Talking about alcohol, smoking and drugs
As a parent, the chances are you are concerned that your child might be tempted to try alcohol, smoking or drugs – especially when they hit the teenage years.
These things all seem to be more readily available than before and it’s impossible to protect children from opportunities to experiment.
While your child will learn about alcohol, smoking and drugs at school, parents have a crucial role to play.
As well as providing information, you can help your child begin to develop their own understanding around these issues. And the best time to start is at an early stage – when your child is still in primary school. This will help equip your child with the skills that he or she will need in order to make informed decisions at a later stage.
Why might a child try these things?
It could be through curiosity, for fun or to be like their friends.
For young people, alcohol is often the drug of choice, and is used by more young people than tobacco or illicit drugs. Rates of underage drinking have soared in the UK in recent years.
Although most children under age 14 have not yet begun to drink, early adolescence is a common time for beginning to experiment with alcohol.
While your 11-year-old might not like the taste of wine or beer, sweet alcopop-type drinks are popular and appeal to young people because they cannot really taste the alcohol that these drinks contain.
By age 11, a third of children will have experimented with smoking. Most young smokers are influenced by friends and older brothers or sisters who smoke.
Girls are more likely to be regular smokers and the proportion of those who smoke rises sharply with age. One per cent of 11 year olds smoke regularly, compared with 22 per cent of 15 year olds.
Drug use is most common among teenagers and people in their early 20s. But according to the Department of Health, the average age of first drug use is becoming younger. Young people are most likely to try sniffing volatile solvents such as glue or butane gas or use cannabis.
What does my child learn at school?
Schools are required to provide drugs education, which also covers alcohol and tobacco, as part of the National Curriculum. This starts in primary school, where children will learn in general terms about the dangers of drugs.
In Key Stage 2 (ages seven to 11), they will learn which commonly available substances and drugs are legal and illegal, their effects and risks.
At Key Stage 3 (ages 12-14), children will learn the facts and laws about drug, alcohol and tobacco misuse and the personal and social consequences of misuse for themselves and others.
In Key Stage 4 (ages 15-16) they will cover choices relating to substance use and misuse, and the long and short-term consequences for the health and mental and emotional well being of individuals, families and communities.
What can parents do?
The chances are that your child won’t be involved in smoking, drinking alcohol or using drugs during their primary school years.
But this is a good time to open a conversation about these issues, and about the risks they involve, before children start experimenting for themselves. The best way to influence your child’s values, and help guide your child towards healthy decision-making, is to build a strong, trusting relationship.
Start by asking your child what they know about alcohol, smoking and drugs and listen carefully to what they say. Your child will feel heard and respected, and it will give you a natural lead-in to discuss these issues.
Take the chance to share with your child your own values and attitudes to these topics, and discuss with your child your expectations for your child’s behaviour around them in the future.
Avoid lectures and scare stories – focus on this being a conversation. You don’t need to cover everything at once. In fact, you’re likely to have a greater impact on your child’s decisions by having a number of talks through your child’s adolescence.
As well as talking to your child, you need to be involved in their life and get to know their friends. It might be useful to talk to other parents, friends or teachers.
Handling peer pressure
As children grow, they become influenced by friends around them. You could brainstorm ideas for how your child might handle difficult situations.
For instance, what should your child do if out with friends and someone hands round cigarettes? You could even practice acting it out together if your child would find this helpful.
Let your child know that the best way to say no is to be assertive – in other words, say no and mean it.
You are a role model
Think carefully about your own behaviour as this will strongly influence your child. For instance, children are three times more likely to smoke if both their parents smoke, and parental approval or disapproval of the habit is a significant factor in influencing whether your child takes it up.
Think about your drinking habits. Drink moderately, and don’t give your child the message that alcohol is a good way to solve problems. For instance, don’t come home from work and say ‘I’ve had a terrible day, I need a drink’.
Let your child know that there are other ways of coping with stress – talking things over, listening to music, exercising.
Encourage healthy alternatives
One reason some children choose to try drinking, smoking or drugs is because they are bored. So it’s a good idea to make sure your child has plenty of activities that are challenging or fun.
Ask your child what they would like to do – they are most likely to take part if they’re interested in an activity.
Check out what’s offered at school. Is your child interested in after school sports clubs or a scheme like the Duke of Edinburgh Awards?
Find out what’s available locally. Are there community organisations (eg youth theatre, political organisations) that offer anything your child is keen to try?
Ask for advice
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You could talk to your GP or practice nurse in confidence, or to your child’s teacher or the school nurse.
There is also a wide range of voluntary counselling centres and drug and alcohol agencies that will be able to provide information and support.
Last reviewed by Great Ormond Street Hospital: 29 January 2009