of drugs and alcohol. Unlike cigarette and alcohol advertisements that we have complained so vehemently about, we allow our children to be exposed to these subtle forms of advertising!

Although parents, schools, and the federal government are trying to get children and teenagers to “just say no” to drugs, more than $25 billion worth of cigarette, alcohol, and prescription drug advertising is effectively working to get them to “just say yes” to smoking, drinking, and other drugs. In addition, television programs and movies contain appreciable amounts of substance use. Unlike traditional advertising, media depictions of legal drugs are generally positive and invite no criticism, because they are not viewed as advertising. The result is that young people receive mixed messages about substance use, and the media contribute significantly to the risk that young people will engage in substance use. – Pediatrics

Cause and Effect

Children using one type of drug are usually more likely to use another type of drug. In other words, exposure to one has a snowball effect – leading to stronger drugs and alcohol. Compared to non-using students, students who use marijuana were:

  • 3 times more likely to use over-the-counter drugs
  • 4 times more likely to use heroin
  • 14 times more likely to use prescription stimulant drugs
  • 23 times more likely to use amphetamines
  • 11 times more likely to use cigarettes
  • 21 times more likely to use LSD
  • 30 times more likely to use cocaine
  • 19 times more likely to use ecstasy
  • 102 timesm ore likely to use hallucinogens

The Power of Social Norms

One way to help promote a preventive culture is to use social norms because we have a strong drive to do what we perceive everyone else to be doing because it is perceived to be the “norm”. Unfortunately, our perceptions are not always accurate and future behaviours can be driven by false norms.

For instance:

  • Only 4% of all students in a survey think “it is cool to get drunk”, yet 23% of these students assume their schoolmates think “it is cool to get drunk”.
  • 76% of 9th Grade students typically never drink alcohol, yet only 21% believe their peers do not drink.

The good news for parents is that most kids don’t drink or do drugs and most of them don’t think it’s cool either. The problem is that they think their friends are doing it and that their friends think it’s cool. We need to correct this misperception so that our children are aware that not using drugs and alcohol IS the norm – that when they are not using drugs or alcohol, they are part of the majority.

What Parents Can Do

  • Eat together
  • Talk to children about alcohol and other drugs. Revisit this topic because once is not enough. It is better to have 60 one-minute discussions about it than 1 sixty-minute discussion.
  • Listen to your children’s thoughts about alcohol and other drugs
  • Make it ongoing – continue to share thoughts and concerns
  • Spend time together
  • Model healthy and appropriate attitudes and behaviours
  • Set clear limits, expectations, and consequences
  • Know what’s going on: after school, on weekends, during breaks/vacations, during times of high stress
  • Get to know your child’s friends

More Resources

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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