LYIP Focus Group Findings on Parents and Prevention

Merton 3The Youth Advisors have been working hard over the last few weeks on focus group research. They devised a  set of questions to try and capture information from other young Londoners about the role of parents in prevention. The next step was to meet with their peers across the capital and discover their views. To date, over 70 young people have taken part.

We have had fantastic responses which have allowed the LYIP develop some recommendations. What’s been especially fascinating is the level of consistency in responses. An overview of what we’ve discovered so far will give you a sense of how well the group has been doing.

There was an overwhelming belief amongst young Londoners we spoke to that parents do have a role in educating their children about drugs and alcohol.

Their children have the right to know that their parents are […] looking out for it. […] The fact that they do say something about it sort of shows that they do take responsibility.

Young people believe that parents’ responsibility for drug education should be seen as one aspect of a well-rounded approach which includes school and the wider community, “from schools to government to extra-curricular activities to parents”.

There are, however, a number of ‘buts’.  Many young people report not talking to their parents about drugs and alcohol and they offered a number of suggestions as to why this is the case.

Lack of knowledge:

My parents don’t know about drugs and alcohol.

They don’t want to say anything just in case they say something wrong and mess it up.

Cultural barriers:

[Parents from some cultures], shy away from it or don’t mention it at all, ‘cause you’re taught it’s wrong. Full stop.

You just know – culture-wise […] I’ve never had that conversation, but it’s just one of those things you don’t.

An unwillingness to acknowledge drugs and alcohol may ever be an issue for their children:

Maybe they know, but they just don’t wanna believe it, ‘No, my child’s not taking drugs’ sort of thing. They just don’t want to talk about it because they do think it’s an awkward situation.

The uncomfortable nature of holding a conversation about drugs and alcohol:

Not a lot of parents feel comfortable to actually talk about it

It depends on what kind of parents people have. Some people are comfortable talking to their parents and some people are not

Parental knowledge around drugs and alcohol was discussed in depth. There was not an expectation amongst young people we spoke to that parents should have a comprehensive knowledge of drugs and alcohol. However, the majority of young people did believe that they should have at least a basic knowledge and were clear that simply saying ‘no’ was not enough. Young people want to know why.

Being youth, you’re more intrigued to know about everything.

If they’re actually educated enough that they know all the risks and all the perks as well, then they’ll be able to weigh it up themselves.

They can say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s not good,’ but then kids will probably go on and think, ‘Oh, that’s all they know, they haven’t really told me enough information so obviously they don’t know enough and nor do I’.

Some young people spoke of a contradiction between a non-negotiable ‘no’ message coupled with scare tactics from parents and the experiences they saw for themselves at parties or with friends. Without a more rounded discussion, this may make children more likely overlook a parent’s message given the wide gulf between what they hear from them and what they have actually seen.

Young people were also concerned that without enough knowledge, parents may give them wrong information:

I […] do not believe that parents always have the right advice because they might not always be, like, fluent in the sort of stuff.

It could go the wrong way […] if parents don’t know how to handle it.

Basic knowledge, together with clear messages about decision-making, were considered important by many of the young people we spoke to.

Young people were also clear that talking about drugs and alcohol to your children should start early. The majority of participants suggested that conversations should begin before children become teenagers, either at the end of primary school or the beginning of secondary school. Young people clarified that conversations often only occur too late or “after the event” and believed parents have a role in pre-empting this.

I think sometimes, the younger age, people tend not to think about it […] but by the time they do decide that they’re going to talk about it, there’s been a lot of outside influences.

Overwhelmingly, focus group participants said that conversations should be open, relaxed and recurrent. ‘Sit down’ talks were considered awkward.

It should just be an open dialogue. It shouldn’t be a sit down conversation that’s going to be really awkward. It should just be […] brought up casually and not really made a big deal ‘cause otherwise it will just […] feel really weird afterwards.

There was a sense that this would be much easier for some parents than for others. Those who had open relationships with their children anyway should carry that openness into conversations around drugs and alcohol. Young people also spoke at using stimuli in order to begin conversations, in particular responding to news stories, documentaries or other television programmes.

Parents who adopted an authoritative as opposed to authoritarian parenting style were thought by many young people to be in a good position to help prevent young people from using drugs and alcohol. Young people were not opposed to boundaries being put in place by their parents, but they did want them to be reasonable and to be open to discussion.

I understand why they give you a curfew and at this point I don’t really mind.

We live in London – they’re looking out for me [by setting a curfew].

If you don’t set boundaries then you have no boundaries.

Parents need to be understanding of their children. They can’t just expect them to be perfect all the time […] work with them.

There was a strong theme of overly-strict parenting leading to rebellion.

They’re more sneaky if their parents are more strict.

They’re more likely to rebound due to those boundaries because they feel […] suppressed.

They [children] might find it bullying sometimes maybe and intimidating, that they’re saying, like, they don’t trust their children that much and they [the children] just, like, want to revenge or something.


The group met on Saturday 1st December to look through their research findings and have developed a set of draft recommendations.

  • Parents must play a part in educating their children about drugs and alcohol.
  • Parents should have opportunities to improve their knowledge about drugs and alcohol. This could be in a school setting and should offer the opportunity for parents to work together on determining their roles and responsibilities.
  • Parents should ensure that conversations about drugs are recurrent, relaxed and open.
  • Conversations about drugs and alcohol should begin before children become teenagers.
  • Children are less likely to rebel and more likely to talk to their parents if they adopt an authoritative as opposed to authoritarian style of parenting.

Another prevention metaphor

Catch A Falling Star... by peasap
Catch A Falling Star…, a photo by peasap on Flickr.

I quite like this as a metaphor for why investing in prevention is a good thing:

Imagine a bucket full of health. This bucket has a hole in the bottom and the health is dripping out (disease). We can mop up the floor below every hour, maybe even squeeze some of the health back into the bucket from the mop. But eventually, the health will be lost because we are not addressing the root of the problem. Instead, we can look for ways to prevent the hole and stop the leak from occurring.

via The Conversation.

Also this use of Prezi to explain the Social Determinants of Health is really impressive.

Why are fewer young people taking drugs?

The annual report on school pupil’s drug and alcohol use has been published and yet again it shows that fewer young people have decided to take drugs or drink alcohol.  This is backed up by the Home Office’s analysis of drug use in the wider population which shows a downward trend amongst young adults.

One of the questions that I’ve been asked most often when talking about these findings is to try to understand why there seems to have been this generational change.

The truth is we don’t really know what is influencing young people’s decision making, but we do have some clues that may be helping to shape these complex relationships.  Here are a few thoughts on what might be contributing to this positive trend.


We know that parents and carers have a very strong influence on the behaviour of their children; they help shape their values and set the boundaries for acceptable behaviour both of which are seen as being important protective factors in young people’s lives.

There is strong evidence that if parents don’t know where their children are after 9 o’clock in the evening the children have a higher likelihood of using alcohol.  But it appears there now seems to be fewer young people out late without parents knowing where they were and that parental expectations of young people’s behaviour have increased significantly.

I also wonder whether the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones and social networking means the positive parental monitoring of adolescents isn’t improving their chances of avoiding drug and alcohol misuse.

What we do know is that those young people who are taking drugs have very different perceptions of what their families attitudes are based on whether they believe that their parents know about the drug use.  With many fewer believing that their parents will try to stop them from using if they believe their family already know they have taken drugs.

There seems to be an important message here for parents – that their boundaries and attitudes continue to make a big difference even to those children who do take drugs.

Social Norms

Behavioural scientists have been telling us that conceptions, or perhaps more importantly misconceptions, of the behaviours of others in our peer group may play some part in determining our own behaviours.

The survey of school pupils suggests there has been a small increase in young people saying that none or few of their contemporaries take illegal drugs (up from 84% in 2004 to 89% this year).  It could be that this broadly correct assessment of their peer group is helping to drive the positive changes in behaviour that we’re seeing.

We also know from the questions asked that young people overwhelmingly disapprove of drug use.  Fewer than one in 10 (9%) say that it is okay to try cannabis, and even fewer (2%) say it is okay to try cocaine.

These positive social norms and values may be influencing the decline in popularity in drug use.

Environmental Pressures

Being able to access drugs or alcohol, the levels of enforcement of the law, and what is happening in the school lives of young people can all change the risk factors around drug and alcohol use.

It may be that the big fall – down by almost a third (31%) in the last decade – in young people being offered drugs is an important factor in their changing behaviour. But even amongst those offered drugs we’ve seen an increase in refusals over the same period; with an 18% increase amongst those 15 year olds who have been offered a drug saying they have never taken a drug.

Perhaps just as important has been the actions that schools are taking to reduce the number of exclusions.  Where the DfE report that permanent exclusions have fallen by 59% since 1997.


It seems likely to me that these combination of inputs must be at the heart of what has been a decade long change of behaviour amongst our young people. But it is important to say that we don’t know for certain.

The final thing to note is that we’re not unique.  There seems to have been a decline in youth drug use across much of Europe and other developed nations.  This suggests to me that government drug policy is probably not at the heart of these positive changes.  In this respect perhaps Ken Clarke was right to say that governments have lost the ‘war on drugs’, as nothing they do seems to be affecting behaviour, but maybe young people never saw it in those terms at all.

Took and Treated

As part of the thinking we’re doing about the future of Street Talk I was prompted to look at the difference between the numbers of young people who took drugs in the last year and the numbers that were treated for substance misuse problems.

The visualisation above describes the position in England based on an amalgamation of two data sources, the Home Office’s Drug Misuse Declared – which has data about young adult drug use – and the last Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England (SDD).

The treatment figures are from the NTA’s last report on young people’s substance misuse.

To get to the figure of 660,000 drug users I’ve had to do a bit of estimating based on the two surveys that measure prevalence.  Here are my workings:

  • According to the DfE there are about 600,000 young people in any given age.
  • SDD tells us that 8.2% of young people between 11 and 15 years old took drugs last year.  600,000 x 5 x 8.2% = 246,000
  • Drug Misuse Declared suggests that 23% of 16 to 19 year olds took a drug last year. 600,000 x 3 x 23% = 414,000

Both of these surveys will publish new results in the next few weeks, and if the positive trends in terms of prevalence continue we should see slightly fewer young people in the group that took drugs last year.  Nevertheless, the difference in size between the groups is a useful reminder of just how few drug using young people enter treatment.

Reasonable expectations

Perhaps one of the most important questions we need to answer in drug prevention is what are we trying to achieve.

Recently we’ve published the outcomes from the Street Talk project that we did with Addaction (see the presentation below).  In our eyes the results were incredibly positive and I think we should be very proud of what was achieved.

As you’ll see what we are able to show is that the use of Motivational Interviewing improved young people’s knowledge about where to seek support, their confidence in taking informed decision, and overwhelmingly led to the young people saying that they intended to reduce the risks they were taking with drugs and alcohol.

But not everyone shares my view that these are extraordinarily positive outcomes and a few days after we published our results we received an email – which had also been sent to Ministers, MPs and others – which was critical of what we achieved.

Our critic was Mary Brett, retired school teacher and former Vice President Europe Against Drugs, who argues:

It is perfectly acceptable to try to reduce the misuse of alcohol by young people, certainly to try stopping them from binge-drinking which is especially harmful to the liver. As alcohol is legal, young people can be advised about safe limits and how not to put their health in jeopardy.

However when it comes to illegal drugs, the situation is entirely different. Firstly it should be the use of drugs, not misuse we should be talking about. Secondly, since drugs are illegal the aim should be to stop the use of them.  Thirdly  there is no guaranteed safe way to take any drug – warnings on packets of prescription drugs make that very clear.

Another view, set out in a paper looking at developing a study on a drug education programme in Australia, is that abstinence, whilst it might be desirable, isn’t reasonable.  The authors point out:

historical approaches to school drug education have not been particularly successful at reducing AOD [alcohol or other drug] use. This then poses the question as to whether effectiveness should be measured by abstinence or reduced use, or whether harm reduction is a more realistic and useful measure. Harm reduction programs offer greater promise of achieving worthwhile benefit because they have the flexibility to select strategies on the basis of evidence of effect. Within this model abstinence or reduced use strategies may be chosen if there is evidence that they reduce harm, but they are not goals in their own right.

I’d be really interested in your views about how we position Mentor in this debate, how do we describe the outcomes we are reaching for and whether it is reasonable to achieve them?   Do programmes that work to reduce harm fit with our mission, and can they be done without condoning drug and alcohol use?