Teens: Smoking, Drinking Alcohol And Taking Drugs

10/04/2015 10:49 | Updated 10 June 2015

Teenage girl drinking beer and smoking cigarette

Next year it will be 30 years since the infamous 'Just Say No' campaign sung by the cast of Grange Hill beamed into our living rooms.

'Don't listen, don't listen to anyone else, all you've got to do is be yourself..' went the lyrics. And we sang along, vowing never to take drugs like heroin schoolboy user Zammo. Ever.

As successful as the 1986 campaign was, of course it wasn't that simple - as it isn't today.

'Just say no' to alcohol, cigarettes and drugs is advice every parent would want to give their child but along with death and taxes, one certainty in life is your child will one day be tempted to experiment.. if not with just one, then all three.

It's not just peer pressure they might give into, it's biology too. New research from an American university backs this up as researchers discovered the teenage brain is driven by the need for immediate rewards heightening their desire to experiment.

So knowing this, what can parents do about it? The first tool in your armoury is talking. When your child is old enough to be curious to 'ask' about booze and drugs, before they're old enough to 'try' it might be the perfect time to start talking to them. Start with what they do, for example, substances make you feel good for a while by kicking off chemicals in the brain, but for every up side there's a down side...

After you've opened up the conversation, it's best to keep it going over the years. The more open and relaxed kids are, hopefully the more likely they'll be to tell you what's happening in their own lives later on.

Doubtlessly, the temptation to experiment will increase the older your child gets. This is the time to set some ground rules. Writing down a 'contract' is one way, or being very clear and consistent with your child. For example, it is illegal to try and buy alcohol before 18 so this is banned. But navigating this phase is very challenging. In France kids are bought up mixing water with wine over dinner, so is banning booze completely the best bet?

UK charity Drinkaware suggest giving children the facts. Professor Paul Wallace, chief medical adviser to charity Drinkaware says official advice is no alcohol in childhood is the best way. He adds that talking is key to helping kids make good decisions and parents should cover about all the risks associated with drinking, including an increased likelihood of accidents, injury and getting involved in fights.

He says: "As a parent you have more influence than you might think. If you make it clear their questions are welcome and you try and answer them then they'll keep coming back."

Bring up the subject of peer pressure too. Gently find out if their friends are experimenting as this increases the risk of your child doing so.

Smoking and drinking are likely to be the first substances a teen will try, but the prospect of drugs feels to many parents an even bigger danger.

A recent survey by The Guardian found that out of current users of drugs 23 this was the first drug they tried), speed (amphetamine) and cocaine being the top three drugs of choice.

To begin with before you try and talk about drugs, look up the facts yourself. Knowledge is power. When you know which drugs are which and what they do, you can inform your child of the risks. As hard as this can be, try and keep things calm. If you lose your temper you'll child is likely to walk away.

But what if all the talking and sharing doesn't work and your child still starts using drugs, drinks or smokes?

Look to recognise the signs early on. These include mood swings, vague descriptions of where they're going, extra requests for money and little interest in school or spending time with the family. Of course all of these 'signs' are typical teenage behaviour too, but take note any significant changes or new friends on the scene too.

As upsetting as it is, try and be realistic about your control over this situation. If your teenager decides to start smoking outside of school and the home, there is little a parent can do about it. You can again talk about the risks, leave literature in their bedroom and perhaps minimise money spent on fags by curtailing an allowance but any other control with a semi-independent teen is impossible.

Similarly with drinking, if it's done outside the home it's hard to stop. But again a 'contract' could come into place. No drunkenness at home could be one basic rule.

In the worse case scenario and you discover your child is taking drugs, it can quickly feel like every parent's worst nightmare. Drugs = danger in most parent's minds, and for good reason, for example the latest news that research shows skunk triples the risk of psychosis is shocking.

But the best course of action is don't ignore what's going on. Again, try and talk to your child. If they refuse to listen, then seek outside professional advice, such as calling a helpline or find out if the school or college has a counsellor or someone you can speak to.

Meanwhile try and seek support for yourself, either talking to other parents or friends. Also know that in most cases drug taking in teenage years is just a passing phase. And don't feel ashamed. If your teen is prone to trying and experimenting it doesn't mean you've failed as a mother or father. Your kids might just need some extra navigation through it and that's what you're also there for.

More on Parentdish: My teenager is drinking


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