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ENSURING CHILDREN DON'T SUFFER FROM PARENTS' MISTAKES Alex Wood on how schools can break the cycle of drug abuse

By 29 January 2012No Comments

Teachers of my vintage have seen two generations of drug using youngsters pass through our hands. 
In the early 1980s I taught a bright, lovely girl from a warm, caring family.
Jenny (we’ll call her that) entered the local drug scene on leaving school.  On becoming aware that she was HIV positive, she found her supplier, bought a larger quantity than usual, stepped into the common area of a high-rise block and killed herself with a massive heroin overdose.  She was 17.
A headteacher colleague from Glasgow recently took a call from a grandmother at the end of her tether.  Having lost two children to drugs, she was now looking after her grandson.  He was hitting trouble and she feared he was, or soon would be, using drugs himself.  The influence of his drug abusing parents had survived them.  This family faced implosion as the grandmother struggled with circumstances beyond her resources.  Statistics suggest the boy will be lucky to live past 25.
At least in that case the grandmother herself was not addicted.  There are drug users who had children young, whose children had their children young and all three generations are now using.  That’s a hard cycle to break.
Across Scotland, teachers, educational psychologists, police officers, social workers, youth workers and others face that crisis.  What follows draws on the perceptions of many such professionals.
The children of drug abusing parents exhibit a range of behavioural patterns.  Having missed the attachment phase with parents, they distrust adults and are constantly angry with them but frequently incapable of articulating that anger.  They are outwith parental control, vulnerable and desperate for attention.
They operate in transient friendship groups which rigorously enforce internal discipline and loyalty.  Many of the girls manifest a surface maturity way beyond their years.
Some will discuss their situation with sympathetic, supportive adults.  Most are secretive and emotionally restrained.  The nurturing primary school ethos often sustains them but the transfer to secondary and adolescence can trigger behavioural crises.  It is often only then that the statutory agencies become aware of the family problems and major issues explode.  The parents, self-engrossed, often cannot give sufficient attention to their needy, adolescent off-spring.  Even basic care will often be missing.
Meanwhile, the children, despite being embarrassed by their parents, will protect them from the outside world, including “prying” teachers or social workers.
Drugs can drain a family’s finances.  For some drug using parents the struggle to maintain a seeming normality, putting the kids out clean and ensuring they are fed, is vital.
Such almost heroic efforts hide a deeper emotional emptiness.  Parents seek to care and set a model of valiantly coping but when that caring parental purpose falters the children become the carers and react angrily.
Drug abuse does not automatically pass from one generation to the next but many start to experiment on leaving school.
Many such children have long adopted an anti-establishment default position.  Their challenges have no obvious short-term purpose, but they are hard for the authority figure cannot easily ignore: the deliberately misunderstood instruction, the regular pencil tapping while grinning and waiting for a response, ‘forgetting’ detentions but bragging about not doing them.  When reprehended, not the content but the authority figure’s very right to challenge, (‘Why are you only picking on me?’) will be disputed.  Teachers and others are tested to establish when they will give up on them.
They are on high alert, constantly watchful, and not therefore focused on school or learning.  They are often lonely, almost feral, operating by and for themselves, and exhibiting behaviours which marginalise them further, such as theft, violence, staying out overnight, and sexual activity.
Whatever their academic ability, their attainment tends to be depressed by a lack of ‘staying power’.  These are children with a dearth of hope, joy and achievement.  Nor is this is merely a problem of peripheral estates.  Drug abuse affects the leafier suburbs andEdinburgh’s New Town.  Dysfunctional middle-class households are not uncommon but tend to be far better camouflaged.
What can be done?  As ever, relationships will be at the heart of any solution.  We need to offer sound adult role models which these children will trust, to reinstate their faith in people.
When they get into conflicts they are attempting to be independently successful.  They need opportunities to do that productively.
A combination of patience and Curriculum for Excellence, with its practical opportunities for individual success, may be the route.  Above all, we have to be willing to work jointly with the parents, albeit they may have been the root of the problem, and the children, to give them opportunities to work and learn together, to manage the dramas which can turn into crises, and to turn the heat off the youngsters when the crises have erupted.
To do that, we require to know exactly about whom we are talking.  One Scottish school has recently quantified its known cohort of children of drug abusing parents as 10% of the school population.  That’s only the known group.  It is the unidentified cohort which is the bigger concern.
Professional boundaries need to be breached and information shared among the key groups so that everyone can act effectively and coherently.
We need to treat such children on a par with children in care.  Their needs are similar, sometimes more acute.  The alternative is that the sins of the fathers will indeed be visited on another generation.
The above article first appeared in The Herald on 21 September 2010

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