Is your teenager involved with drugs?
If your immediate reaction was “Of course not!” it might be worth thinking again. Earlier this year I shared a post on Facebook by Surrey Police, concerned about the numbers of young people they were seeing drawn into drugs without realising what they were doing:
The children, who are often lured by dealers to ‘run’ the drugs in return for money, alcohol or the promise of a glamorous lifestyle, are soon ‘owned’ by the gang. With that comes extreme threats of violence and torture.
I was overwhelmed by the number of people who contacted me after reading the post. As parents we all talk about online bullying, gaming, and sexual grooming. We tell our kids not to take drugs, drink alcohol, or send nudes. But we never expect our children to get involved in supplying drugs, or hang out with the sort of people who might. But it happens in ways we wouldn’t imagine.
How teenagers are drawn into drug culture
One of the stories I read fell into exactly this scenario. Sarah’s teenage daughter Kate* has a wide circle of good friends and goes to an ‘outstanding’ secondary school; she’s a smart girl who takes her schoolwork seriously, and acts responsibly. And yet she was expelled for supplying drugs in school. Kate had friends in other schools – pretty normal for a girl of 15 – and some of those friends knew others who did occasionally take drugs at parties. Word went round that she knew these people, and very soon, Kate was doing favours for friends of friends in her own school, taking their payments and bringing back pills. She was popular, the cool kids liked her, she wasn’t making money or taking drugs herself, just doing favours in return for social acceptance. But she was effectively dealing.
* Names changed.
Drugs are more prolific than alcohol amongst teens
What makes drugs such a big risk is that alcohol and cigarettes are so difficult for teenagers to get hold of these days. Which is a good thing. Smoking and drinking amongst teenagers are in decline in the UK, but as drugs aren’t controlled in the same way, there is easier access to them amongst those in the know. And that’s a wider circle than you’d imagine; it’s also happening younger than you’d think. I asked my own kids if they were aware of drugs in their school. My youngest is 11, and in his first year of secondary; he had no knowledge of anyone in his year who might have taken drugs. However my daughter, aged 14, told me that she knows of people her age who smoke cannabis, which indicates to me that if she wanted some for herself, she’d probably be able to get it. She’s another good student, with a lovely group of friends, and my gut instinct is that she wouldn’t mess with drugs. She also knows the rules, and generally sticks to them. But faced with peer pressure, would she be able to resist 100% of the time?
Drugs, gangs and teenage knife crime
But it’s just one harmless joint, right? Kids will be kids. Well, not so much. Some of the people who contacted me had even darker stories to tell, and the stats back it up. If your child is involved with people who supply or take drugs, they are much more likely to be exposed to even more dangerous situations like knife crime.
It’s a difficult subject to tackle with your kids, and I know so many parents who don’t want to expose their young teenagers to that kind of fear before they’re ready. However, I really think that once our children are in secondary school (and especially if they have older siblings), they’re going to get access to all kinds of information that might be scary. My preference is always to be the person who told them about it first, so I can moderate some of what they hear, with truth rather than gossip, and answer their questions. Mark Higgins, a former teenage gang member who was stabbed 5 times, agrees:
Strong mental health support is essential for teenagers
Sharon Lawton is a Hertfordshire based Family Coach, specialising in supporting families going through difficult situations, including conflict management, confidence skills and wellbeing issues like managing stress and anxiety. She has two teenage boys of her own, and agrees that learning how to give young people the skills and tools to build resilience against all these pressures, including the pressure of gang culture and drug crime, is now an essential part of parenting.
Erivaldo Felix, another former gang member speaking at Sharon’s event, is also a firm advocate of mental health support. He says “It’s important to understand the reasons behind young people’s decision making and how the environment, family friends can have a big impact when making these tough decisions. Seeing things from young people’s eyes and finding certain skills to avoid going down the wrong path is really important.” Erivaldo turned his life around after meeting and being mentored by Victory Youth Group. He now shares his experience with parents and young people to raise awareness of the problem, and to try to prevent other kids experiencing the same.
It’s not just the ‘Difficult’ kids
It would be easy for those of us sitting in white middle-class England, surrounded by top state and private schools, to believe that gang culture is about deprived ethnic groups in under-policed cities – because that’s what we see in the media. Sadly though, there have been several knife attacks amongst group gatherings of middle class teenagers from good homes. We can’t afford to be complacent. In fact, it’s now recognised that young adults from more privileged households have easier access to drugs, because they have more available cash to spend on them. My friend’s son was 13 when he started asking for beer at his birthday parties, because the boys from the private school he goes to always had alcohol at their own celebrations. And it’s now acknowledged that parents are the biggest suppliers of alcohol to underage teenagers.
So what do parents need to know about drugs?
The situation is so serious that recently, a group of headteachers got together to create a letter to parents, detailing police findings on what is available to our young people, and what to look out for. It’s sobering reading, and more proof – if you needed – that even teachers think children need you more when they become teenagers, not less:
- After alcohol, cannabis is the main drug used. This includes the vaping of THC, the active chemical component of cannabis oil. Cannabis is a class B drug, and it’s impossible to know what else it is mixed with, which makes it even more dangerous. THC is odourless, and gives an instant hit, which has increased its popularity. Teenagers take it via a cartridge inserted into a vape pen. Police now believe this is commonplace amongst young adults. However it is illegal, and can result in a criminal record
- There has been an alarming recent growth in the use of ketamine and cocaine in young people. These are powders that can be taken by sniffing, swallowing in a cigarette paper, or rubbing under the tongue
- It’s not just one daft experiment. 32% of young people who try cannabis once, become frequent users. Possession carries a maximum 5 year prison sentence; supplying to someone else can lead to 14 years in prison. That could have been Kate.
- It’s cheaper than you’d imagine. Take a look at this table of the typical street prices for drugs:
It’s not beyond the teenagers of an averagely well-off family, is it?
What should parents do?
As ever, I’m going to say talk to your kids. Honestly, and as early as possible. They need to know about the dangers they will come across, while they’re still mostly influenced by you, and not by peer pressure. They need to understand that it’s not ‘just one experiment,’ and that even if it were, it could end up killing them, or leading them into dangerous situations with groups of people who might harm them.
Then keep an eye on your kids. Check who they’re hanging out with, where they go, and what they’re spending their money on. Check their phones occasionally (and if you need help deciphering what they’re saying, see my guide to teen text speak). It may feel like an invasion of privacy, but if you’re worried, it’s worth it. They are still your child, and they need your protection. If a conversation is uncomfortable, that probably means it’s an important one to have. And if you’re worried, contact one of the organisations below, or your child’s school.
- Sharon Lawton’s next Happy Teens Wellbeing Weekender will take place on Saturday 4th May in St Albans. The event will run from 10.00am to 17.00pm and will be packed full of the leading lights in wellbeing and mental health, with interactive workshops, professional speakers and taster sessions. Ticket prices are affordable at £10 for teens and £40 for adults. The conference will be supporting charities The OLLIE Foundation for suicide awareness, and Rephael House Counselling. More information and also how to purchase tickets can be found at http://www.natural-flair.com/events
- You can see more about how teenagers get involved in knife crime, including an interview with Mark Higgins in this video.
- If you’re worried about your child or one of their friends taking drugs, website Frank has good information on drug use, and how to help spot the signs.