You offer the first line of defence and can have a strong, positive effect by starting the conversation earlier, and keeping it ongoing. Don’t assume that you’ve had ‘the talk’: three-quarters of parents of 11-16 year olds thought they had had a conversation about drugs with their child, but less than half as many (36%) 11-17 year olds said they remembered such a conversation.
Scroll down for helpful tips and advice for talking to your child about drugs and alcohol.
Are you a kinship carer? Access our resources tailored to the specific needs of kinship care families here: Information and advice for kinship carers.
How should I talk to my child?
Pick the right time: don’t start a conversation when your child is running out the door or going to bed. Make sure you are both feeling calm and relaxed.
Start the discussion early and keep talking so it doesn’t suddenly come up as a big thing.
Give them the facts: remind your child that, despite media stories, drinking is not the norm and most young people don’t drink or take drugs.
Avoid scare tactics: the evidence is that they don’t work.
Make time to talk regularly: try to have family meals regularly. This is a crucial chance for parents and young people to talk about all the important issues they are facing – that may include a discussion about drinking and drugs.
Avoid being confrontational: it’s important that young people don’t feel accused. Listen to young people’s views and offer your own in an honest and respectful manner so that they feel comfortable coming to you in the future.
Some suggestions for introducing the topic in a non-confrontational way are:
- Using adverts, news or soap stories to spark the topic
- Try not to start with questions about behaviour, or what they have been up to when you’re not around
- Ask what they’ve learned about alcohol and drugs at school or college
Emphasise that most young people don’t drink and don’t think it’s okay to – help your child resist pressure to try drugs in order to ‘fit in’.
What you can do
Get to know the parents in your children’s friendship group. They might share your concerns, so you could agree on rules around parties and supervision. Share tips on how you talk to your children and what works for the parents in the group.
Set rules and boundaries. You might think that being too strict will cause them to rebel. But research shows that if a parent sets rules about drinking, young people are less likely to get drunk. It’s important that you set the boundaries together and reward children if they stick to them.
If you don't set boundaries then you have no boundaries.15 year old
Find out how your child’s school is addressing the issue. What is your child’s school doing about alcohol and drug education? Can you help reinforce knowledge, skills and attitudes?
Advice on Drugs
Most young people don’t use drugs: 79% of young people aged 11-15 say they have never taken drugs.
Nevertheless, an estimated 360,000 secondary school aged pupils in England took at least one drug last year. Only 5% of 15 year olds say they have taken a drug more than 10 times.
Cannabis is the most widely used illegal drug, with 7.5% of secondary school pupils saying they took the drug in the last year, and 14% of 16 to 19 year olds. Use of Class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine is very uncommon.
You can make a big difference to the decisions that young people make about drugs, particularly if you:
- Listen to your children
- Encourage independence
- Place limits, consequences and expectations on your children’s behaviour and administer fair and consistent discipline
- Are nurturing and express warmth to, and about, your children
- Encourage your children to express their opinions and discuss their options in their lives
If you are worried your child may be taking drugs:
- Pick your time to talk – not when they’re rushing off to school or, if they are using, when they’re high.
- Know their friends – peer pressure is one of the most influential factors affecting young people’s alcohol consumption. Children whose friends drink alcohol are five times more likely to drink than those whose friends do not.
- Encourage them to talk honestly – not just to tell you what you what they think you want to hear.
- Don’t panic – if your child has tried drugs, be calm when discussing it with them. Show love and concern rather than anger.
New psychoactive substances or NPS (formerly known as “legal highs”) are a group of drugs designed to bypass the former legislative controls of illegal drugs.
In May 2016 the Psychoactive Substances Act came into effect, banning all non-exempt psychoactive substances. For helpful myth-busting information on what “legal highs” are, and what the new law means for your child, click here.
Advice on Alcohol
More and more young people are choosing not to drink alcohol or are waiting until they are older. However, those who do drink are drinking a lot more than 10 years ago. For some of them, “drinking alcohol” may equal “getting drunk.”
Where do they get alcohol from? In 2014, pupils aged 11-15 in England who drank alcohol were most likely to do so in their own home (56%), someone else’s home (43%), at parties with friends (46%), or somewhere outside (13%).
28% of pupils aged 11-15 in England said that they had obtained alcohol in the last week. The most common ways of obtaining alcohol were to be given it by parents (17%), given it by friends (15%), to take it from home with permission (11%), or to ask someone else to buy it (9%).
40% of 11-15 year old English pupils who drank alcohol said they bought it. Of these, 55% bought it from friends or relatives, 29% from someone else, 29% from an off-licence, and 27% from a shop or supermarket. Read more.
For more detailed information on young people’s drinking and drug use, see the most recent survey on Smoking, Drinking and Drug Use Among Young People in England.
Good reasons not to drink
When talking to your child, stay away from scare tactics. Most young teens are aware that many people drink without problems, so it is important to discuss the consequences of alcohol without overstating the case.
Some good reasons why teens should not drink:
- You want your child to avoid alcohol: Clearly state your own expectations about your child’s drinking. Your values and attitudes count with your child, even though he or she may not always show it.
- To maintain self-respect: Teens say the best way to persuade them to avoid alcohol is to appeal to their self-respect. Let them know that they are too smart and have too much going for them to need the crutch of alcohol. Teens also are likely to pay attention to examples of how alcohol might lead to embarrassing situations or events – things that might damage their self-respect or alter important relationships.
- Better exam results: Drinking once or twice a week has been associated with scores around 20 points lower at GCSE (equivalent to 3 grades, or the difference between an A and a D in one subject); and drinking on most days may mean 80 points lower scores (equivalent to 13 grades) (National Centre for Social Research 2010).
For each year during adolescence a young person doesn't drink alcohol, they are 10% less likely to abuse alcohol as an adult.
- Drinking can be dangerous: One of the leading causes of teen deaths is motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol. Drinking also makes a young person more vulnerable to sexual assault and unprotected sex. And while your teen may believe he or she wouldn’t engage in hazardous activities after drinking, point out that because alcohol impairs judgment, a drinker is very likely to think such activities won’t be dangerous.
- Alcohol affects young people differently to adults: Drinking while the brain is still maturing may lead to long-lasting intellectual effects and may even increase the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence later in life.
- You have a family history of alcoholism: If one or more members of your family has suffered from alcoholism, your child may be more vulnerable to developing a drinking problem. Recent research at UCL indicated that parental drinking – particularly mothers – made adolescent drinking far more likely.
11 year olds whose mothers drink heavily are 80% more likely to drink than those whose mothers don't.
What do young people think?
Young people’s attitudes towards alcohol affect the likelihood of them drinking. Recent research on early adolescent alcohol consumption revealed the following correlations between attitudes and consumption:
- Positive perceptions of alcohol were associated with increased odds of a child drinking. These include perceptions that alcohol makes people feel better about themselves or that it makes it easier to make friends.
- Children are less likely to drink if they have heightened perceptions of the harms of drinking and negative expectations towards alcohol – such as that it leads to difficulties with peers or impacts on school work.
Learn what young people think parents’ roles are in alcohol and drug education in this document from participants in our London Youth Involvement Project:
Advice by age group
Further information and resources
ADEPIS: The Alcohol and Drug Education and Prevention Information Service (ADEPIS) has information and resources for parents and teachers.
FRANK has a page for those worried about a child who may be using drugs, and details on getting in touch with local services in England.
The Department for Education has a huge range of information for teachers and parents.
Child of Our Time is a blog detailing the work of the team of researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London, tracking a cohort of children using a wide range of data sets, sources and information, asking important questions based on existing and emerging evidence.