Health: Teen Talks

How to talk to teenagers about drug and alcohol habits. 

The start of a new term is the time to talk to teenagers about the use of drugs and alcohol on campus. If you’re worried on how to address the topic, ex-GP, Mike Garside shares his tips…

Attitudes to recreational drug use has changed over the last 20 years in the UK. Political and social changes are moving to a more tolerant attitude to recreational drug use, in part as a response to potential medical uses of Cannabinol’s which some of us have problems differentiating in reality from Cannabis. It is likely that over the next 20 years we will see the supply and sale of Cannabis legalised and regulated in USA and probably UK in a similar way to alcohol.

Actual experience of drug use is higher, in the current generation of teenagers and young adults than in their parents’ generation. British teenagers have the highest levels of drug and alcohol use in Europe.


Festival attendance for this generation is almost synonymous with recreational drug use. Drug use has become a normal part of the experience to millions of young people, who do not perceive their actions as unhealthy, risky or dangerous. It’s the same for your kids going off to university, where they will be exposed to recreational drugs without them having to seek them out.

Here is something you won’t have read about illegal street drugs before:

Millions of unregulated, untested drugs are taken every day, and in the vast majority of cases the experience is only positive for the users. No horrendous side effects, no hang over, no nasty consequences. That is not to say that drug use is by any means safe, and this summer there have been several tragic drug deaths at festivals in UK. 

So how should concerned parents handle the worries and the horror stories of drug overdose and premature deaths, possession charges, the criminal backdrop of the manufacture, distribution and abuse of drugs we hear through media and health promotion constantly?

What can you say or do to keep your kids safe?

A good starting point is a frank discussion, about what drugs they have already experienced. Expect the majority of older teenagers to have tried alcohol, cannabis and maybe ecstasy. You will find a surprising number of 18 year olds have also tried cocaine. Encourage open discussion about drug use, of when and where they tried these drugs, and what their experience was. Don’t just let them tell you, what you want to hear. Picking the right moment for this discussion is crucial.

How to start a conversation about drugs

If you are really struggling, a good starting point if they are using the family car, is the drug driving issue. Since the introduction of roadside drug testing the UK police have concentrated on testing for Cannabis and Cocaine. Setting clear expectations that they will not risk driving after drug use for at least 3-4 days after, can be a good entry point into the whole recreational drug use agenda.

Do some research. There is a whole raft of new psychoactive substances, chances of you have never heard of, but they probably will have. Don’t forget alcohol as part of the discussion. It’s often an integral part of the experience for them.

Set a good example

Millions of teenagers have grown up seeing mum and dad tipsy (or worse) every Friday and Saturday night. So shouting them down for having tried drugs will be seen as the double standard it is. The legal status issue of the drug cuts little weight in this age group, with the exception of the drug driving issue discussed above, where it can be used an advantage to model avoidance behaviour. Model the behaviour you want to see, but in the end it comes down to trusting them to make sensible choices, and being there to support them if they make a mistake.

Mike Garside is an ex-GP, who has had extensive experience working in drug and alcohol testing over last 20 years and within healthcare. He is now medical director of UK Drug Testing:



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