As children reach adolescence, there are a number of difficult conversations to be had. Having the “drugs talk” – even for the most open-minded and liberal parent – can be fraught, as we navigate a thin line between being honest and understanding, while also encouraging healthy choices.
The NHS advice on talking to children about drugs is broadly sensible. It tells parents not to panic, to do their homework and not use scare tactics. But it also advises us to steer our children’s social life away from friends who may be involved in drugs and to let them know that we don’t want drugs in the house.
This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it assumes that the biggest threat comes from outside of the law and outside the family home. It also implies that we should tell our children that taking any form of illegal drug is wrong, and must be avoided at all costs. But this issue is far bigger and much more complex.
In among a talk about cocaine or cannabis, there is often no mention of the prescription painkillers which may be readily available. Nor does the guidance offered remind us that the drinks cabinet is the source of one of the most dangerous drugs on the planet.
The information the NHS shares on alcohol (distinct from “drugs”) suggests that if your child is going to drink alcohol, you should wait until they are at least 15. And at that point they should be doing it under supervision. I can only assume that would mean in the family home. Legality notwithstanding, it makes little sense to give our kids such contradictory advice when it comes to recreational substances
Professor David Nutt (who was famously sacked by the government after comparing the harms of legal and illegal drugs) wrote about this very problem in his book Drugs Without the Hot Air.
In it, he references statistics showing that “globally, the main burden of disease in 15- to 24-year-old males is due to alcohol, outweighing unsafe sex, illicit drug use and physical accidents combined”.
Yet parents and educators seem to remain primarily preoccupied with illegal drug use. In reality, shady drug dealers down dark alleyways are not the exclusive suppliers of harmful substances. As Stacey Dooley’s investigation showed us, kids buy drugs from other kids online. And a trip to the GP can also be fairly lucrative.
The internet has made information about drugs – and access to them – more available than ever, yet research from mental health and addiction charity Addaction suggests that substance misuse in young people has steadily declined since 2001.
After extensive research, the charity recommends that we should be having more open conversations about drugs with our children. And it makes sense to do so. According to research published on Wiley, while teens may appear to engage in more risky behaviours to satisfy their curiosity and thirst for knowledge, they are more likely to be deliberative, keen to acquire more knowledge to make decisions – especially if the stakes are high.
There is no logical reason to limit our children’s information about drugs. The NHS rightly assumes that if we are open to them trying alcohol and encourage them to do so safely, they will be at less risk. The same should go of all substances. If they are going to take drugs they should be making an informed choice, and know that they can turn to their parents for help if necessary, without fear of being excessively reprimanded.
We need to base the conversation on the reality of all potential harms in an open and non-judgmental way. If we’re dictated by stigma, we lose sight of the real problem. The biggest risks might be right in front of us, however socially acceptable they seem.
Lucy Nichol is the author A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes, a book about mental health and stigma