My 13- year-old son took drugs

It's the nightmare all parents dread. Elizabeth Hancock was shell- shocked by the revelation. Her son, Sam, thinks he has not done anything exceptional
Click to follow
The Independent Online
I am the mother of three children aged 13, 12 and seven. The eldest, Sam, goes to an independent boys school. A few weeks ago, my husband and I returned from our third child-free weekend in 13 years. We walked in feeling great - pleased we'd gone, but relieved to be back home with the kids. It didn't last. Before we'd even got our coats off, the babysitter had ushered us into the kitchen to explain that Sam had been smoking dope with a bunch of schoolfriends in the attic.

I was totally unprepared for it to happen at such an early age. By my woolly liberal reckoning, I thought we'd be looking at a few spliffs on a Saturday night at 16 or 17 - a prospect I felt I could handle. That night I discovered the reality: Sam is already turning down invitations to smoke dope - or "draw", as he calls it - on the way to school in the morning.

I am really shocked by this. The vague notion lurking at the back of my mind has always been that pupils at a school like Sam's go in for that kind of thing much later than they do at the local comprehensive.

I should know better; last month a headmasters conference working party revealed high levels of drug-taking in independent schools. At the time I was struck by the headlines, but still thought it wouldn't be our problem for a few years. Other parents are more realistic: last night hundreds flocked to a conference on drugs, hosted by Westminster School and launched by the drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell. Many more were desperate for a seat but couldn't get in. The organisers are even planning to hold similar conferences for parents of much younger children.

On the night the bombshell dropped in our house, Sam and his dad had a very heavy conversation during which he swore he'd never do it again. Meanwhile, I was so angry I couldn't speak to him for a few days. By then I'd calmed down enough to tell Sam I thought I should talk to the other boys' parents - none of whom I'd met. Such isolation is common among parents of teenagers. Because you don't get to know each other at the school gates, or even when you drop your kids at their friends' houses, there are few opportunities for a casual chat about problems. Instead, you face cold-calling someone you've never met to tell them their pride and joy might be taking drugs. In the end, I just didn't have the stomach for it. Nor did I feel like talking to parents I'm friendly with in case it put them off our family.

But I felt I had to talk to someone - otherwise it was almost as if I was condoning Sam's behaviour. I felt the school should know because even if it wasn't happening on the premises, that was where the whole thing was fermenting. What put me off was that, like many independent schools, it has a policy of instant expulsion if boys are found with drugs. Although that was unlikely to happen to Sam, I felt this put up a real barrier to a much-needed discussion about underlying problems. But I also worried that Sam would be labelled as a bad lot for the rest of his school career.

Eventually an opportunity came at a surgery for parents to air concerns. I went intending to test the water - if the form tutor had been the slightest bit off-putting, I would never have even broached the subject. But he seemed sympathetic, so I tiptoed in tentatively with hints about activities I didn't approve of. He admitted that many boys were turning up for lessons with glazed expressions and that the school is somewhat flummoxed by the problem. It was his admission of responsibility - the sense that we were both in this together, and his promise to treat our conversation in confidence - that made it seem OK to shop my son.

What also helped was his willingness to get to the underlying reasons why someone as young as Sam should want to take drugs. There seem to be plenty, such as low self-esteem - common in a highly academic, competitive school like Sam's, where many boys will never get into the football team or be top of the class. A charismatic peer group that dismisses such achievements and celebrates daring alternatives such as dope is bound to exert a powerful pull.

The mixing-up of classes when subjects are first dropped doesn't help either. Often this can't be avoided; many schools even see it as a good way of breaking up cliques. In fact, the opposite can happen without sensitive pastoral care. In Sam's case it left him with no good friends in his class and therefore desperate to be seen as "safe" by the dominant peer group.

Sam also wants to feel safe in a more literal sense - on the streets - frightening places for young teenage boys where privilege makes them easy targets. So I suppose it's no wonder they turn to something daring, such as dope, to make them feel more like everyone else. What really worries me is that drugs could become a regular refuge from the many other difficulties of adolescence and beyond.

Sam, 13

Earlier this year I started going around with a couple of boys, and one day another friend asked me if I realised they smoked dope. I thought he was lying. When I found out it was true I was a bit surprised, but I didn't show it. I lied to them about having done it a few times myself. Last year I didn't know anyone who smoked draw, but now I reckon about half the boys in my year do it. Everyone knows drugs are bad, but some people do it because they like it; others do it because everyone else does.

I wasn't pressurised into trying it, but I wouldn't have done it if no one else was. If I said I didn't want to they'd probably say "go on, go on". I don't think I have the strength to say no. If I really didn't fancy it, I'd probably just pretend and blow the smoke out. The first time I tried it, nothing happened; the second time I kept laughing and falling over.

Everyone starts doing things younger than when our parents were young. When my mum and dad were 13 there weren't drugs around - they didn't start smoking dope until they were at university. It's obvious that if you start doing draw when you're 13, you're likely to get bored of it and maybe go on to something harder when you're older. I predict that I will end up taking Class A drugs - E, probably, I'd never touch heroin - by the time I'm 20. You see these programmes - like The Lakes - where they just hand people an E as a natural thing.

The teachers who try to tell you about drugs go on like they know all about them, yet they've probably never taken them. People are always talking about how everyone did drugs in the Sixties, and they created this relatively lax attitude. Now, suddenly, they've changed their minds. I reckon they're going to have to do something serious soon or the drug problem is going to get completely out of hand - soon every drug will be as common as draw.