Worried about a child
Honest and useful advice for parents and guardians
You probably can’t stop your child from coming into some contact with drugs, but by staying as informed as possible, you can help them make the right choices when they do.
Most young people don’t do drugs and most of those who do try drugs don’t keep on using them. Research shows that a child is more likely to develop a problem with alcohol than with drugs.
It's natural to feel concerned if you think your child is doing drugs – but don’t panic. Most young people who experiment won’t become regular users. Cannabis is by far the most common drug that young people take and only a small minority of those who use it move on to other drugs.
There are serious risks involved in drug use, but most of those who try drugs don’t suffer any long-term harm to their health.
The drugs covered on Frank are:
- illegal substances – like heroin, cannabis and ketamine (see the drugs A-Z)
- misused household products – like gases, glues and aerosols
- some medicinal drugs – like gabapentin and codeine (which can be misused)
- alcohol and tobacco
- Psychoactive Substances – still sometimes referred to as ‘legal highs’
People take drugs for lots of reasons. Having a better idea of why your child takes drugs will help you when you talk to them.
To have fun
Some young people take drugs occasionally to have fun, socialise and relax. For these people, taking drugs might not become a problem, and they’ll probably stop before any serious harm occurs. You can explain that some drugs are illegal and can affect their physical and mental health – especially if they’re still growing – and that while you may not approve, they can always talk to you about any worries they have.
Some people are just curious. They might try drugs once or twice to see what it’s like and then decide to leave it. Most people who do try drugs don’t continue using them.
Some people use drugs as a way of escaping their feelings. They might be stressed, depressed, anxious or insecure, and they might think the drugs are helping them – when they’re actually making things worse. If you think this is the case, talk calmly to your child and look for ways to work through these problems together, so you can help them manage without drugs. If necessary, look for professional help.
To fit in
Some people take drugs to ‘fit in’, and because they’re under pressure to do so by their friends.
Adolescence can be a tough time for young people – and your child might behave differently as a result. Remember that just because your child is acting differently, doesn’t mean they’re on drugs.
If you’re worried your child is using drugs, the best thing to do is sit down and have a calm and honest conversation with them.
The following signs don’t necessarily mean your child is taking drugs, but could be worth looking out for.
Is your child:
- mixing with new friends who may use drugs?
- experiencing moods swings?
- behaving badly or showing a bad attitude?
- not sleeping properly and getting up very late?
- being secretive or evasive about where they’re going and what they’re doing?
- having problems in school, like poor performance or absences?
Other potential signs of drug use are:
- poor hygiene or appearance
- staying out late
- falling out with old friends, hanging out with a new crowd
- loss of appetite
- red-rimmed eyes and/or a runny nose
- an uncharacteristic loss of interest in school, hobbies and friends
- money going missing regularly for no apparent reason
- unusual equipment found in the house, such as burnt foil or torn cigarette packets
It’s important to stay calm and open-minded when you talk to your child about drugs. Remember to look at the FRANK A-Z of drugs to make sure your knowledge is up-to-date and accurate, and think about how you’ll react if your child says he/she has tried drugs. You don’t want to react in a way that shuts down the conversation.
Once you’re ready to chat, make sure you:
- Keep the subject broad to begin with, ask open-ended questions about your child’s friends and school. An open-ended question is one where the person can’t answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. For example, “What was today like at school?” or “Why do you think people take drugs?”.
- Allow plenty of time, don’t rush the conversation.
- Listen carefully and keep the chat as two-way as possible.
- Be understanding – not judgmental or critical.
- Respect what they have to say – don’t lose your temper if you disagree with your child’s opinions, it might make them rebel more.
- Don’t make assumptions about what they know or do, and don’t accuse your child of taking drugs (even if you think they have).
- Let them know you’re there for them – that they can talk to you about drugs.
- Set boundaries, make it clear what your house rules are so they know what you will and won’t accept.
- Be realistic: while there are some serious risks involved in drug use, most people who try drugs don’t suffer any long-term harm to their health.
- And if they are using, don’t confront them when they’re high.
If your child refuses to talk to you, try not to panic. Remember that people who try drugs often don’t carry on using them. Support them to talk to another adult such as a school nurse, GP, youth worker or a specialist service.
What should I do?
Worrying about a child’s drug use is stressful, and how you choose to deal with it is up to you. You might try to help your child, you might decide to put up with it and not say much, or you might decide to step back and not offer much support.
There are pros and cons to each of these choices, and it’s essential you think of your own wellbeing when you decide on which approach to take. It may be that you need support and/or professional help yourself too.
It might not always seem like it, but your influence does make a difference – and you are the right person to talk to your child about drugs and alcohol.
Research also shows that when young people do develop a problem with drugs or alcohol, family support can make a big difference to helping them get back on track.
Try to keep the conversation around drugs and alcohol open at all times. There’s often stories about drugs in the media and on TV, so use these as springboards for conversations. This way, when you do ask your child about drugs and alcohol, it should feel more natural and they won’t feel accused.
Remember there’s no point in being heavy-handed when you talk about drugs and alcohol, as this will probably backfire. Instead, take a balanced approach and bear in mind that information is everything. Giving your child the facts from reliable sources and telling them in a reasonable manner about the effects and risks, will make them feel empowered and informed rather than chastised.
Be sure to talk about specific drugs too, don’t lump them all together. Make the necessary distinctions between, say, cannabis and heroin, and discuss the relative levels of harm. If they see that you have a realistic view of the risks, they’ll be more likely to listen to you.
Dealing with a son or daughter who has a serious drug or alcohol problem can be an emotional rollercoaster. The withdrawal symptoms from drugs like heroin can be very severe and cravings can continue to be a problem for quite some time.
It may take several attempts before your son or daughter successfully breaks their addiction even with support.
And while your child must want to stop using drugs or alcohol first – there are many different treatments and support services which they can use to support them.
You may also want to look into support groups for family members. This is a good opportunity for you to voice your feelings and see how others are coping.
Whether your child’s ready to change their behaviour or not, there are young people’s and adult drugs services, counselling services, and self-help groups that can help.
- Organisations like Adfam provide advice for parents and carers dealing with addiction.
- Charities like Family Lives, Young Minds and Childline provide helplines, live chat and support
- Netmums is a site with supportive forums for parents to chat with other parents and ask questions.
- Re-Solv is a charity committed to stopping the abuse of volatile substances like glues, gases and aerosols.
- The NHS website has a step-by-step guide to talking to your child about drugs
It’s hard to tell what the effects of taking drugs are. Most people who try drugs don’t keep on using – and some people take drugs regularly without developing a problem.
It all depends on who’s taking them, the person’s state of mind, what the drug is mixed with and where it’s being taken.
Physical health effects
Taking drugs can lead to users getting more spots, colds and feeling run down generally. In the long-term, it can can lead to organ damage and other health problems.
Mental health effects
Drug use has been linked to depression and mood swings, as well as more serious mental health illnesses. Anybody with a history of mental health issues in their family should be especially careful when taking drugs.
Anyone can overdose from taking drugs. Even fit young people can overdose and die from taking drugs, although the risk depends on the type of drug, how much is taken and whether it is mixed with other drugs.
School or uni work
Because drugs like cannabis impact the part of the brain we use for learning and remembering things, regular use by young people (whose brains are still developing) can contribute to poor exam results.
Acting out of character & personal safety
Some people take drugs because it makes them less inhibited – but this can have negative effects too. They might do things they wouldn’t normally do that they later regret, like having unprotected sex. If your child is out of it or having a bad experience on drugs, they’re more vulnerable.
A criminal record
If the police find your child in possession of illegal drugs they could take some action - either as a warning, an arrest, a formal caution or a conviction.
Getting into debt
Some drugs aren’t necessarily expensive, but frequent use can still get people into debt and financial trouble.
If you’re worried about the effects of a specific drug, take a look at the drugs A-Z