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How can I Protect my Child from Drugs and Substance Abuse?

Addiction is a disease which you can protect your child from. Parents have a huge influence on children’s behaviour. Just make sure that you set a good example and communicate well with your child. Talk about the risks and don’t be afraid to seek help

Teenage boy offering alcohol to girls at a partyOne of the greatest concerns for parents is their child falling victim to drug or substance abuse. The good news is that you are the main influence on your children, so you can do something to prevent it. This guide will show you how to educate your child about the dangers, how to spot signs of drug abuse if it does occur, and show you what help is available if substance abuse does become a problem.

Which substances are most frequently abused?

When you think of drug or substance abuse, hard drugs like heroin or cocaine may spring to mind. In reality, very few people use hard drugs – items found in the medicine cabinet are much more likely to be taken. Having said that, illegal drugs do pose a great risk but, while protecting your child from these, don’t forget to keep medicines at home under lock and key.

To give you some idea of the type of substances which are most often abused, here’s a list which may surprise you:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco
  • Over-the-counter medicines
  • Prescription medicines
  • Solvents (like paint thinner or glue)
  • Fuel (fumes from petrol and lighter fluid are both inhaled)
  • Cannabis (either ‘weed’ or ‘hashish’)
  • Stimulants (amphetamine or cocaine)
  • ‘Party’ drugs (ecstasy or ketamine)
  • Hallucinogens (LSD, ‘magic’ mushrooms)

As you can see, many of the substances on the list are freely available, and you may have several in your own home. If so, be sure to keep them somewhere where your children can’t get to them.

What are the causes of drug or substance abuse?

There are many reasons why people misuse drugs and other substances. Amongst children, the main causes are curiosity, experimentation and peer pressure. A great many youngsters try drugs but very few go on to become regular users. Those who do often have problems in other areas of their life which they use drugs to escape from.

Here’s a list of the major risk factors which may lead to drug or substance addiction:

  • Stress – The stresses of life, be they financial or emotional, take their toll on us all. Some people, however, use drugs as a means of coping. The short-term escape from life’s problems which drugs can bring seems like a relief, although it will make things worse in the long-term
  • Mental illness – All too often, drug abuse and mental illness go hand-in-hand. People who suffer from anxiety or depression may seek relief from their symptoms and ‘self-medicate’ with drugs or alcohol. Sadly, substance abuse is more likely to aggravate mental health problems rather than alleviate them
  • Family history – It’s a fact that children from families with a history of substance abuse are much more likely to fall victims to it themselves. Whether the link is genetic or environmental is uncertain, although both are probably to blame

Can parents influence their child’s attitude towards drugs?

If coming from a family (or being surrounded by friends) who misuse drugs makes children more likely to become drug users themselves, then role models are clearly important. Parental behaviour is the greatest influence on children – how you behave around them is the example they will try to follow.

If you tell your child that smoking is bad, and then get through a pack of 20 every day, then that sends confusing messages to your child. You have to match your actions to your words, otherwise your child will not take them seriously. Here are a few tips on being a good role model for your child:

  • Do not smoke – If you want your child to grow up to be a non-smoker, then lead by example. If you do smoke then try to stop, or at least cut down. And keep reiterating the message that starting to smoke was a terrible mistake you’ve regretted ever since
  • Drink responsibly – Most of us enjoy a drink from time to time. If you do drink in front of your children then make sure that you only have one or two glasses. If they see you inebriated then they’ll think that’s how alcohol should be drunk
  • Deal with stress – After a hard day at work you just want to relax, but don’t turn to alcohol. If you hit the bottle every time you feel anxious or want to relax, then your children may grow up to do the same
  • Point out irresponsible behaviour – If you are watching TV, or even listening to music, and a character abuses drugs or alcohol, then make sure you mention it. If children see or hear a positive image of substance abuse then it sets the wrong example. This includes what you say – never tell them of the fun you had with drugs or alcohol in your younger days. If you do then they’ll think it’s OK to try for themselves

It’s an old saying, but actions really do speak louder than words. As a parent you must be mindful of everything you do around your children and ask yourself whether you’d accept your child behaving in the same way. If you wouldn’t, then don’t do it yourself!

Should I talk to my child about substance abuse?

Communication is key when it comes to being a parent. The better you know your child, and the more they trust you, the easier it is to guide them away from harmful activities. Make sure you talk to them about each day’s events – both at school and with their friends. This is to keep open the lines of communication. Many youngsters are reluctant to open up so try asking questions they can’t answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. For example ‘What was the best thing that happened today?’ is much better than ‘Did you enjoy school today?’

Children are unlikely to come into contact with any drugs until they start secondary school. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to younger children about the issue – quite the opposite, in fact. Primary school age is the best time to talk to your child about the dangers of substance abuse. That way they’ll be better equipped to handle situations that may arise later - when they are offered drugs as a teenager for example.

Here are a few things you might want to talk through with your child:

  • The harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol and drugs
  • The legal status of tobacco, alcohol and drugs
  • Your feelings about substance abuse
  • A time when you refused tobacco, alcohol or drugs
  • Ways in which they can say no to tobacco, alcohol or drugs

It’s important that you listen to what your child has to say without judging them. You may disagree with them, but do so in a calm manner and don’t preach. You might get the opportunity to dispel any myths your child believes, such as ‘Everyone gets drunk’ or ‘Cannabis doesn’t harm anyone’. Learn the facts and share them with your child. Children whose parents discuss substance abuse with them are half as likely to become users as ones whose parents don’t.

How can I get involved with my child’s private life?

Older children and teenagers want more independence, and it can be tricky to keep up with all the comings and goings in their private life. However, it’s important that you stay involved. Youngsters who have loving and interested parents are much less likely to fall victim to substance abuse. So, how can you maintain your involvement with teenage children? Here are a few tips:

  • Attend events – Support your child’s activities by going to sporting events, concerts or school plays. It’s important that you praise their efforts too. If you neglect their activities then your child may feel neglected themselves
  • Set aside some family time – This could be meal time, TV time or just time spent together. Use this as an opportunity to talk to your child, as well as to relax and have fun. The more often you see your child, the more often you can communicate
  • Offer emotional support – If your child seems upset for any reason then let them know you are there to help. Ask them what’s wrong, but don’t press the issue if they are reluctant to talk. It should be enough for them to know that you are there for them whenever they need any help
  • Get to know their friends – Peer pressure is the biggest gateway to substance abuse. Welcome your child’s friends into your home. That way you can keep tabs on who they are hanging round with and discourage friendships with any ‘unsavoury’ sorts

What are the signs of substance abuse?

Despite all your best efforts, your child might decide to experiment. If they do, they’ll want to hide it from you - but it is something you need to spot early. So, what are the signs and symptoms that could indicate drugs or alcohol are being abused? Here’s a list of things to look out for:

  • Change in school work – If someone is taking drugs or alcohol, their school work might suffer. They may start to miss classes or lose motivation. As a result, their grades will probably deteriorate
  • Change in behaviour – Teenagers will naturally become more private. However, if they are excessively secretive then substance abuse may be the cause. Other warnings include a sudden aggressiveness to other family members and an unusual need for money, which may cause them to steal from you
  • Lack of interest in appearance – Most teenagers make the way they look their top priority. They want the best clothes and feel a need to look good. If they start to neglect their appearance, and even their personal hygiene, then this could be a warning that they are abusing drugs or alcohol
  • Deterioration in health – Substance abuse is not good for our physical and mental health. Symptoms may include over or under-sleeping, a lack of energy, poor concentration and memory, increase or decrease in appetite, lethargy, and paranoia

The actual symptoms, and the damage caused, vary depending on which substance is taken. If you notice anything which causes concern, speak first to your child and, if necessary, to your GP.

What can I do if my child is taking drugs?

Discovering that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol is one of the worst things that can happen to a parent. So what can you do if you find out? Firstly, don’t panic! Things may seem bad but, now you know there’s a problem, you can do something about it. Here are few tips which should help:

Teenage girl fallen victim to drug abuse

  • Stay calm – You might be feeling angry or hurt but try not to show it. If you want your child to open up, you need to be patient and understanding, rather than judgemental
  • Listen – If you can get your child to talk, then listen to what they have to say. If you can find out why they have been taking drugs, then you have a better chance of stopping it
  • Support – Encourage your child to give up their habit. Your support could give them the confidence they need to quit for good
  • Seek help – If the issue is serious and your child has become addicted then get them some help as soon as possible. A visit to the GP is a good start. If your child won’t go with you, then talk to their GP yourself and ask for advice

If you can get your child to see their doctor (either with you or on their own) then things should improve. The doctor can explain the dangers of drug or alcohol abuse and get your child to recognise that they have a problem. He/she might also be able to recommend treatment - through counselling, a substance abuse treatment or (in worst case scenarios) a rehabilitation facility.

Addiction to any drug, be it alcohol, heroin, tobacco or painkillers, is a stigma. People are judged as criminals when in reality, addiction is a disease. But, like any disease, you’ll want to take every precaution to protect your child from it. But how can you? You are not as powerless as you may think – parents have a huge influence on their children’s behaviour. Just make sure that you set a good example and communicate well with your child. Find out the facts about drugs (Frank, the national drug education website, is a good source of information) and talk to your child about their risks. And finally, if your child is using drugs then don’t be afraid to seek help – there are many resources available for drug users and for their parents.

For further reading you’ll find answers to parents’ questions in the EQ Knowledge Bank. We have dozens of articles which offer guidance and tips on all sorts of parenting issues. We also have plenty of information on education too. Have a browse through and see what you can find out today!

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