Teenagers and Drugs
Drug-taking is high on the ‘worry list’ of many parents with teenagers. Many drugs are illegal in many countries, and possessing or using them is a crime.
But worse, for many parents, is concern about the risks associated with drug-taking, whether legal highs or illegal drugs, including contaminated equipment, injury and even death.
So what can you do to help protect your teenager from the dangers of drug-taking?
This page provides some advice about how to talk to your child about drugs, and what to do if you think they may be taking drugs.
What are Drugs?
The term ‘drugs’ covers a wide range of substances, from medicines through ‘legal highs’ to illegal drugs. In this article, we are talking about drugs taken for recreational purposes to get ‘high’. In many countries, it is illegal to possess or supply many of these, including cannabis, cocaine, and heroin.
There is currently widespread concern about a class of drugs called ‘legal highs’, or drugs which are available legally but which can give a ‘high’ in the same way as some illegal drugs. Many of these ‘legal highs’, including mephedrone, have now been included under drugs legislation in several countries, including the UK, and it is therefore illegal to supply or possess them.
Teenagers’ Exposure to Illegal Drugs
There is, perhaps, less information about teenagers’ exposure to illegal drugs than to alcohol. However, around one third of teenagers report that they have tried illegal drugs at least once. In the US, one quarter of high school students say that they have been offered, given or sold an illegal drug on school premises.
Many parents underestimate teenagers’ likelihood to come into contact with illegal drugs, and therefore the importance of talking about the subject early and often.
As with alcohol, taking drugs at an early age can have long-term effects.
- Cannabis use in adolescence has been associated with the development of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia; and
- Drug use increases the level of other risky behaviour such as unprotected sexual activity, and impairs ability to drive in the same way as alcohol use.
Talking About Drugs
Charities involved in supporting families suggest that by far the most important thing that parents can do to help children to make the right decisions is to talk to them openly and honestly about drugs, from an early age.
In other words, don’t wait until you think your child may be taking drugs to have a conversation. Instead, start early, and help them to find out the facts, including the risks, so that they can make an informed decision (and hopefully, the right one).
Top Tips for Talking to Teenagers About Drugs
1. Know what you’re talking about
There are a lot of misconceptions about drugs, and both you and your child may well hold several.
Do your homework before any conversation, and make sure that you know what you’re talking about. There are plenty of reliable sources of information, including the FRANK website in the UK.
If your child asks you a question to which you do not know the answer, or refutes one of your statements, it’s a good idea to look the facts up together so that you both find out.
2. Be clear about the legal situation, and also your own views and beliefs
Before you start on a conversation, make sure that you are clear about your own boundaries and views: it will not help to start hedging about whether you think cannabis use is acceptable.
Drug use is not black and white for most people, and it’s a good idea to know where your particular areas of grey may be.
Be clear, however, both in your own mind and in what you say to your children, about the legal situation. You may think cannabis smoking is acceptable, but its use is still against the law in many contries.
3. Provide accurate information about the benefits and risks of drug use
Like alcohol use, there are benefits to taking drugs, or nobody would do it.
It pays to be honest and open about why people choose to use drugs, as well as the dangers of doing so. If you don’t, your child will almost certainly realise that there is an up-side, and may even conclude that it is considerably better than is actually the case.
It is also not worth trying to scare them. The chances are that they know someone who has tried at least one illegal drug, and come to no harm, so it is no use saying that all drug use is very dangerous and can kill you. Instead, you need to be realistic about the risks: for example, that cannabis use can cause mental health problems, and that people have died from using ecstasy, probably from dehydration, but perhaps from contaminated drugs, and that you can never be certain of the purity of what you are taking.
4. Keep talking
One conversation is probably not enough.
Make sure that you keep the channels of communication open, and that you are available to talk and listen whenever your children want to do so.
There is more about this on our page Communicating with Teenagers.
Helping Your Teen to Avoid Drugs
While experts suggest that strong communication is the best way to protect your teenager from illegal drugs, there are other ways too.
1. Keeping them busy
It may sound like a cliché but young people with plenty to do have much less time to get involved in drug-taking.
Taking part in sport or developing other hobbies is a very good protection against illegal drugs. Yes, it may mean you need to act as taxi service from time to time, but that’s a good opportunity for having a chat, and also helps you to keep in touch with what they are doing.
2. Knowing their friends, and their friends’ parents
It’s a good idea to get to know your teenager’s friends, and also their friends’ parents.
It also helps to talk to their friends’ parents about your approach to drugs, so that you know whether they share your views. It is hard to prevent your child from associating with any particular person, but you can discourage a friendship if you feel it is undesirable.
3. Keep communicating, and stay positive
Evidence suggests that young people who are able to communicate well with their parents, and who have good self-esteem and self-confidence, are less likely to use illegal drugs.
What if You Suspect Your Child is Taking Illegal Drugs?
Our page on Concerns about your Teenager discusses the signs of various problem behaviours, including drug-taking.
The main difficulty, as with so much teenage behaviour, is identifying and distinguishing problem behaviour from normal teenage behaviour.
However, if you have good grounds for suspecting that your child may be using illegal drugs, there are several possible courses of action:
Having a serious conversation with them
If they have only just started experimenting, and may have been frightened by something that happened, just knowing that you know, and having a conversation about it, may be enough to discourage any future experimentation.
They may also be taking drugs for a reason: for example, because they are being bullied, or because they are having problems at school. A conversation may uncover an underlying problem that you can help them to solve.
Remember: do not be judgemental or angry, but ask calmly for information, and be supportive.
However, if reminding them of your views on drugs, and that drug-taking is illegal, are not enough, you may need to take other action.
Encouraging them to seek help
If your teenager is using drugs seriously, you may need to take further action, including encouraging them to seek help. If necessary, you may need to help them to do so, perhaps by giving them options about where they go for help. You might, for example, start with your GP, or find local counselling services by using a government-sponsored drugs site such as Talk to Frank, in the UK.
It may feel very hard to be supportive if you feel that they are wrong, and absolutely should never have taken drugs.
But just as they have always done, your child needs your help. They need to be able to feel that they can rely on you to help them and support them. This does not, however, mean being ‘soft’ on them, and providing them with money or allowing them to steal from you or others.
Sometimes being supportive means taking hard decisions about what you do.
Involving the police
You may need to do this if you find drugs in the house. Technically, if you are aware that there are drugs in the house, and you do not inform the police, you are committing a crime. However, the police have certain obligations, including to investigate crimes, and your child may end up with a criminal record as a result of their involvement. If you are concerned about this, you may want to talk to a drugs helpline such as that provided by FRANK in the UK.
Remember, only your teenager can decide whether they take drugs
You hope, of course, that you have brought them up to be able to resist peer pressure, and make the right decisions. But ultimately, it is up to them. It is not your responsibility or your fault if they decide to take drugs, although they may need your support as a result.