Concerned 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 and alcohol, 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.
It's natural to feel concerned if you think your child is doing drugs or drinking alcohol – but don’t panic. Most young people who experiment won’t become regular users or develop alcohol problems. 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. Research shows that a child is more likely to develop a problem with alcohol than with drugs.
There are serious risks involved in drug and alcohol use, but most of those who try drugs or alcohol 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 and drink alcohol for lots of reasons. Having a better idea of why your child takes drugs or drinks alcohol will help you when you talk to them.
To have fun
Some young people take drugs or drink alcohol occasionally to have fun, socialise and relax. For these people, taking drugs or drinking might not become a problem, and they’ll probably stop before any serious harm occurs. You can explain that some drugs are illegal and it is illegal for young people under 18 to drink alcohol in public. You can explain that drugs and alcohol 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 or alcohol once or twice to see what it’s like and then decide to leave it. Most people who do try drugs or alcohol don’t continue using drugs or develop alcohol problems.
Some people use drugs or alcohol as a way of escaping their feelings. They might be stressed, depressed, anxious or insecure, and they might think the drugs or alcohol 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 or alcohol. If necessary, look for professional help.
To fit in
Some people take drugs or alcohol 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 or drinking alcohol.
If you’re worried your child is using drugs or drinking alcohol, 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 or drinking alcohol, but could be worth looking out for.
Is your child:
- mixing with new friends who may use drugs or drink alcohol?
- 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 or alcohol use are:
- a smell of alcohol
- poor hygiene or appearance
- staying out late
- headaches or vomiting in the morning (hangover from alcohol)
- 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 or alcohol 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 or alcohol. 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 or alcohol. 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 or drink alcohol?”.
- 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 or drinking alcohol (even if you think they have).
- Let them know you’re there for them – that they can talk to you about drugs or alcohol.
- 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 and alcohol use, most people who try drugs or alcohol don’t suffer any long-term harm to their health.
- And if they are using or drinking, don’t confront them when they’re high or drunk.
If your child refuses to talk to you, try not to panic. Remember that people who try drugs or alcohol 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?
You can help your child by speaking to them about drugs or alcohol and offering them your support.
Worrying about a child’s drug or alcohol use is stressful, and if your child has a problem 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 or alcohol 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. Distinguish between drinking one or two units of alcohol occasionally and drinking higher amounts or drinking alcohol regularly. If they see that you have a realistic view of the risks, they’ll be more likely to listen to you. The NHS produces guidance for parents: Should my child drink alcohol?
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. If your child is dependent on alcohol, they will require assessment, prescribed medication and medical care to manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms which can cause serious complications if they are not treated medically.
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 drug and alcohol 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 or drinking alcohol are. Most people who try drugs or drink a lot don’t keep on doing this – and some people take drugs or drink alcohol regularly without developing a problem. It all depends on who’s taking the drugs or drinking alcohol, the person’s state of mind, body size and physical health, which drug(s) they’re taking or how much alcohol they are drinking, what they’re mixing it with and where it’s being taken.
Physical health effects
Taking drugs can make users feel tired and run down. Sometimes people get more spots and colds too. If someone starts using drugs regularly, the harms can begin to build up resulting in long term health problems, such as liver, kidney and nerve damage. Alcohol affects physical health in many ways. When people are drunk they are more likely to have accidents or get involved in violence. Regular drinking heavily can cause long term health problems including heart disease and strokes, liver disease, cancers damage to the brain and nervous system. If young people drink regularly, even if they are over 15, this can affect the development of their vital organs and functions.
Mental health effects
Drug and alcohol use can lead to people feeling unusually emotional with mood swings. Sometimes there can be serious mental health problems such as panic attacks and depression Alcohol can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts. Anybody with a family history of mental health issues should be especially careful when taking drugs or drinking heavily as they may be more at risk themselves.
Anyone can overdose from taking drugs, even if they are experienced at using drugs and think they know what they’re doing. Young people who are fit and healthy have died from a heart attack after taking drugs because of the toxic effects drugs can put on the body. Drinking a lot of alcohol over a short time can lead to alcohol poisoning, sometimes called alcohol overdose. People who are fit and healthy can die of alcohol poisoning and young people who have little experience of alcohol or it’s toxic effects can be at risk of this.
School or uni work
Because drugs like cannabis and alcohol 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 or drink alcohol 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 or getting into risky situations. If your child is out of it or having a bad experience on drugs or alcohol, they’ll be vulnerable and may need help and looking after. If they choose to go out, they should arrange not to come home alone.
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.
A young person under 18 who drinks alcohol in public can be arrested or fined.
Getting into debt
Some drugs aren’t necessarily expensive, but frequent use of drugs or alcohol can still get people into debt and financial trouble.