Addiction & Substance Use

What is youth and teen substance use?

People use a wide range of substances without problems, from coffee in the morning to a glass of wine with dinner. Just because a youth is using substances doesn't mean they have a substance use problem, but it is important to talk to them if you are concerned they may have a problem.

Types of substances:

  • stimulants - also called “uppers” (cocaine, speed)
  • depressants - also called "downers"(alcohol, valium)
  • opiates - (heroin, morphine, prescription drugs such as oxycodone)
  • hallucinogens - also called "psychedelics" (LSD (acid) and magic mushrooms)
  • cannabis - also called "marijuana" or "pot"

The way a substance affects you depends on:

  • the type of substance (tobacco, alcohol, etc.)
  • your nature (age, gender, drug use history, mental health, etc.)
  • the context (how much, how often, method of use, atmosphere, other drugs)

For more information on specific substances and their effects, see the "Substances" section on the left of your screen.

Some important words and their meanings:


If you use a substance often, you may develop a tolerance and need to use more and or to feel the same effect.


  • physical dependence - your body has become tolerant to a substance and you have negative physical symptoms (withdrawal) when you stop taking it suddenly
  • psychological dependence - you believe you need the substance in order to function properly, but you are not physically dependent


If you are physically dependent on a drug and stop taking it suddenly, you may have physical symptoms.

Heavy Use:

This means using large amounts of a substance in a short time. It often results in falls, accidents, violence and unwanted sexual activity. An example of heavy use is binge drinking.


To some people "addiction" means that a person has developed tolerance and dependence to a substance and has withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it. But not all substances cause tolerance and dependence. People can also become psychologically dependent on a substance but they do not experience physical withdrawal symptoms if they stop using it. There are many other issues related to the use of the term "addiction" we prefer to use the phrase "substance use problem" or "problematic use" for when a person is experiencing negative consequences as a result of their substance use.

How substance use can become a problem

Some youth start to use substances to help them cope with stress, anxiety or depression. There may be conflict at home, school or among their peers. They may be questioning their sexuality. Some youth are also more likely to take risks than others. And, sometimes they begin using substances such as nicotine because they think it will lower their appetite.

When youth use substances, they usually don't understancd that it can lead to emotional problems or make problems worse. This is especially true if they are at risk for developing a mental health disorder. When you have a substance use problem along with a mental illness it is called a concurrent disorder. For more information on concurrent disorders see the "Concurrent Disorders" tab on the left of your screen.

Stages of substance use:

  • Non-use
  • Experimental Use: when youth try substances for the first time. They may be curious, want to fit in, or believe that nothing bad will happen.
  • Regular or Recreational Use: means substance use has become part of the youth's life. They may not give it much thought before they use and they may find it difficult or not want to engage in certain activities without using substances. The user may begin to develop tolerance or dependence on the substance during this stage. Regular use as a youth person could lead to substance use problems later in life. It is important to point out that a sip of wine with a parent or caregiver on New Year's Eve or some other special occasion is not considered "regular use".
  • Problematic Use: means the use of substances is having negative consequences on the youth's daily life and may begin to affect their health. The user may think about getting or using drugs a lot of the time and using as much as possible. They may develop tolerance and dependence on the substances and experience withdrawal if they stop using (this depends on the substance(s) being used).

How do I know if it's substance use?

Recent studies in BC show that:

  • 45% of male and female youth have tried alcohol
  • 65% of youth have tried alcohol before age 15
  • 26% percent of youth have tried marijuana
  • 59% of youth tried marijuana before age 15

A youth may try alcohol or other substances to see how it feels or as a way of pushing boundaries. It doesn’t mean they are bad or have a substance use problem. But, it is still important to talk with them about their substance use as it always carries some risk.

Here are some of the warning signs that a youth may be using substances. It’s important to remember that these could also be signs of something completely different. And, a youth may not have any of these changes but could still be using substances. 

Behavioural Signs

  • change in overall attitude or personality for no other reason
  • changes in friends, new hang-outs, avoids old crowd, doesn't want to talk about new friends, friends are drug users
  • change in activities or hobbies
  • drop in grades at school or performance at work, skips school or is late for school
  • change in personal grooming, habits at home, not interested in family and family activities
  • difficulty paying attention, forgetfulness
  • loss of motivation, energy, self-esteem, "I don't care" attitude
  • temper tantrums, sudden oversensitivity, or resentful behaviour
  • moody, irritable, paranoid, silly or giddy.
  • extreme need for privacy, hard to reach, secretive or suspicious behaviour
  • car accidents
  • unexplained need for money, stealing money or items
  • drug equipment

Physical Signs

  • changes in appetite or eating habits, unexplained weight loss or gain
  • slow or staggering walk, poor coordination
  • problems sleeping, awake at unusual times, unusually lazy
  • red, watery eyes, pupils larger or smaller than usual, blank stare
  • cold, sweaty palms; shaking hands
  • puffy face, blushing or paleness
  • smell of substance on breath, body or clothes
  • hyperactive, extremely talkative
  • runny nose, hacking cough
  • needle marks on lower arm, leg or bottom of feet
  • nausea, vomiting or excessive sweating
  • tremors or shakes of hands, feet or head
  • irregular heartbeat

For more information about specific types of substances and their effects see the "Substances" tab on the left of your screen.

Here are some signs that a youth is using drugs in a risky or harmful way:

  • using to deal with negative moods
  • using daily
  • using before or during school or work
  • using while driving or during physical activities
  • using more than one drug at one time (called "polydrug use")
  • using as their main way to have fun and relax
  • using while aware of the harm it is causing

If you know your child is heavily or regularly using a substance, it could be a sign of trouble. They may be struggling with their relationships, school work, their sexuality or something else. It could also mean that they have been using a drug for so long that it has become a habit.


What can be done?

Model healthy behaviour. Youth are most likely to use substances in the same way as adults in their lives.

Model healthy communication skills. Be a good listener and respect the youth's right to have an opinion. Don't "lecture" or exaggerate the harm from substances. Allow them to talk openly about their experiences.

Encourage healthier choices:

  • encourage activities that make it harder to use drugs such as a sport or hobby that requires clear thinking and a healthy body
  • explain the dangers of driving after drinking or using substances
  • show how to turn down offers to use substances without feeling embarrassed. See: The Road Ahead: A Guidebook for Parents of Young Teens for information on communicating and engaging with your child
  • teach what to do if something goes wrong. Suggest alternatives like a ride home from a party or a taxi from the concert

Be open, loving and involved. A youth who feels loved will have more confidence. They will handle pressure better and be more able to overcome problems at home and school.

Handle  problems responsibly. If your youth comes home drunk or high:

  • Stay calm. Let everyone get some sleep before you have a big discussion.
  • Notice their condition. Try to find out what they have been using and how much. That way you can judge if they are in trouble or just need time to sober up.
  • Find out how they feel about the substance(s) they are using or have tried. Ask when, how often, and with whom they have used substances. Get them to explain why they use substances, or what benefits they are getting out of it. This will help you create a new bond and keep the lines of communication open.
  • Talk about your concerns. Explain how you feel and why you are worried about their substance use.
  • Discuss healthier choices. Offer some ideas that have a different kind of rush or excitement like rock-climbing and mountain-biking. A fun goal to work toward may distract their attention away from substances. 

Where to from here?

Sometimes love and attention aren't enough to prevent a substance use problem. If your child is struggling, you can get information about treatment and resources in BC by calling:

  • The Alcohol and Drug Information Referral Service at 1-800-663-1441 (toll free in BC) or 604-660-9382 (in Greater Vancouver)

There are different types of treatment available including:

  • Individual and family counselling with a psychologist or counsellor
  • Day treatment programs - your child is there during the day but comes home at night
  • Residential programs - your child stays at the treatment program site

Young people usually don't need medical supervision while they go through withdrawal. If they do, they may have to attend a detox program before they enter a treatment program.

Most treatment programs want a child to be referred for treatment by an alcohol and drug counsellor. The most important first step in getting a referral is to call the phone numbers above.  

Below you will find some key resources. A full list of resources are on the right hand side bar. Facts for Youth About Mixing Medication with Common Substances was created for youth to help them “get the facts” about the effects and risks of mixing medications they take with substances like cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and other street drugs.

From Grief To Action - When Addiction Hits Home
A website provides information & coping toolkits on drug use problems, and offers support groups for parents in BC.

Recognizing Resilience: A Workbook for Parents and Caregivers of Teens Involved with Substances
This is a workbook for parents and caregivers who love and worry about a teenager who may be experimenting with or regularly engaged in relationship with alcohol or other drugs.

BC Children's Hospital

This is an agency of Provincial Health Services Authority, providing provincial tertiary mental health services to the citizens of British Columbia. Programs include: Adult Tertiary Psychiatry, Geriatric Psychiatry, Forensic Psychiatric Services, Child & Adolescent Mental Health, Women’s Reproductive Mental Health, as well as the Provincial Specialized Eating Disorders Program for children and youth located at the BC Children’s Hospital.

Provincial Health Services Authority

Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) is one of six health authorities – the other five health authorities serve geographic regions of BC.

Ministry of Health

British Columbia Ministry of Health

RBC Children's Mental Health Project

RBC Children’s Mental Health Project is RBC's cornerstone “health and wellness” pillar; RBC Children’s Mental Heath Project is a multi-year philanthropic commitment to support community-based and hospital programs that reduce stigma, provide early intervention and increase public awareness about children’s mental health issues.

BC Children's Hospital Foundation

Through a wide range of fundraising events and opportunities, The BC Children's Hospital Foundation is united with its donors by a single, simple passion - to improve the health and the lives of the young people who enter BC Children's Hospital every day.