The UK has seen a sharp increase in teenage drug use in the last few years: the NHS reports that 37% of 15-year-olds have used drugs, and that deaths resulting from drug use are at their highest since records began in 1993. Meanwhile, thousands of children are being drawn into drug dealing through “county lines”: gangs using them to transport drugs and cash from the capital to regional towns.
And so for parents, the stakes have perhaps never felt so high. Negotiating parenthood in such a context is tricky to say the least, and can leave parents unsure of what to do and feeling they have little control.
Experts in teenage drug use tell us it’s about informed choices. They advise us to accept that as parents we are unlikely to stop our teenage children doing what they choose, and so, our best approach is to ensure they have the right information, and that they can discuss issues with us openly. In this way, we can help to reduce harm by ensuring teenagers are aware of the risks, and what to do if they need help.
Though this is indeed excellent advice, it is difficult for many parents to follow. My ongoing research looks at the experiences of parents whose children are taking drugs. They value the way practitioners can talk to their teenagers, and understand the value of the advised harm reduction approach.
Despite this, most parents I’ve spoken to have said their gut reaction is to respond differently: more zero tolerance than harm reduction. They tend to ground their children and stop their pocket money. Stories are littered with accounts of rows and escalating sanctions in an endless cycle of panic and rebellion.
The actions of parents seemed to echo how things had been before the drugs, when children were younger. They talk about keeping them at home, safe, and without money to buy drugs. These parents speak of yearning for a simpler society; less materialistic, less risky. They feel left in the dark and unable to assess danger.
This is unsurprising. The idea that we can sit down calmly and rationally and explain to our children how they can take drugs safely overlooks a bundle of emotional issues. As parents, we are programmed to protect, avoiding danger where we can, and to actively encourage behaviour which fits expectations of school and society. But your relationship with your child is what is most important here, so try to set all social expectations aside, and focus on what really matters.
Speaking to your children about drugs is emotional hard labour. So here are some things to be aware of if you are a parent facing this conundrum. The key thing here is to try to stop focusing on problems by looking to solutions:
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