Every parent's nightmare is to discover their child is a drug addict. What they don't expect is to become victims themselves, says Angela Neustatter. Below, a mother and a son tell their stories
Mary will not forget the afternoon a police officer called to ask if she knew that her 16-year-old son was using drugs. They had the wrong person, she insisted, but once the officer had left she searched Dan's room and found "a few tell tale signs", such as candlewax on the floor, silver foil, bongs for smoking cannabis.

"Then I searched and found he had stuff - cannabis, amphetamines, Ecstasy - hidden everywhere." She recalls: "I almost wished I hadn't found out, I so much didn't want to believe it. My reaction was blind terror. I knew nothing about drugs and all I could think is, my kid will kill himself."

Mary's experience will be chillingly familiar to families who have discovered that their child is a serious drug abuser. And it is a story that taps into the fears of any parent who recognises that their child is likely, at some time, to take drugs. However, we rarely hear about the profound effects a drug abuser has on his or her family.

It is within families that the full horror of drug abuse very often manifests itself, turning family life upside down. Mothers and fathers are subjected to verbal, even physical abuse; family relationships are distorted and destroyed.

The abuser - usually the son, since male users outnumber females two to one - frequently steals, not only from outside, but from within the home, to pay for his habit. The police officer on the doorstep is an all too familiar sight.

Today's children are growing up in a drug culture. Drugs are available in secondary schools: 17 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds report having tried an illegal drug, while 24 per cent of 16- to 29-year-olds report long-term cannabis use. Home Office figures published last week suggest that one in four young people takes cannabis.

John Balding, of Exeter University's Schools Health Education Unit, has found that the percentage of children using illegal drugs rises steadily with age. Cannabis is by far the most widely used drug, but 11 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds have tried amphetamines, 9 per cent Ecstasy and 8 per cent LSD.

The greatest fear most families have is that their children will take highly addictive drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin. Although recent statistics showed that no more than 4 per cent of the largest group of users - young inner-city people aged 16-25 - had ever used these substances, heroin is the most common drug of addiction and the number of registered addicts has doubled in the past seven years. Use of crack and Ecstasy has also risen steadily during the Nineties.

Adfam, the national helpline for drug users' families, is one of many organisations and phonelines to recognise that families of drug abusers have special needs just as pressing as those of the users themselves. Adfam receives 5,000 calls a year from desperate parents eager for the chance to share their problems and tap into a self-help network.

One book, Coping with a Nightmare - Family Feelings about Long-Term Drug Abuse, by Nicholas Dorn, Jane Ribbens and Nigel South (Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency), has come as a welcome response to parents' needs. It includes a range of interviews with parents, many of whom identify the levels of deceit their children exercise as one of the most painful factors.

As one parent says: "They become highly skilled manipulators ... it's only too easy to manipulate parents because we all feel unsure of ourselves." Another voices the guilt so many feel at having failed to get things right for their child: "You look back and you can see at some time a grey area where everything hadn't gone well."

Parents also feel helpless as they watch their children's mental and physical health deteriorate. "One of the older boys took LSD and became very disturbed," says one parent. Two more of her children went on to take heroin. Parents in this situation often find their most precious possessions have been taken. The mother of Andrew tells a particularly poignant tale: "I sat up all night with him and he did without any heroin. He was shaking something terrible but I didn't panic. Next day I found Andrew had taken my bracelet and family allowance."

Lifeline for Parents, a family support organisation based in Manchester, offers family counselling sessions. Parents are also seen separately and it is then that counsellors see clearly the problems caused by parents who are full of fear and prejudice but have little or no knowledge of drug abuse. Lesley Shackleton, a counsellor at Lifeline, explains: "Parents need to educate themselves so they can intervene if they see dangerous signs.

"And if a child wants to come off a drug, particularly heroin, it may be very valuable if the parent can help and support the child. But to do so they need to understand what the drug does, what the child will go through, how difficult coming off can be. Too often the attitude is that he or she should just stop, but it's not easy kicking an addiction."

When parents finally realise their child has been using without their knowing, feelings of guilt, anger and betrayal frequently follow. The fabric of family life may be ripped apart as they row over how to deal with the user. Mary describes a very familiar scenario: she and her husband argued constantly over how to deal with their son, who had become verbally abusive. She recalls wrestling him against a wall and "thumping hell out of him", otherwise he would retreat to his darkened room and spend all day there.

His siblings suffered because all the attention was focused on their brother. Once he broke all the windows in the house; another time he attempted suicide. Mary says: "We were all at rock bottom for four years and I only got help because, one day, I was listening to the radio and they were blaming parents for drug problems in the young. I was so furious I phoned the radio station. I got put on to Lifeline and they helped me to see how I could cope. Not how I could solve my son's problem but how I could get back a life for myself and help the family do the same."

'Coping with a Nightmare' is available from WH Smith or from the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency, 23 Loman Street, London, SE1 0EE. Cost £5.99 plus A5 sae and 50p p&p.

Lifeline for Parents 0161-839 2054.

Community Drug Helpline 0181-773 9393.

Glasgow Association of Family Support Groups 0141-420 2050.

Families Anonymous 0171-498 4680.

Narcotics Anonymous 0171-498 9005.