“On Friday 17 January 2014 my funny, chatty, kind, popular and big-hearted sixteen-year-old son, Dan, went off to a party. He didn’t come home.”
On Friday 17 January 2014 my funny, chatty, kind, popular and big-hearted sixteen-year-old son, Dan, went off to a party. He didn’t come home.
The policeman who knocked in the early hours told us he’d been found collapsed at a rave on the other side of London, after taking ecstasy. We spent the next two days in intensive care, watching him die from multiple organ failure.
When this happened, we realised a lot of things. We realised drugs were much closer to our door than we’d thought, and are part of young people’s social environments, especially by their mid to late teens.
We realised if someone like Dan could end up in this worst of all worst-case scenarios, then that risk was there for any young person, along with all the possible shades of harm and damage drugs and alcohol can cause.
We realised other parents were probably, like us, not as aware as they needed to be about this very different landscape their children inhabit, and perhaps not as well equipped as they could be to help their children keep themselves safe. And we realised we needed to do something about it, so we set up a drugs education charity in Dan’s name.
Talk to your child – it could save their life
The good news in our sad story is that any sort of harm is totally avoidable because there’s always a choice involved. Equally good news is that parents can play a vital role in equipping their children to make sure the choices they make bring them home safely.
Government data shows that parents are the first place the majority of teenagers turn for helpful information about drug use, ahead of their friends and the internet, or anywhere else. You may not feel like a useful resource for your children when it comes to drugs, but statistics show that they think you are.
Conversations about drugs are so important, and the more comfortable these can be, the better all round. But talking about drugs can feel daunting, not just for parents for teenagers as well.
They don’t want you to be worried, disappointed, jump to the worst of conclusions, or not let them out again. So what can you do?
If you can, start early – ideally before drugs appear on the scene, around the end of primary school. Your children are likely to be aware of drugs much earlier than you might think. Make the most of naturally occurring opportunities – when medicine is being used, when alcohol is around, when something comes up on television.
As they get older, keep taking these opportunities as they come along, trying to keep the dialogue open, always listening, avoiding lecturing, curious about their views and their world.
It’s always good to know you don’t have to be an expert before you can have a conversation about drugs – though it’s important to get informed, and there are a number of useful places to go on our website.
You’ll have a lot of transferrable knowledge to bring already. If you’ve ever taken medication, drunk alcohol or perhaps taken illegal drugs yourself in your time, you’ll have a good understanding of the risks of substance use and the variable factors that can affect the effects and complicate the risks to any individual in any one time or place.
You’ve also been a teenager, and although the adolescent brain is a big topic for another day, you’ll doubtless remember this stage of life when your friends’ opinions mattered enormously, when making sensible choices was sometimes tricky, and managing risks didn’t always work out so well.
Understanding the complex dynamics of teenage decision-making, and developing the skills and resilience to make those decisions safely, is just as important as all the knowledge in the world.
Opportunities will always arise, but for a more focused conversation, plan and prepare ahead if you can. What would a good time and place look like, for you and for them? When would they feel relaxed and receptive? What are your own views and values?
Sometimes these aren’t as clear as we think without taking time to examine them. What are your family rules and boundaries? This is tricky, because of course they need to flex as your children grow through their teens, but as long as these are clear and consistent, and ideally negotiated and agreed, then everyone knows what the expectations are.
Are you prepared to hear things you may not want to? How will you react if you do? (Try not to panic.) Do you know where you might go if help and support is needed, for you or for them? (Have a look on our website)
And are there any tricky questions for which you might need to prepare answers? “So, mum/dad, did you ever…?”
To end with some reassurance…
Most young people, of all ages and stages, are neither drinking to excess nor taking drugs, and of those that do, most don’t come to lasting harm.
However, as I know to my cost, the risks are always there, they can be complicated, and the consequences can be significant and lasting. So do talk, do listen, and do keep those conversations going.
Fiona Spargo-Mabbs, Director and Founder, Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation
Author of ‘I Wish I’d Known – Young People, Drugs and Decisions: A Guide for Parents and Carers’ (Sheldon Press, 2021)
 Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England, NHS Digital (2018)