Talking to children about drugs
I know you don’t want to think about talking to children about drugs. We wish we didn’t have to. But at some point or other, your child is going to come across illegal recreational drugs. And probably earlier than you think. All parents hope their child will do the right thing when faced with difficult choices. But we also understand that sometimes good kids make bad decisions. A better strategy is to arm teens and tweens with relevant knowledge and aim for an open and strong relationship in which teens will be honest and come to you if they need help.
Talking to children about drugs can feel scary. Parents often worry that by talking about drugs they will be encouraging children to try them. That’s not true. The more we equip children with the tools and information to keep themselves safe, the more likely they are to stay safe. Here are a few tips on how to talk to teens and tweens about drugs effectively.
The media is full of conflicting information about drugs, not all of which is reliable or helpful. Before you launch into a conversation, update your knowledge so you are clear on what the real risks are. Go to authoritative sources – I recommend Frank (www.talktofrank.com) for its A-Z of drugs and grounded advice for both parents and young people.
It makes sense to have your first conversation about drugs before your child is likely to have any opportunity to try them. If possible, use natural springboards to start difficult conversations. If there is something in the news, talk about that and allow the conversation to develop from there. If school is discussing the topic in PSHE or assembly, ask your child about it. Plot lines in movies and soap operas can be great conversation starters! Aim for natural and chatty rather than deeply significant. The aim is to build a bridge to more conversations in the future.
A conversation is not an opportunity for you to lecture your child or to regale them with your wisdom. The aim is to open a channel of communication and find out what they know and think. If they have a point of view, be curious about it. Use open questions: Why do you think some teenagers try drugs? What do you think about the difference between drugs and alcohol? How would you feel if one of your friends was taking drugs? Don’t rush to a point, allow plenty of time to discuss, but don’t force the issue either. Talking to children about drugs (or other difficult topics) often works well when you are side-by-side rather than face-to-face (see Top tips for communicating with teenagers).
Be honest about what worries you
Many of the risks of teenage drug-taking link to impaired decision-making. Teens who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol are more likely to engage in other risky behaviours like unsafe sex or just not looking when they cross the road. They are more vulnerable to crime and sexual exploitation. Not to mention the potential impacts of drugs on brain development, well-being and academic achievement. Adults and teens weigh risks differently (see What’s going on in my teenager’s brain?). Calmly talking through the risks and identifying the things that worry you helps you and your child look at the issue from different perspectives.
Rehearse how to resist peer pressure
Peer pressure can be really hard for kids to resist, despite their best intentions. Talking through how your child could respond if someone offers them drugs is a good idea. How could they get themselves out of that situation? What could they say? Explain that real friends should understand if you say No.
If your child is using drugs
Don’t panic. Most young people who try drugs don’t become regular drug users. Try to find out why your child is experimenting. Is it curiosity? Fun? Peer pressure? Or to cope with difficult feelings? And then focus on that root cause. Encourage them to find other, more positive ways to have fun or to deal with their emotions. Let them know that what they are thinking, feeling and experiencing matters to you and that you are here to help. And if you are feeling overwhelmed by the situation, try talking things through with an independent expert via Frank.
And don’t let worrying about getting it wrong stop you talking to children about drugs – it’s ok not to know everything or get it all right. Just opening up the dialogue will help.