Discovering your child is taking drugs is every parent’s nightmare, and most would go to great lengths to ensure illegal substances – or even legal highs – are never part of their child’s world.
But ongoing conversations about drugs with children, starting well before the age they’re likely to first be offered them, may be all it takes to prevent experimentation.
Psychiatrist and addiction expert Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, who’s written a book called The Drug Conversation to help parents navigate the thorny issue, explains: “What I’m advocating is that parents have a conversation with their children around the age of 10 to 12 years, signposting them to good information, because there’s so much misinformation out there.
The book also aims to help parents who are aware, or suspect, their child is using drugs, and want to know what to do.
Research shows less than one in 20 children under 13 think it’s fine to try cannabis out of curiosity, yet by the age of 15, one in five think it’s okay.
And recent official figures show a quarter of 15 year olds report having taken drugs at some point, while a quarter of children aged 11-15 have been offered drugs, even if they chose not to take them.
Cannabis is the drug young people are most likely to take, with a fivefold increase in its use between the ages of 13 and 15 years.
Bowden-Jones points out that many children learn often incorrect information about drugs from the playground, the internet, or misinformed friends, so balancing that erroneous advice with credible information from parents at an early age can make a vital difference to the way a child views drugs.
“As well as giving them good information, it shows your child this is a conversation you’re happy to have, and that this isn’t a taboo subject,” he explains.
“That’s really important, because if they run into trouble with drugs later on, or there’s something they want to know about them, they’re much more likely to talk to you if you’ve already opened the discussion.”
He points out that many young people who use psychoactive drugs – drugs that change the way we think, feel and behave – do so only briefly, with just a small proportion going on to use drugs regularly, sometimes because they bring a sense of ‘fitting in’ with a peer group.
He explains that the adolescent brain develops in a way that makes risk-taking and novelty-seeking more possible, and warns: “Lacking the brain maturity and experience to support good judgement, there is no time when drug use is more likely.”
But it’s also the time when the brain is most vulnerable to the harmful effects of drugs, which can damage its structure and functioning and disrupt developing neural networks.
Are they taking them?
If your child uses a drug once or twice at a party, you’ll probably never know unless they tell you. But if they’re using regularly, you may see the effects, which vary depending on the drug, from being restless and giggly to tired, irritable and confused. But remember, alcohol can mimic some of these symptoms.
Parents shouldn’t suggest a child is taking drugs unless they have good reason to think so, warns Bowden-Jones, who says if there’s strong, reasonable suspicion, parents shouldn’t confront their child but should instead talk to them and explain their concerns, and that they want to help.
How to talk about drugs with your children
Dr Bowden-Jones suggests these top tips…
Don’t wait till there’s a crisis to start talking about drugs – begin the conversations years before this possibility could arise.
Prepare what you’re going to say, ideally with the other parent.
Begin with less personal questions like, ‘What have you learned at school about drugs?’
Don’t lecture – make sure it’s a two-way discussion.
Give your opinion of drugs, but explain why and don’t exaggerate. Instead, give a realistic summary of the risks.
Discuss alcohol too.
Tell your child where they can find accurate information.
Mention any history of drug problems in the family. If you’ve taken drugs yourself, decide beforehand how much you’ll say about this.
Take time for questions, and ask them questions – what do they think of drugs?
Give praise and return to the topic in a week.
The Drug Conversation by Dr Owen Bowden-Jones is published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists is available now.
Ask the expert
Q: “Why do I need to encourage my child to look after his baby teeth when they’ll fall out eventually anyway?”
A: Dentist Dr Henry Clover, chief dental officer for Denplan, says: “While it’s true that children will eventually lose their primary (baby) teeth, some may not fall out until they’re around 12 years old, so they do need over a decade’s worth of care.
“Childhood tooth decay doesn’t have to be inevitable and there are several techniques parents can help their child to adopt to prevent it.
“Actively controlling a child’s sugar intake helps them establish good habits for the future. Just beware of hidden sugars found in things like dried fruit, fruit roll-ups, smoothies and fruit juices.
“Limiting children’s sugar intake and encouraging them to brush their teeth routinely can help to protect young teeth from both decay and acid wear. But beware: tooth enamel is softer for up to an hour after eating or drinking sugary or acidic things, and can be damaged if teeth are brushed straight after eating. Instead, encourage children to brush their teeth before they eat breakfast, or at least an hour after dinner.
“Taking children for regular dental check-ups is another essential part of caring for young teeth. Take children for their first dental visit as soon as their first tooth appears. Regular appointments allow the dentist to check for health complaints and see if any areas are being missed through brushing ineffectively.
“Try to get children to reach the vital two-minute brushing time, and teach them the importance of cleaning their teeth as soon as their first milk teeth appear. Good habits last a lifetime.”