Advice for parents: What to do if you're worried about a child’s drug use

What to do if you're worried about a child's drug use, including tips on how to encourage them to open up as well as how to keep them safe.

Where should I start?

If you’re a parent, carer or family member, worried about a young person's drug or alcohol use, it can be difficult to know where to turn or what to do. 

Much as you'd like to, it's almost impossible to prevent your child from encountering drugs or from using them if they want to. But by staying as informed as possible, you can help them make safer and better choices when they do.

Here's some honest, practical advice from our young people's team to help you stay informed. 

Why do young people take drugs?

People take drugs for lots of reasons.

Having a better idea of why your child takes drugs will help you when you talk to them.

To 'have fun'

Some young people take drugs occasionally to have fun, socialise and relax. For these people, taking drugs might not become a problem, and they’ll probably stop before any serious harm occurs.

You can explain that some drugs are illegal and 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.

To 'experiment'

Some people are just curious. They might try drugs once or twice to see what it’s like and then decide to leave it. 

To ‘escape’

Some people use drugs as a way of escaping their feelings. They might be stressed, depressed, anxious or insecure, and they might think the drugs 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. If necessary, look for professional help.

To 'fit in'

Some people take drugs to ‘fit in’, and because they’re under pressure to do so by their friends.

Helping your child to open up about drugs

It might not always seem like it, but your influence does make a difference. You are the right person to talk to your child about drugs.

Research shows that when young people develop a problem with drugs or alcohol, family support can make a big difference to helping them get back on track.

Keep the conversation open

Try to keep the conversation open at all times. There are often stories about drugs in the media and on TV, so use these as springboards for conversations. This way, when you do ask your child about drugs, it should feel more natural and they won’t feel accused.

Try to remain neutral

Remember there’s no point in being heavy-handed when you talk about drugs, 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 specific

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. If they see that you have a realistic view of the risks, they’ll be more likely to listen to you.

How to keep your child safe if they’re using drugs

  1. Ensure they have a means of contacting you (phone is charged and they have credit) should they start feeling unwell after taking drugs.
  2. Ensure they know what to do in an emergency if they aren’t with you. Reassure them that ringing an ambulance for help due to substance misuse doesn’t always mean the police will attend. 
  3. Keep boundaries with your child. They still need to know that even though you may be doing the above to help keep them safe, that this isn’t you enabling the substance misuse. 
  4. Have an ‘escalation’ agreement. For example, such as; if they are out with friends and have told you or you suspect they will be using drugs and then they aren’t home when they say they will be and/or fail to make contact that you will contact the police or another family member that they respect to help you locate them. 
  5. Discuss why it is important with your child that, if they are going to buy drugs, they buy from the same dealer. Other dealers may sell the drug they use with a higher purity level, mixed with other chemicals/materials that your child’s body isn’t used to having. When buying from different dealers the risks of overdose or becoming poorly from substance misuse are greater. 
  6. Discuss the importance of not taking drugs on their own. If you’re going to take drugs then It’s safer to do it with a group of friends where one friend remains sober incase there is an emergency. 
  7. Not to share any equipment they use to take drugs - such as needles, bongs, pipes, rolled up bank notes etc. If they do, they are putting themselves at risk of BBV (blood-borne viruses) such as; Hepatitis B, C and HIV. 
  8. To eat a proper meal before using drugs and to drink plenty of water/juice whilst using drugs. Some drugs can cause dehydration and cause people to forget to eat. 

Supporting your child to make changes

Supporting a child who has a dependency to drugs or alcohol can be an emotional rollercoaster. Most importantly, the reason why your child wants to stop is because they have decided to. 

The withdrawal symptoms from some drugs can be severe and cravings can persist for some time. Some drugs are psychologically addictive, others are physically addictive and some are both. Some substances also have fatal withdrawal symptoms, like alcohol for example, so we advise seeking professional support regardless of the substance.

Do your research to fully understand the effects and how best to support them. 

Recovery isn’t straight forward

It may take several attempts before your child overcomes their dependency, even with support.  What’s important is that as their parent or guardian, you focus on the positives and remind them of why they want to recover.

Remember to look after yourself

When someone you care about is facing challenges with drugs, alcohol or mental health, it’s natural to want to be there for them. That desire to support is a wonderful thing. 

But it’s important to remember to prioritise your own wellbeing too. By caring for yourself, you create even more capacity to be a source of strength for others.

More resources for parents, carers and families

  • Drugfam – online one-to-one and group meetings for families affected by someone else’s drug use. Phone their free helpline on 0300 888 3853.

  • Scottish families affected by drugs and alcohol – support by phone, email or webchat. Phone their free helpline on 08080 10 10 11.

  • The 20 minute guide – practical tips for parents and partners of people who drink or use drugs.

  • SMART recovery friends and family - a group that teaches friends and family how to better look after themselves whilst supporting a loved one.

  • Families Anonymous - A world-wide fellowship of family members and friends affected by another’s abuse of mind-altering substances, or related behavioural problems. Regular group meetings around the country.

We highly recommend this book by Fiona Spargo-Mabbs. 

I Wish I'd Known interweaves the story of one family’s terrible loss with calm, measured advice for parents. There's practical advice for staying safe, information on reducing harm, and ‘talking points’ for parents and their children to do, talk about, look at, look up or consider.