Your teenager is moody, unpredictable, up all night and asleep all day. They mope around the house, refusing to speak unless itís to their friends down a mobile telephone. They get on your nerves, you get on theirs, you argue and doors are slammed.

Getting Frank in the war on drugs

Typical teenage behaviour? Or could it be a sign of something much more worrying ó that the son or daughter who just a few years earlier enjoyed nothing more than playing with their Action Man or Barbie dolls is now involved in the world of illegal drugs?

According to many sources, thereís a fair chance that your moody youngster may well be demonstrating typical drug abuse behaviour ó nearly five out of ten secondary school children questioned by Scotland Against Drugs in 2000 claimed they had been offered drugs, while 17 per cent admitted using them, with boys more likely than girls to indulge.

Even the signs from government seem to suggest that parents must accept that their children come into regular contact with all kinds of illegal substances, with recent drugs education initiatives revealing a steady shift away from the zero tolerance approach towards informing them how to reduce the chances of harm.

Indeed, Westminsterís latest approach is a controversial £3 million advertising campaign for a drugs information website,, which blends graphic information on how to feed drug requirements and avoid the wrong drugs cocktails with quirky jokes and even an agony aunt column. "Donít mix Ketamine (a tranquilliser) and tobacco", it warns. "If the ketamine knocks you out you could burn the house down".

But for parents concerned about their youngstersí likelihood to dabble with drugs, itís no laughing matter. Confronted by either the hard evidence of their childís habit or the crippling fear that their moody youngster may well be tinkering with ecstasy, cannabis or cocaine, simply accepting the drugs menace may not be an option they want to consider.

For them, the statistics are chilling: 60,000 people have died in Scotland over the past 20 years from drug misuse and there are currently 56,000 heroin users across the country. Use of crack and cocaine has increased by more than 200 per cent in Scotland in the past five years, while the number of babies born to drug-addicted mothers has dramatically increased to one in every 56 babies born.

Even closer to home ó and school ó last November a 14-year-old pupil at St Thomas of Aquins was charged by police for being in possession of cannabis, while a UK Drugs Unlimited report of clubbers in Edinburgh and Glasgow showed nearly half of them, mostly undergraduates and young professionals, had taken cocaine.

And there may be further cause for them to be worried: from July 1 cannabis becomes a class C drug rather than class B, and punishments for personal use become much less severe.

So where does it leave the worried parent who would rather not see their youngster stumble through early adulthood and into prison, in a drug-induced haze? And what if they want to guide their teenager away from the drug dealerís trap long before any damage can be done?

Unfortunately for them, trying to figure out whether their youngsterís unsociable behaviour is just another annoying symptom of adolescence or a warning sign that they could be tampering with illegal drugs, is far from an exact science.

However, help for them could come in the form of a new programme from Australia, which is said to have helped thousands of families there deal with the threat of harmful drugs and sustained misuse.

How to Drug Proof Your Kids, unveiled at the Scottish Parliament last week, is specifically designed to educate parents about substance misuse through a series of community-based programmes led by fellow parents trained by the organisation, along with drug education and child care professionals. The first Scottish session is expected to be held at an Edinburgh primary school in autumn.

"It may not be possible to stop children from trying out tobacco, alcohol or illicit drugs," concedes Jacqui Foggitt, manager of Care for the Familyís office in Scotland ó the charitable Christian organisation which has brought the initiative from Down Under. "But extensive research shows that parents can play a vital role in keeping their children from long-term involvement in substance abuse."

The six-point programme of two-hour sessions covers key areas including: the extent of the drugs problem; why young people indulge; how to educate children to make "good" choices; prevention tools for parents; learning to intervene and where to get help, and advice on how to handle "relapses".

The package ó which focuses on stressing to parents the need to build a strong relationship with their children long before a drugs crisis may even arise ó was put together from a book, Drug Proof Your Kids, written by Dr Steve Arterburn, who has a doctorate in addictions and runs several clinics in America, and his colleague Jim Burns in the late 1980s.

It urges parents to arm themselves with knowledge of the drugs scene ó from how drug dealers prey on and befriend vulnerable young children to street names for drugs ó to become aware of support groups in their area and how to deal rationally with evidence of their childís drug use.

"Parents need to understand and respond in a way most appropriate to their situation," states the programme. "To simply tell children who are already casual or dependent users to stop taking drugs is naive. As is lecturing young people that Ďall they have to do is say noí. It is a much more complex issue, and there are psychosocial and health issues that need to be addressed."

Blowing your top or finger-wagging is exactly what parents should not do, agrees one Edinburgh parent with direct experience of a drug-abusing son.

"I look back on how I handled it and there are many things I probably did wrong," says the 57-year-old father who lives in the west of Edinburgh. "I didnít know what to look for, where to go or who to talk to. I didnít understand what it was all about."

His son started smoking cannabis 14 years ago at the age of 13, although his suspicions were only really aroused when he noted evidence of him smoking roll-ups instead of cigarettes. "I didnít know anything about smoking hash ó I didnít even know what it looked like," he admits.

"My son said hash was ok, most kids have either been offered it or tried it by the time they are 16 or 17. What do you say? It was tremendously difficult. I didnít know what to look for and found I was always second-guessing my son. Eventually it became much more serious than hash."

His son now has a heroin addiction which has seen him spend long periods in prison and left his father shattered. "He spends about 50 per cent of his time in prison ó addicts who take drugs and then go out stealing usually get caught," says the father, who asked not to be identified. "He has even run up a drugs bill while in prison and then got into trouble trying to pay it back once he was released by smuggling drugs back inside.

"The whole culture of drugs brings bewilderment, stress and hurt, a whole selection of feelings. Iíve even had to go down to his dealers and try to pay them off. Itís hard for the parents as well."

He believes the key to helping parents is encouraging communication with children at an early age, gathering as much information as possible and learning to identify warning signs ó just the kind of skills which How to Drug Proof Your Kids appears to stress.

"This is primarily a parenting course," explains Jacqui Foggitt. "Itís about improving the relationship between parents and their children with the emphasis on drugs." The course also advises parents on how and where to find support and advice at local level and how to support their child should they relapse by looking at diet, emotional state and the issues which may have led to drug abuse in the first place.

Paula Pridham, training manager for the programme, adds: "The course is aimed at prevention, itís about parents learning how to relate to their children to put in enough protective factors so they donít feel the need to try drugs. It looks at building self-esteem, open communication and making sure children are well educated about drugs. And itís about parents looking at their own behaviour and lifestyle."

Indeed, the most recent Scottish anti-drugs television adverts also strived to show parents how they shouldnít react, with two furious parents wagging fingers and simultaneously shouting at their sullen daughter after discovering her dalliance with drugs.

Alistair Ramsay, director of Scotland Against Drugs, agrees that this approach is the wrong one. "Parents often get it wrong because they donít want to think their children know more about a subject than they do. And drugs can be an emotive topic.

"We want to encourage children to look up and beyond drugs, rather than wag fingers at them. Finger wagging and sermonising about donít do this and donít try that often backfires."

Paula Pridham agrees. "Parents will want to scream and kick them out of the house. They wonít ever want to see their child again. And thatís the wrong way to handle it. They have to think about how they might react beforehand, so that if drugs do become an issue they can talk about it with their child in a positive way and not an emotive one that doesnít help anyone."

By Sandra Dick
4 June 2003