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“Just say no” isn’t helpful advice for kids and drugs

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Addaction launches the "Have the chat" campaign to encourage parents to start a conversation about drugs with their children

A Scottish drug charity has said old-fashioned messages surrounding kids and drugs are unhelpful for parents.

Addacation says just 39% of British parents think they get enough advice about how to talk to young people about drugs, and that the "just say no" message is counterproductive.

It has launched a new campaign urging parents to take time out to "Have the chat" with their teenagers about drugs.

Gareth Palmer, project manager at Addaction Scotland, said: “It’s totally normal to worry as a parent, but telling a teenager to 'just say no’ isn’t helpful and is often counterproductive. Our advice is start the chat, keep talking, listen well and don’t turn it into a big thing.”

YouGov surveyed 901 British parents of children aged 12 to 18 and found one in three mums (32%) would feel very confident advising their teens about drugs compared with 38% of dads. Nearly half of Scottish parents (45%) would feel very confident giving advice compared with 34% of English parents.

Gareth says: “These are encouraging numbers for Scotland. They’re maybe not surprising, as we’ve been having a national conversation about drugs for a long time now. We know that a lot of parents want to talk but are worried about what to say and concerned about getting it wrong”.

To launch the Have the Chat campaign, Addaction has developed seven tips for parents to start the conversation about drugs. Parents who want extra advice, support, or encouragement can use Addaction’s free and confidential web chat service, staffed by trained advisors. A range of resources for parents and access to web chat is available at

Gareth said: “We don’t want to go back to the 80s and the 90s when the advice was ‘just say no’. That didn’t work very well. It’s normal to want to protect your children, and of course it’s never appropriate for kids and younger teenagers to take drugs, but as they get older, we know teenagers may take risks as part of how they learn about the world.”

Karen Tyrell, spokesperson for the campaign, said: “When it comes to drugs, don’t make it a big talk. Short regular chats show your kids it’s okay to talk to you about these issues. Choose an informal setting like a car journey or a walk and keep an open mind, kids won’t want to talk if they feel judged or cornered. Try to be realistic about what you may hear. If you get an answer you don’t like, don’t panic, keep talking and ask for help if you need it.”

Seven tips to have the chat
1) Don’t make it a big thing. Everyone will feel awkward if you treat it like a big talk...including you. Try to think of it as the start of a regular conversation. You want to show your kids it’s okay to talk about drugs.
2) Pick the right moment. You’ll need a time and place when you both feel comfortable. Side-by-side chats can help put everyone at ease – try a car journey or a walk.
3) Don’t feel like you have to be an expert. No-one knows about every drug, but you’re the expert on your own kids. Think about your own experiences and draw on that. Do some research too if you need to.
4) Listen without lecturing. We know the just say no message doesn’t fact it can have the opposite effect. Your teenager won’t want to talk if they feel judged or preached at.
5) Be patient. Kids will need a bit of time and space to think about what you discuss. This is normal and not something to worry about. But make sure they know they can come to you if things go wrong. No conversation is out of bounds, you’re always there to help.
6) Be realistic. There’s a good chance your teenager will come into contact with cigarettes, drugs or alcohol at some point. It’s important to be realistic, even if that feels scary. If you start the conversation, be prepared to hear answers you might not like.
7) Don’t give up. Be kind to yourself and remember that this isn’t a pass or fail test. These things take time – even if the conversation doesn’t go the way you want, an initial chat can help sow a seed for the future.