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Why do parents matter?

Parents and carers remain the most important influence in their children’s lives, right through their teens and beyond, whatever messages society, the media and possibly even your own children can send about teenagers not listening to a word their parents say! Most recently published Public Health England data showed that the first place 11-15 year-olds turn for useful information about drugs and alcohol is their parents (NHS Digital: Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People England 2016)


‘Don’t make any assumptions that it's something that's for other kids’

These words are a part of Fiona’s message to parents on a recent interview on ITV’s This Morning.  The same PHE data referred to above showed that 55% of 15-year olds had been offered illegal drugs in the previous year and 37% had tried them. This compares to 16% of 11-year olds who’d been offered, and 6% who had tried something. And a recent NUS/Release survey of university students revealed that 56% had used drugs at some point, with 39% currently using them.


A different social environment

Young people now inhabit a world where their exposure to drugs and alcohol is widespread, the accessibility of substance of all sorts is much easier than ever before through the internet and social media, and messages about drug and alcohol misuse to young people through the media are not what parents might choose for them. Young people are unlikely now to get through to the end of formal education without being offered illegal drugs on at least one occasion (and they will certainly come across them at university), and in many social environments drug taking has become normalised and has lost the stigma it once may have had. This is a very different world to that in which their parents grew up.


So, what can parents do? 

This doesn’t of course mean that your child will try something, or get more seriously involved in substance misuse - the majority of young people still don’t misuse drugs or drink to excess - but it does mean that they need to have all the information and understanding they can get about the risks and effects, and the life skills they need to make confident, independent and informed choices, so that they can keep themselves safe from harm when they do get offered something. And their parents need that information and understanding too, they need have some practical strategies to put in place, and most importantly, they need to have conversations that are ongoing and open. 

 We’ve done our best on our website to help parents and carers arm themselves as well as they can in five key areas:  

  1. Get informed  

  1. Understand the teenage brain 

  1. Talk to your children 

  1. Practical things to do 

  1. What to do if you have concerns 



Useful information for parents, carers and their children


What are the risks?

There are many risks specific to individual substances, which you can find out about on Frank (link), but it’s important as a parent or carer to have a general understanding of the careless, random and unknowable nature of drugs that are manufactured and supplied through a criminal process. Each pair of hands illegal drugs pass through will tamper with them in some way or other in order to maximise their profit, and minimal care or responsibility is taken for the effect on the user at the end of the process, other than for repeat business. By the time illegal drugs reach the average teenager, it’s impossible to know their exact contents – whether their strength or purity - without professional drug testing. This VICE video, High Society: the truth about ecstasy, is a good demonstration of the carelessness of this process


Risk factors and variables

There are lots of variable factors that can affect the risk of any substance to an individual. It’s important for you and your child to be aware of these.

The drug

  • What substance has been taken?
  • Has the user mixed with other drugs, including alcohol or medication?
  • How pure or strong is the drug? Are other substances mixed with it?
  • How has the drug been taken? - swallowed, smoked, injected?

The person

  • How are they physically?
  • Any ill health or allergic reactions?
  • Any medical conditions?
  • How are they feeling at the time (excited, anxious, angry)?
  • What are their expectations of the drug?

The place

  • Who are they with?
  • What is the place they are in like? Hot, cold, crowded, lonely?
  • What are the people around them like? What are they doing?
  • Are they at risk of having an accident, or of putting themselves at risk of other potential harms?


Drugs, alcohol and the law

Not all substances young people misuse are of course illegal, including the most common which is alcohol, but also caffeine, tobacco, volatile substances, and medical drugs such as Xanax or diazepam. With illegal drugs, however, many young people – and parents - are unclear about what the consequences can be for them if caught breaking the law.

Not a lot of young people know that…

  • Supply: simply giving an illegal drug to another person is classed as supply, whether money passes hands or not. Have a look at this BBC3 documentary mini series, One Night of Ecstasy,  which tells the story of teenager Christian Pay. Chris died from ecstasy at Kendall Calling festival in summer 2015, and his friend Simon, the one in the group who just collected everyone’s money in and went off and bought the drugs, ended up serving six months of a custodial sentence for supply.
  • Possession: looking after or ‘holding’ drugs for someone else is classed as possession, even if they don’t belong to you, as does having them in your bedroom at home, not necessarily on your person. It’s also worth knowing that 75% of all recorded drug offences in England and Wales 2016-17 were for cannabis possession, the illegal drug most commonly misused by young people, and generally not regarded as something too serious (‘just weed’)
  • Getting caught: there can be implications for anyone who gains a criminal record for a drugs offence, of which many young people are unaware. They would have to declare it on a UCAS form if they are applying for university. They would be unable to access many jobs – anything that requires a DBS check, or the police, medical or legal professions. They would also be unable to travel to many parts of the world, including America and Canada. This is the case even with just a warning.
  • Drugs abroad: anyone caught with illegal drugs abroad, for example on a holiday with friends, can find not only that there are very severe penalties in many countries (27 countries have a mandatory death sentence for drug offences), but they will also have their passport confiscated on their return to the UK because of having been arrested in another country, and will be unable to have it back for two years.
  • Drink driving: although most young people are aware that there are blood-alcohol limits for driving, most are unclear that it’s very difficult to gauge exactly how much and what this would allow any individual to consume and when.
  • Drug driving: since March 2015 drug driving is also now an offence and unlike with alcohol there is no upper limit to consumption – any amount of any one of eight listed drugs found in a person’s system prohibits them from driving. Passive smoking of cannabis by the driver of a car whose friend is smoking weed in the back seat can produce a positive test result, because this can impair their judgement and ability to drive safely.

You can find out more about drugs and the law on the Drugwise website

Reducing the risk…

Giving harm reduction advice to your child can be a very uncomfortable thing for parents to do. It can feel like telling them how to do drugs safely – which is isn’t - and it’s always important to emphasise the fact that the only way to reduce the risk of drugs to zero is not to take them at all. However, for teens who are around drugs and alcohol socially, and especially if you’re aware your child may be experimenting, or their friends are, it’s very important they have some understanding of how risks can be reduced, to arm them should they find themselves saying yes to something.

How you do this depends very much on your child and your relationship with them. A good way to approach it though can be in terms of them helping their friend to stay safe if they take anything, rather than your child themselves. They have the same advice but not directed at their own potential, or actual, use, which can create a more open response.

This is simplified advice from the Global Drug Survey 2018 – for more detail read here.

If you’re with a friend who is taking drugs:

  • Know stuff – make sure they know lots about anything they’re taking.
  • Stay together - you are the best harm reduction your mate has, so stick with them. 
  • Check in with them – look for physical signs and get them to tell you if they’re not feeling right.
  • Don’t mix – anything!
  • Start low, go slow…
  • Remember the law!
  • Fed and watered - make sure they’ve had a good meal earlier, and if it’s a stimulant keep them well hydrated.
  • Be in a good space, inside and out - most drugs lead your brain in the direction it was pointing before a drug is taken.
  • Don’t be afraid to call 999

For detailed harm reduction advice about individual substances see or watch VICE/The Loop #safesesh videos.

Useful sources of information, advice and support


Frank is the government’s drug information site for young people, run by Public Health England. It includes an A-Z of substances and their risks and effects, videos, case studies, links to local support services and a live webchat for confidential advice. It also has a page for parents who have concerns for their child is a social enterprise set up to provide accessible and comprehensive information to help reduce the short and long term harms of drugs. parents’ page  has a range of advice for parents and carers about how to tackle conversations with kids about drugs, useful links and a downloadable version of their toolkit. 


Alcohol Education Trust

The AET is an alcohol education charity that has developed extensive resources for schools to teach young people about the risks of drinking. Their parent/carer area  has a lot of information, including how to talk to children at different ages, teenage parties and festivals, and what to do if it all goes wrong. It also has a downloadable booklet for parents, ‘Talking to Kids about Alcohol’, and one for young people, ‘Alcohol and You’. Parents can subscribe to their parent newsletter.



The Drinkaware Trust is an independent UK-wide alcohol education charity, which works in partnership with others to help reduce alcohol-related harm by helping people make better choices about their drinking. Their parent/carer area includes topics such as the risks of under-age drinking, how to talk to your child about alcohol, and teenage drinking.



YoungMinds is the UK’s leading charity championing the wellbeing and mental health of young people. Parents and carers can find advice and support to help their child through difficult times through YoungMinds’ online ‘parents’ survival guide’ and their free parents’ helpline, offering confidential, expert advice. 



Adfam is a national organisation offering support to families of those affected by drug and alcohol use, and brings together local organisations across the UK. Their website includes information and advice and how to find a local support group



Drugfam offers support to families, friends and carers struggling to cope with loved ones’ addiction to drugs or alcohol. They have information and support on their website and also a helpline which is open 7 days a week 9am – 9pm (0300 888 3853)


Bereavement support


Care for the Family Bereaved Parent Support

Care for the Family offers a range of support to bereaved parents including information and advice online, days and weekends for bereaved parents, and a telephone befriending service for parents who have lost a child for any reason, including to drugs and alcohol. The try as far as possible to find a befriender who shares a similar reason for losing their child.


The Compassionate Friends

The Compassionate Friends  offers support online, over the telephone and locally where possible through small support groups and events. They also have a wide range of downloadable leaflets, including ones for different family members, and about practical issues such as inquests is a social enterprise set up to provide accessible and comprehensive information to help reduce the short and long term harms of drugs. parents’ page  has a range of advice for parents and carers about how to tackle conversations with kids about drugs, useful links and a downloadable version of their toolkit.