Times article 14th March 2015 by Rachel Carlyle that Mandy was interviewed for recently.
The drugs conversation: what you must say to your child
Last updated at 12:01AM, March 14 2015
Talking to children about the dangers of drugs seemed so much easier in the Eighties when the entire cast of Grange Hill sang Just Say No on Top of the Pops and our parents tended to leave the finer points to teachers.
But now that cannabis is part of mainstream teenage culture, it’s crucial for parents to be more actively involved, campaigners say. We can’t leave it to schools, either, as even the government’s own advisers concluded earlier this month that most drug-education lessons were ineffective. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) added that targeted anti-drug mass-media campaigns could actually encourage children to try them.
“There’s good evidence that teens are under more peer pressure now to try drugs,” says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Alex Horne, of the Nightingale Hospital in London. “Social media puts them under huge pressure. There’s a world out there that kids can access very easily so parents do need to give them guidance.”
This week a study from Northwestern University in the US found that smoking cannabis for just three years as a teenager can damage long-term memory. Parents urgently need to get better informed, according to addiction specialist Mandy Saligari, the director of Charter Harley Street. “I will talk to 150 15-year-olds and ask, without their teachers there, who has tried cannabis — and most hands go up. It’s absolutely the norm. Parents need knowledge of what’s out there, what it looks like and what people are doing with it.”
New psychoactive substances — so-called “legal highs” designed to mimic Class A drugs — are readily available online. Andrew Halls, headmaster of King’s College School in Wimbledon, warned last week that dealers now operated openly “like an Ocado delivery”.
Official figures show that teenage drug use — especially of Class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine — is stable or falling, with 16 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds admitting they had tried them. But a report by Public Health England in January revealed that the number of under-18s receiving treatment for problems with cannabis is rising — 13,659 in 2013-14, compared with 9,043 in 2005-06, even though the numbers treated for Class A drug problems and alcohol had fallen markedly over the same period.
So how should parents approach the subject, and when?
Do we have to accept that our children will try drugs at some stage?
Possibly, but never let them know you think that. It’s more effective to have an expectation that they won’t, says Andrew Brown, director at the charity DrugScope: “Some interesting research shows that if you can hold on to the expectation that they won’t take drugs for the good reasons you’ve explained to them, even when they are going to parties at 15 or 16, research shows that they are less likely to have problems later on. It’s difficult to know how long this protective effect lasts but it seems to make a difference — as long as you express it clearly within a loving relationship.”
The ideal is to find the middle ground between being too lax (because children of these parents are more likely to drink, smoke and take drugs at an earlier age) and too fierce (because they won’t tell you what they’re up to). “They need to feel there are rules and expectations but that they can talk to you if there’s a problem,” Brown says.
Whether they try drugs is down to a complex mix of factors: whether the cool gang at school are into drugs and if your child wants to be in that gang; whether they feel supported at home; whether their self-esteem is high enough to say no. Adolescent psychologist Dr John Coleman, author of Why Won’t My Teenager Talk To Me, points out that teens with low self-esteem are more drawn to risk-taking peer groups and will be more influenced by them because they are looking for ways to be liked.
How to talk to children aged 12 and over
Eleven-year-olds will tell you they are against drugs and will never try them, but it’s what happens in the next four years that matters. By Year 10, classrooms tend to divide into those who take drugs and those who don’t, Saligari says. A “Just Say No” message doesn’t cut it. The key is to lay out the facts and research into the risks and impart your own preference that they don’t take them, while not directly telling them not to. Year 8 is a good time for these kinds of conversations as drugs are part of the PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) curriculum. Saligari says: “I would say something like, ‘I know drugs are widely available, and even if you sit here and look me in the eye and say you’ll never take them, I don’t think you can guarantee that now. You will see people at parties and it will look like they are having a good time and you may be tempted or feel pressured into saying yes. So I want you to know the facts about drugs. I’m letting you know what my preference is — that you don’t take them.’ Then you give them practical strategies for what to do if they are offered drugs. You want to leave them with the idea that you don’t want them to do it, but they can come to you if they get into trouble.”
Useful research to mention includes a study from Duke University showing that those who smoked cannabis as teenagers ended up at age 38 with an IQ eight points lower.
This is thought to be because drugs have a worse effect on teenage brains because they are still developing. Other studies have linked cannabis — especially skunk, which is two or three times stronger than traditional cannabis and is the drug of choice for many teens — to depression, anxiety and schizophrenia in later life.
But parents shouldn’t go overboard
“A teenager will know if you are exaggerating the risk,” Dr Horne says. “They’ll say they know plenty of people who smoke weed and never go mad. What makes it difficult is that we can’t say 100 per cent that skunk causes mental-health problems and schizophrenia, although that’s the way the evidence is heading. You can give them the knowledge to make sensible decisions, but whether they will take them is another matter.”
Should you tell them about the ‘highs’ as well as the risks?
If we continually harp on about the harmful effects of drugs, without mentioning the temporary pleasure, we run the risk of giving such an incomplete picture that we only pique their curiosity. Teens often tell drugs counsellors that, because their parents and teachers only mentioned the downsides, they felt they were being lied to, which made them want to try drugs to find out the truth.
“One of the first questions my kids had for me was: ‘Why do people take them?’ ” Brown says. “We have to acknowledge that people take them because they think they will enjoy the sensation, at least at the beginning, but for some that gets out of control. Some people have really bad experiences and some die — although most do not. Not everyone gets addicted but we do know from science that the brain is affected, and your brain is still developing until your mid-twenties.”
Be careful about admitting to your own past use
Confessing to your own dabbling sounds like a good way to create a moment of connection with your teenager. But experts advise treading carefully.
“You just don’t know how it will be taken,” Brown says. “Perhaps it will be seen as a sort of permission to try drugs, in which case your moral authority might be lost. Or they might say, ‘What do you know? Things are different now.’ My reading of the evidence is that it’s better to stick to the values you want to impart and the reasons why you hold them and not get drawn into discussions of your past. It’s difficult if you get asked a straight question — my best answer would be to deflect: ‘It’s not about what I did, it’s about you.’ ”
Saligari agrees: “It’s a huge party line for parents — the ‘I did it once or twice but didn’t like it’ type of argument. If you are going to disclose, be honest. If you’re not they will know and they won’t believe anything you say on the subject after that.” She advises not disclosing your history, at least not when you’re talking about their experience. “I would say, ‘I’m happy to talk about my own history — maybe later on — but right now I am interested why you want to know. Why does it matter what I did?’ You have to be careful. They are looking for things that undermine the validity of your argument.”
Start to talk when they’re five or six
This doesn’t mean sitting a six-year-old down and saying: “Right, now we’re going to discuss illegal drugs.” But answer their questions from early on so they know about the concept of legal and illegal drugs, and have short, occasional discussions based on what they are exposed to — on the news, from TV or older siblings. Brown has been talking to his sons about drugs since they were five: “You can relate it to what they are interested in. Both my children were obsessed with wrestling when they were eight or nine, so we discussed steroids. What did they use to make themselves look like that? Why would they use them? What would be the effects?” Keep short and informed discussions going until they’re 11 or 12 when it’s time for more details.
If they are trying them anyway, should we let them try drugs at home?
Some parents feel that if their child is going to take drugs it’s better to take them at home where they are safe. This is universally seen as a bad idea by those in the field. “Adolescents want parents to be parents, even though it may not seem like that when they are shouting, ‘You never trust me, you’re always telling me off,’ ” Dr Horne says. “They want their parents to provide boundaries while they are in the transition stage to adulthood. The more parents are parental the better. If you have a parent who is passing them a joint it confuses that relationship and sends a very mixed message: you’re condoning something that society objects to. Is the parent saying, ‘I want you to take drugs’ as opposed to ‘I am allowing you to experiment’?”
The best drugs education doesn’t mention drugs
The ACMD report identified only three school-based programmes that were beneficial, and none of them even mentioned drugs. They concentrated on building children’s resilience and emotional skills. One, Preventure, which runs in 25 schools across London, targets the known risk factors for early-onset substance abuse — anxiety, sensitivity, sensation-seeking, negative thinking and impulsivity — and gives 13 to 16-year-olds extra coping skills so they make better decisions.
Parents should help children to have a good sense of self and an ability to understand what they are feeling, and should give practical solutions to deal with negative feelings such as anger or anxiety.
“You’re giving them the internal resources to deal with their feelings and building resilience so they are not looking for something outside themselves to solve their problems,” Saligari says. “Those who progress to regular drug use and addiction are often those who can’t fix their negative feelings or anxiety themselves.”
What if you suspect they are taking drugs?
How parents act now is crucial; never accuse. Create time for a proper conversation, Dr Horne says. “Say, ‘Look I’ve heard things on the grapevine and I just wondered if you were aware what’s going on? Have you been approached, maybe someone’s put you under pressure?’ If they say, ‘Why are you asking; are you saying I’m on drugs?’ you might say, ‘Well I have noticed you have been exhausted/spending a long time in your room and I’m worried about you.’
“What you’re aiming for is an exploration of the issue, being open and sensitive, but not accusing. If they storm off, you have at least left them with the feeling that you care. You may not get an immediate positive outcome but you have opened something up and they may well come back to you later. If you are able to contain your anxiety it will go better.”
Don’t think you have to get specialist help in immediately. If you know they will calm down in a couple of days and be ready to talk, then wait. But if it’s uncharacteristic, don’t ignore it, Dr Horne says. “Explore around the issue: talk to friends’ parents, your own friends and relations, perhaps the GP. Teachers, particularly, can be very helpful and they know what services are available locally.”
What if their friends are taking drugs?
Again, don’t rush in with accusations: it’s possible your child is doing it too but not definite. “It’s true that you’re more likely to adopt the behaviours of people you want to hang out with or be romantically involved with,” says Andrew Brown.
But it’s also possible they feel pulled in a direction they don’t want to go, or have tried it once and decided not to do it again. “If they have good self-esteem and they feel ill after taking drugs or don’t enjoy it, it’s unlikely they will try them again,” Saligari says. “Explore the issue gently by saying you’ve heard on the grapevine that some of their friends might be taking drugs, but don’t criticise their friends, even subtly, as you will put them on the defensive. Say you’re worried about your child because you know how easy it is to hit problems. They need to feel the door is left open to talk and share something that is probably frightening them. You can
also suggest ways they can say no — they might say to their friends: ‘Why are you so keen for me to be stoned? I am quite happy as I am. But you go ahead, I don’t mind and I won’t judge you, but I don’t want to.’ ”
Times article 14th March 2015 by Rachel Carlyle that Mandy was interviewed for recently.