Advice and Tips

What if your child is using drugs?

All parents’ greatest fear is that their children will get mixed up with drugs.

It is something every parent dreads, but if you discover your child is involved in drugs, what can you do to help - and who can help you?

With the benefit of hindsight, parents know how easy it is to be led by peers during the impressionable years as a teenager or a young adult. And they know from the media how dangerous any experimentation can be, leading possibly to addiction, crime and death. It is important to remember that for most young people, illegal drug taking is not part of normal life and most people who do try drugs do not continue using them. However, it is also wise to be aware of the facts surrounding drugs and to convey these to your children at the earliest possible age.

Children may be involved with legal or illegal drugs in various ways. Experimentation with drugs during adolescence is common, but sometimes younger children do get involved. Unfortunately, children often don’t see the link between their actions today and the consequences tomorrow. They also have a tendency to feel indestructible and immune to the problems that others experience. Using alcohol and tobacco at a young age increases the risk of using other drugs later. Some teens will experiment and stop, or continue to use occasionally, without significant problems. Others will develop a dependency, moving on to more dangerous drugs, causing significant harm to themselves and possibly others.

Adolescence is a time for trying new things. Teens use drugs for many reasons, including curiosity, because it feels good, to reduce stress, to feel grown up or to fit in. It is difficult to know in advance which teens will experiment and stop and which will develop serious problems. Drug use is associated with a variety of negative consequences, including increased risk of serious drug use later in life, school failure, and poor judgement, which may put teens at greater risk for accidents, violence, unplanned and unsafe sex, and suicide. Parents can help through early education about drugs, open communication, good role modelling, and early recognition if problems are developing. If there is any suspicion that there is a problem, parents must find the most appropriate intervention for their child.

Dr Tim Evans says: ”The most important aspect associated with children growing up is to ensure that the lines of communication are established and continually maintained throughout the challenging period of adolescence. If children and teenagers don’t feel they can talk about issues such as drugs and alcohol openly, there is little chance that parents will be able to influence them in overcoming the peer pressure to experiment with such substances on which a percentage will then become dependant.”

The Risks

It is important to make your child aware of the risks associated with taking drugs

  • All drugs carry risks
  • The user can never be sure what is being taken
  • Not knowing the strength of the drug can lead to overdose
  • The user cannot know what effect a drug will have, and this varies from person to person
  • It is often very dangerous to mix different drugs (including alcohol)
  • If needles or syringes are being shared, there is a serious risk of spreading; dangerous infection, including HIV and AIDS, or of damaging veins
  • Unlawful possession of a drug can result in a criminal record

Drug usage has a harmful effect on people’s lives. It destroys their ability to cope with everyday life. It is likely to affect both their physical and mental health. It can cause them to lose their friends, to get into trouble with the police, and to find themselves with financial difficulties.

Communication – Talking to Your Children about Drugs

Although each family will deal with the subject in a different way, here are a few pointers to bear in mind:

  • Show that your main concern is for your child’s health, safety and wellbeing
  • Listen carefully to your child’s views and feelings
  • Try to explain your own feelings making your point of view clear
  • Talk with them, rather than to them or at them

However difficult you think it will be to broach the subject, it is important not to avoid it. The approach you take will depend upon circumstances, your children, their age, and whether they are likely to have experienced drugs already. It is also much easier to talk to your children about drugs before you suspect they may be coming into contact with them. At that stage, you are likely to be accused of lecturing or accusing, and arguments may follow, but it is worth it to gain the confidence and openness of communication.

The younger your children are, the more impressionable they are, the less likely they are to question your authority and the more likely they are to adopt your opinions (for the time being at least). You can make sure that you give them accurate information, and you can encourage them to talk to you about drugs at the time or in the future. By the time they leave primary school they are likely to have come across drugs in conversation or on TV/radio. Use any opportunity to open up a discussion at home and ask them what they know about drugs. It might also be useful to find out what drug education is provided at school.

Starting secondary school is a big change. This alone can leave children feeling vulnerable, but the years that follow up to 16 or 18 are testing times and can lead even a “steady” child to experiment with drugs or alcohol. What their friends do or say becomes increasingly more important to a teenager and they are less likely to be open with their parents.

If possible, try to keep dialogue going and make time to talk. Even if it is not directly related to difficult issues, it will help to strengthen your relationship and make it easier to tackle them on another occasion. If talking about drugs specifically, decide what you want to say, and think about the best way of getting your message across. Think about the way your parents talked to you and how it made you feel. Remind yourself that adolescents will need more freedom, more privacy and the right to take or leave your advice, but continue to remind them that you are there to support them.

After the age of 16, your child is now a young adult and your relationship will change again. You must take another step back, making allowances for their need of privacy, and accepting that you do not need to know everything that goes on in their life. Show them that they are trusted, but also show your disappointment if that trust is abused. Show an interest without seeming to pry or probe. Accept (if their behaviour is legal) that they may do things you would prefer them not to do.

The main point is to keep the channels of communication open. Sometimes you may need to state the facts, other times advise, and sometimes just listen and be supportive.

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