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).
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.
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.
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:
Understand the teenage brain
Talk to your children
Practical things to do
What to do if you have concerns
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
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.
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…
You can find out more about drugs and the law on the Drugwise website
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.
If you’re with a friend who is taking drugs:
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.
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.
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.
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)
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 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