Drugs-Why Bother With Parents?!

by Peter Stoker: Director, National Drug Prevention Alliance

Simply because this subject is too important to leave to the experts. Parents, even these days, are seen by young people as a key source of information and moral guidance. As an example, try summating the whole life of your child from birth through to age 21. Tabulate all of the hours that they spend in school, or in religious areas, or in community areas, or with you the parent; it is enlightening to then look at the percentage of time the child spends in the various ‘zones of influence’, throughout their youth. The figures are 10% in school, and less than 1% in churches etc. The rest of the time, they are outside the influence of those organisations.

Moreover, the great majority of drug use by young people does not take place in school, nor does the dealing. What does this mean? It clearly means that most of the drug misuse takes place when we are in charge. In the main we have drug free schools; what we don’t have is drug free young people. It follows then, taking the title of this paper, that if we who have longer with the young can communicate and influence effectively with them that we stand a strong chance of making things better. But are we using this time well? Research has shown that on average, a parent spends 15 minutes a day communicating with their child. Of that 15 minutes, 13 minutes are spent in criticism. It is not suggested that parents are the only people who can mobilise to good effect. It is obviously, at the very least, a tripartite effort between home, school and community. But what has been one of the main factors in the deterioration over the past few years, which has let in negative behaviours such as drug misuse, has been the separation of the influence of the home from the diverse and sometimes negative influences young people receive either in school, including the playground; or in the community, including those other ‘playgrounds’. If we are to succeed in prevention, we must recognise that ‘Partnership’ is not just a fashionable buzzword; it is a fundamental.

Can Parents Succeed?

Yes, they certainly can; they have done in other countries, and to some extent they are already succeeding here, but nowhere near enough yet. Before quoting figures from the obvious place that researches so much i.e. America, there is evidence from countries much closer to home: two are Belgium and Sweden. In the Eastern cantons of Belgium, Ernst Servais runs the Social-Psychological Centre which is based in Eupen, and has been working for some 15 or 16 years now on community drug prevention work. Before he got into drug specific community education and prevention work Ernst spent a long time, several years, just developing community networks and using less emotive subjects as a vehicle for bringing people within the community together. He knew the truth of the adage that ~‘Tasks Unite, Issues Divide”. Over 13 years up to 1991 when Ernst published his synthesis called “Before It’s Too Late”, drug use by young people in the area concerned rose by only 3%. If you compare that with the major increase in drug use by surrounding areas, it is truly a remarkable achievement. In the case of Sweden (in the late 1970s), there was a period of relaxed approach and harm-reduction-based policy, particularly around the use of amphetamines. This led to a very large escalation in their use with attendant social, emotional and medical problems. Sweden learnt from this mistake, instituted an exemplary suite of prevention programmes and coupled this with a constructively firm law structure; the prevalence of amphetamine abuse, and indeed of other drugs of abuse in Sweden, has since been pushed back very significantly.

Turning now to America, their experience shows how parents can be truly effective. Nationally, biennially collected data across large numbers of households paints a graphic historical picture (Figure 1). Drug use which had been at a very low level for very many years took off during the 1960s under the dual factors of hippie lifestyles and libertarian philosophies, expediently coupled with protest against the Establishment in the context of the Vietnam War. What did parents do when use first started to grow? Absolutely nothing. This is probably about where Britain is now. The problem had to get much bigger before they woke up, but when they did it was the parents and not the professionals who first started insisting that a more vigorous and constructive approach be taken. And to salutary effect. The results are easy to see. Over a 12-year period from 1980 the USA reduced drug use in all age groups and for all substances by a staggering 60%. 13 million fewer users. If any other Public Health or other kind of behaviour modification exercise had achieved this result people would be screaming from the rooftops what an amazing success it was. Instead, all we heard from a largely libertarian press was that “the war on drugs is failing”. Since 1992, use is climbing rapidly again; a stark lesson that you cannot take your eye off the ball — or take the funds off the programme. Prevention (and health promotion in general) must be revisited in every generation, and constantly reinforced.

So, parents can certainly succeed. But they will only succeed if they work in partnership. Prevention is the proper business of every section of the community, each dovetailed into the other but each addressing the subject in different ways, according to their own setting. It is not only youth who need prevention opportunities; whoever the centre of focus is, there will be some who can exert more influence and others less — but every input is valuable. People who are closer to the focal point are likely to be more influential than the people on the periphery. But all of them have a valuable influence, and all of them should be engaged.

Can Parents Succeed Now?

The chances of success as things stand at the moment with parents in Britain are a lot less than they should be. This is because, as a generalisation, parents are largely on the margins of influence. This marginalisation has occurred through a combination of factors, but is also, to some extent, self-inflicted. Cultural changes, including the elevation of youth to a position of near-autonomy, greater spending power by youth, and youth-centred methods in schools, youth centres etc. have mingled with a seemingly daunting array of issues — sexual behaviour, sexuality, negative role models, libertarian media and entertainment, increased family breakdown as well as reduced family influence, violence and vandalism, and of course alcohol and other drugs. In the face of all this many parents have been tempted to see marginalisation as the route to survival. In the particular context of drugs parents remain behind the ‘brick wall’ of marginalisation, in some cases because they want to be, because it’s safe there. But they’re also behind it because an awful lot of media commentators, professionals of various sorts, and indeed other parents reinforce the view that this is where they should be because they a) don’t know enough about drugs, b) have only one simple function when drugs are mentioned, which is to panic, and c) even if they do get involved they mess up anyway. I want to see this brick wall demolished; and the sooner the better. We will only succeed in prevention if parental communication is brought back from the margins to the place where it belongs, in the very centre of things. And nobody will invite you; you will have to push your way back in.

Where Should Parents Focus Their Effort?

For all but a few parents, who want to take the wider view, the focus should be firmly on one’s own back yard; work with your own family first, and worry about the rest of the world later. Next, as a parent, you do not have to be an expert, any more than others who speak out are (Noel Gallagher and Brian Harvey are certainly no experts). As parents, you know instinctively the behaviour you want to encourage in your children and the behaviour you want to discourage. Focus on that, and all ways of achieving it, and leave the fancy drug technology to other people. You don’t have to ‘know knowledge’, just know where to find it. If you must have an instant drug lecture in thirty seconds, this is it:

All psychoactive substances can be classified under one of three headings: They send you upwards, they send you downwards, or they send you sideways; or some permutation thereof.
(End of lecture)

Your focus needs to be not so much on drug technology but instead be firmly on parenting, and we could all benefit from lessons in this. Indeed, there is an argument for including parenting skills in the school curriculum. Parenting courses unfortunately often tend to be limited to drug knowledge; you need much more breadth and depth than this. One example of a useful model has as its name and emphasis ‘Parenting Skills for Prevention’. It is video and audio based, an 8-week, Adult Education course, proven over more than 10 years operation and developed from the original by NDPA to suit British culture. The 8 modules cover awareness of the subject of drugs, and of you yourself in relation to that subject, how to be ‘pre-event’ and parent assertively; the adolescent’s development and basic drives; and the differences between a child, an adolescent, and an adult. In the second half of the course we look at family systems for QA and QC — Quality Assurance and Quality Control. (Setting behavioural standards and following up to see that they are complied with). The difference between Punishment (which can sometimes mean getting even, or revenge) and Consequences (which are the pre-advised outcomes of unwanted behaviour — and they must be preadvised and consistently applied). The difference between the Needs and Wants of one’s offspring; how the Needs must remain inviolate even in the face of the most extreme behaviour, whilst the Wants can be a focus of any Consequences in response to negative behaviour. We also look at the vital relevance of feelings — adolescents work from their feelings; if your communication is only from the head, their hearts won’t understand. Take a deep breath, and tell them how you feel. Reinforce positives, play down negatives. Arrange your time to allow more real communication with your family. And if all else fails, be aware of where to get help. We have run this 8-week course, sometimes in the evening, sometimes in the day, even in workplace lunch breaks, with several hundred parents. We have received excellent evaluations, and these have been accepted by the Home Office, who funded the early stages of the project.

How Can Parents Be More Effective?

The first thing that parents should do is to exert a positive influence. It is essential that between all of the various people who communicate with a young person that the three key areas of behavioural influence are addressed. This has been termed for short as KAB — Knowledge, Attitude, and Behaviour. Giving knowledge is relatively easy, but it must be valid information. Challenging attitudes, why they exist and why they might be more beneficially changed is also rather better understood than the third component i.e. behavioural modification. We far too often overlook that if we wish to produce positive behaviour we need to encourage it when it occurs. More often our inclination is to challenge or punish negative behaviour when it arises. The plain fact is that if you can introduce an environment of positivity in your home and encourage your children to interact with other children in a more positive way this will have a beneficial effect, and this can spread over a wide area. Studies at Swansea University show that for every peer educator who goes through training programme they beneficially impact, to some extent, around another 200 people. A convenient encapsulation of a parental approach to behaviour is found in a psychologist’s term, which is to say that you need to practice “loving control”, being neither too authoritarian nor too lax. Again, research shows that this produces overall the best results, including a marked decrease of prevalence of drug misuse.

A current educationist fashion is to speak of facilitating ‘Informed Choices’ by young people. (Regrettably, the people doing the informing rarely encourage consideration of anyone other than the individual; self-actualisation -Maslow style- is the governing force.) Choice per se is of course a part of healthy development, but when it comes to the use of illegal drugs (or age limits for legal drugs), choice has no part to play. We do not ask children to choose whether to steal or assault; we Just Say No.

Disapproval is still a strong impactor, as a 17-year analysis of USA nation-wide drug-related behaviour shows (Figure 3). Throughout the 17 year period (1974 — 1991) there is a perfect inverse correlation between prevalence of use and perception of disapproval by others, as well as perception of harmfulness of use. You can exert positive influence by setting out clear values and boundaries for behaviour in the home, and setting out what the consequences will be of crossing those boundaries. And, most importantly, sticking to those consequences without wavering if any transgression occurs. Parents can also set an example and show integrity in what they’re saying, even though sometimes they may be decoyed by arguments such as ‘you smoke tobacco’ or ‘you drink alcohol; those are your drugs, so why are you criticising mine?’ The short but valid answer to this is ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. The alternative short answer is for you not to smoke and not abuse alcohol. (Abuse of alcohol may, stereotypically, include using it as a drug instead of as a beverage). The longer answer is that if you do smoke you probably became hooked when the level of knowledge was well below what it is now, and if you had known what is known now, you probably wouldn’t have started. If you are a smoker, both for the example you set and for your own health, it would do you no harm to give it up. As for alcohol, the least you could think about is keeping the levels well below the health limits and never say “I need a drink” — this is a suicidal parental message! If you want to introduce a healthy form of taking substances in your home, here’s a radical idea: try and eat together as a family now and again; a big challenge, I know, but you can do it if you try!

If you are going to get ahead of the game you need to stay very aware of youth culture, and in particular the youth culture that exists in your own home. Here’s another radical idea: Every now and again, check how your young person decorates his or her room. What records do they listen to? What set of people do they hang out with? What kind of language do they use? Are there any marked changes in their attitude towards you and respect for you? What magazines and newspapers do they read? What films and videos do they watch? Do you know which musical groups and which films promote or give apologia for drug use? If not, why not? This kind of upstream marker is a lot more valuable than the kind of “signs and symptoms of drug abuse” that are so often peddled in parental advice articles. Frankly, if you’re looking for signs and symptoms of use you are already too late.

Another thing that you can do as a parent, and you have the right to do it, is to check out your school. Do they have drug policy, and does it start with the aims of the school and how to achieve these through prevention and education, or is the policy no more than a list of damage limitation, reaction and repair once drug use has been discovered (“stable door — instructions for bolting” etc.)? What lessons are they delivering that have to do with social behaviours and personal development? What philosophies are they following? Who is funding this aspect of their education, directly or indirectly? What materials are they using and what agendae inform the materials? What messages, overt and covert, are being given out? And if you don’t like the answers you find, what are you doing about it? (Then repeat the dose for everyone else in the community who communicates with your offspring. politicians, media, health workers, social workers-above all check out people like me, who claim to specialise in the drugs field. Where are we coming from? Is reduction of drug misuse our driving force? (The answer from some within the above disciplines may surprise you!)

Tackling the drug problem in our society is one of the toughest yet potentially most rewarding tasks facing us all today. ‘Tackling Drugs Together’ is today’s maxim but is a good way short of being today’s reality. To reverse the trend (and thereby ‘to Build a Better Britain’) will take nothing less than a major change in the culture of our whole society. Mission Impossible? Hardly. The culture changes which brought us to where we are now have all taken place in the lifetime of many of us who are now parents. What has been done can be undone, and the longest journey begins with a single step. That first step could, and indeed should be taken by you, the parent. Safe journey!

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