How to support a foster child who is using drugs
If your foster child is using recreational drugs, like cannabis, it can be difficult to know how best to support them.
This article is filled with tips and advice based on the things we’ve learned as a foster care agency in south London and outlines some of the support strategies our carers have found most effective.
It draws on the real-life experience of one of our foster carers who, alongside her husband, continues to support a young person in their care who is addicted to cannabis. And we provide 11 practical tips to help you find solutions to drug use.
But first, let’s briefly look at drugs and what we know about them.
What is your relationship with the word “drugs”?
We all have a relationship with drugs. Maybe it’s not always through personal experience but the media and movies and the stories of family and friends certainly provide us with plenty and help us form opinions and expectations.
Unfortunately for the majority of parents and foster carers, our reactions include feelings of worry, fear, anger, frustration and confusion.
This is perfectly understandable. If drugs aren’t a part of your life then why would you know how to respond to, or support, a young person for whom they are very much a part of their life?
How much do you really know about cannabis?
Did you know there are more than 1000 strains of cannabis but only three cannabis plant species? You may even be surprised to know that marijuana diverged from the genus Homulus, which we call “hops” — so there’s a link between beer and “weed”!
Each strain of cannabis has a different strength, cost and impact on the human brain. At the lower end of the impact scale it can make a person feel happy, calm and relaxed. People get the giggles and “the munchies”. So users think it’s fun, cool and relaxing. But, at worst, cannabis can lead to psychosis, addiction and even death.
If you find yourself supporting a foster child who is using cannabis, the place to start is educating yourself. Googling will provide an overwhelming amount of information. As a foster carer you also have a large group of professionals around you who will no doubt also have very different opinions about what you should do to support your foster child. So how do you find your way through all the different ideas, opinions, worries and fears to know what is relevant to your situation?
It’s simple: ask your child.
If you have a trusting relationship with your foster child, then this shouldn’t be as difficult as you think. Get them to come onto the internet with you and show you to places where you can read and see images that educate you about what it means.
Why do young people use drugs?
The more you read about drug use, the more you’ll notice the connection to “feelings”. It seems most people use drugs to experience feelings —whether to relieve themselves of pain, anxiety, worry or sadness, or to create feelings of happiness, contentment, euphoria and excitement.
Drugs offer an escape to an alternative world of feeling and experience, even if only for a short time.
So it is important to understand your young person’s motivation for using drugs, as it is different for each person.
In 2016 one expert, Dr Owen Bowden-Jones, suggested these were the key reasons young people use drugs:
- The experience of new feelings or non-existing feelings
- Feel good in other ways; feeling of euphoria, peace, and having fun
- To numb feelings, physical problems or pain
- An escape from feelings of burden or responsibility
- Feeling a personal reward or satisfaction in breaking the rules
- Feeling good through social gain, respect or fitting in with peers.
This last point, social gain, is a big area for teenagers. In particular for those who find it difficult to fit in with others and have low self-esteem.
Using drugs is sometimes seen as a way to increase credibility with peers. Acts of recklessness can increase status within a peer group and be seen as mature or brave.
If drug taking is praised by others the user feels good about themselves and the drug use is likely to continue.
How is your foster child’s drug use impacting their life?
As a foster carer, you need to look at how their drug use is affecting the young person’s life and assess whether it is a low- or high-level concern.
If it’s about experimenting and “having fun” then chances are it happens irregularly, when they are with friends, and mainly at weekends. If they present as their usual self and attendance at school or work continues, then it probably isn’t impacting their life in a way that causes significant concern. Experimenting is what teenagers do.
How you manage your own worries and fears at this stage is important.The main thing to do is educate yourself and then help to educate the young person to ensure the “fun” doesn’t develop into an addiction at a later stage.
But it’s also vital to look a bit deeper at this behaviour. Your foster child may have experiences of trauma that mean they are more vulnerable to addiction.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it used as a way to escape difficult feelings, stress or memories from the past?
- Do they genuinely enjoy or like it and prefer being stoned to being sober?
- Does it impact their relationships and life situation?
- Are they missing school or work?
- Do they present as lethargic, demotivated and not their usual selves?
If you have answered “yes” to some of these questions, then maybe there is cause for concern about their drug use should it continue without intervention. In this case, seek professional help and support from your supervising social worker and allocated social worker to ensure you can support your young person effectively.
Case study: what do other foster carers do about drug use?
Many foster carers draw the line when it comes to drug use. Some will refuse to be matched with any child known to have used drugs or alcohol. Others will end placements even if the child has lived with them for years. This is always difficult to see because if it was their own child, they couldn’t give up on them; they would have to tolerate, understand, and work through the issue.
These are teenagers who have also experienced childhood trauma.If anything, they need their foster carer to become even stronger and more resilient so they learn, no matter what, you won’t give up.
This was certainly true for Tommy, a young person we have in placement.
Tommy was 15 when he was referred to our foster agency in south London. He came to Lika after four previous breakdowns and the local authority was considering putting him in a residential home.
While Tommy’s cannabis use was not the main reason previous foster carers decided to end the placements, it was a major area of concern. It seems carers felt powerless – unable to connect with him around his drug use. They believed the only way to stop it was to stop him. Unfortunately this had the opposite effect. He rebelled, smoked more, and was moved on.
Before we continue with Tommy’s story, here’s a little bit of information about the teenage brain.
A little bit of information about the teenage brain
The teenage brain is a complex thing. Between the ages of 11 and 15 a young person is experiencing a big change in their brain development, so their risk-taking and boundary-pushing are at their max.
Here’s how the social work textbooks explain it:
“Often adolescents have a desire to fit in or impress their friends —some experts say that the greatest risk-takers often have the lowest self-esteem.
These teenagers may feel that taking risks is the best way to get people to respect, notice or like them. Or their uncharacteristic risk-taking could be simply a sudden lack of judgement. Or it may be that they don’t even see it as a risk —they just ‘feel like doing it’.
This idea of ‘just feeling like it’ is really important when we look at the teenage brain. It connects with the pleasure angle again. It seems that gut reaction is a stronger motivator for teenagers and thinking ahead. You can think ahead but you’re less likely to base your decision on all that emotion.
And remember —to think ahead and weigh up the risk logically requires a working prefrontal cortex, which teenagers going through puberty do not have.”
(Morgan, N, 2005 p.89)
Place this “normal” teenage behaviour alongside a young person who has also experienced trauma in their childhood and you can have double trouble. That doesn’t mean change is impossible. It’s all about how you choose to approach the problem.
It’s like riding a wave. Ups and downs are inevitable. It’s the ups that keep you going, but when the downs happen they push all your buttons of failure: should I give up? Let go? Accept defeat?
The answer here is never!
Never give up. Change takes time, and it’s normally at those most difficult points of feeling failure that the most learning and development take place. When you manage to keep going, you will come out the other side and be on the up again.
Back to Tommy…
Tommy started using cannabis as an 11-year-old.
He experienced significant neglect and emotional abuse as a young child.
He remembers being out on the streets as a six-year-old and left to his own devices. He didn’t have anyone checking he was safe or giving him the sense that he was safe.
Most of us have the security of knowing our friends and family have got our backs. Tommy had no-one. His siblings were there, but none were old enough to be the person to keep him safe. He soon found his safety by hanging out with the older guys on the estate —guys who were known gang members. This is where his relationship with cannabis began.
Fast-forward six years. After four placement breakdowns, two school exclusions and the beginnings of a criminal career, Tommy is now doing really well in his placement.
He is no longer at risk of gang membership.
He no longer gets in trouble with the police.
He has worked hard to get a plastering apprenticeship and be seen as one of the most naturally talented in his class. Despite having to get up at 5am, he never misses a day. He has found what he is good at.
Yet with all this positive change, he just can’t stop smoking cannabis.
Cannabis has control of Tommy and it continues to impact his life in many ways. His carers are keen to help him stop, or at the very least reduce the amount he smokes. While they accept this is something Tommy struggles with, they don’t like it and certainly don’t want it to be so dominant in his life.
When he’s stoned —really stoned —it impacts his relationship with his foster carers and their children. His carers feel upset and frustrated by how he presents. This triggers a sense of failing him —to know he’s come so far, yet has this one thing that they can’t work out for him.
It also impacts their biological children.
Despite having a good relationship with Tommy, his foster carers are worried about the impact on his future. His apprenticeship pays him well but he spends a lot of his money on cannabis. They have significant concerns about how he would cope living independently. How would he pay his bills if cannabis takes priority?
Cannabis offers many things to Tommy:
- He likes the feeling of being stoned
- It’s part of his social life —all his friends smoke it
- When he’s stressed it helps him calm down; it helps him sleep
If he’s really stressed, he can get a stronger cannabis called skunk, which gets him totally out of his mind. Then he doesn’t have to think or feel anymore, particularly on days when he has been in touch with family and his experiences of trauma and upset from the past are triggered.
Possibly he just enjoys feeling numb.
11 tips to help your foster child stop using cannabis
1. Approach drug use in a curious and non-judgmental way
Learn and understand as much as you can about the drug being used and what the young person enjoys or doesn’t enjoy about it. What does it means for them as an individual? (Don’t assume they experience it the same as everyone else). Use the difficult moments as critical opportunities to enhance learning and development.
2. Understand their relationship with cannabis
Have ideas about the relationship the young person has with cannabis: what are the patterns? What are the triggers? Are there times the young person has been able to resist the pattern and do something differently?
Tommy’s foster carer’s approach is all about understanding the relationship he has with cannabis. They don’t judge him for using it; instead they try to understand where the relationship started, why it continues and what the motivators would be for Tommy should cannabis no longer control him.
3. Understand the child’s family history and triggers
Understanding your foster child’s childhood experiences and trauma is vital. How might their experience of trauma and abuse be part of the relationship they have with drugs? How can you use this knowledge to understand behaviours, triggers and patterns?
For Tommy a trigger for smoking is his family. When there is something going on with his family (which happens frequently) his cannabis use increases. Helping a young person notice this as a pattern is the first step. Helping them to find better strategies to deal with the emotional impact their family has on them is the second.
4. Encourage reflection, learning and awareness
Since being placed with his foster carers, Tommy has continued to turn down anything he feels is “direct work” or “therapy”. However, his carers did not give up and over two years planted seeds about the benefits and use of therapy. It has paid off.
Through discussions with his foster carers, he recognised his own patterns and how his family members’ difficulties can trigger his want to get stoned. He is now ready to accept help. That took two years, so keep going! Just don’t overwhelm them. Being subtle is key. The more a person feels they have made their own decision about what it is they need, the better the chance of long-lasting change.
Advocating on the young person’s behalf is key.Know what services are in your area and ensure the child’s social worker is informed of everything going on and what it is the young person needs from them. They are the corporate parent and have a duty to provide support. Whether this is the social worker, a drug worker or a therapist, having someone with skills and expertise to help you is important.
6. Provide consistent support
At times Tommy’s foster carers felt they were taking one step forward and two steps back —feeling the joy of success only to have it taken away again. When a young person has a blip and goes back to old behaviours it can be disheartening. But you need to plough through. Keep going. Never give up. Persistence is critical. The young person needs your consistent support, in good times and bad, to feel they can take a step forward again.
7. Create secure attachments
One of the most importantparts of this story is that Tommy has developed secure attachments with his carers. He doesn’t feel he has to be something he isn’t. This is the type of relationship children need in order to believe change is possible.
8. Take relational risks
Carers need to be authentic and share their feelings in a non-blaming manner when they are feeling upset or frustrated. Being an authentic carer means talking about difficult things. This includes your feelings and views on situations. The skill is doing this in a way that creates closeness in the relationship rather than distance.
9. Remember you are only human
Understand the difference you have in your views about drugs compared to the young person. How might this create struggles and how do you talk about this in a way that means you can set clear boundaries and expectations without it feeling authoritarian?
No matter how accepting you are of the journey, there will be times you still feel frustrated and angry. This is where you need to develop skills of self-awareness and reflection. If you notice these feelings, rather than letting them become a barrier in your relationship with the young person, use them as a way to connect. Practice articulating what you feel to the young person in a non-blaming way.
10. Find what they are good at and help them succeed
Every child has talents, but most children in care don’t know what these are.
Tommy soon realised during a work experience placement on a building site that he was “a grafter”. Soon he showed an interest in plastering and realised he was talented at it. Now he has an apprenticeship. He is succeeding. He has goals in life that mean he wants to work towards being independent and in control of cannabis.
When you are succeeding in areas of life you enjoy, the motivation to control your drug use increases.
11. Allow for blips – change takes time
Accept that this is a journey. Change takes time. Drug use will not stop overnight and if you have expectations that it will, then you will only be left feeling frustrated and angry. There will be days of success and days of failure.
Give permission to the young person to muck up now and again and use these moments to help them reflect, learn and develop. It is actually the difficult times that will offer you the opportunity for further change. It’s how you choose to respond in these moments that makes the difference.
How did these ideas help Tommy’s foster carers?
Tommy’s journey continues, and the good news is he and his carers are still moving forward.
The more time passes, the more we can look back and recognise how much has changed. When he first came to placement, Tommy used cannabis every day and got stoned most weekends. Now he can go a few days without cannabis and when he does smoke, it is a smaller and lighter joint. He also stays in more and it’s only been the odd weekend that he gets completely stoned.
So, what do Tommy’s carers think helped them get him to this point? Let’s hear from them:
“Having an open and honest relationship, showing trust and commitment, compassion and empathy and as carers being realistic in terms of our expectations of what Tommy can actually achieve.
It was important to realise that at the age Tommy came into our life, it was going to be a journey for all of us, and any positive change was achieved at his own pace.
Like many teenagers, it is important to advise, guide and be there. Even when you feel you’ve taken two steps forward but then take 10 steps back.
Over the years we have planted ideas with Tommy, offering different ways to help him gain some level of control, whilst understanding the turmoil he suffers with life’s stresses that often set him back.
As carers, the small changes often outweigh the challenges – and when we’ve faced these challenges together this has brought us closer together, enabling our fostering journey to continue”.
And what made the difference for Tommy?
Here’s what Tommy has to say about his journey with his foster carers and his drug use:
“My carers are just good people. You would never in your life feel threatened by them. I’ve never heard them shout. They have no bad bones in their body or bad thoughts…
They also understand why I smoke weed. They don’t judge me for it. My last placement you would think I’d killed someone for using cannabis.”
Foster care and drug use in south London
Successful foster care requires an excellent support network.
Lika recruits foster carers for children in local authority care. We’re recruiting potential foster carers in Croydon as well as South and East London in Hackney, Barking, Dagenham, Lewisham, Redbridge, Ilford and Newham). Lika supports foster carers to develop their skills and knowledge to care appropriately for these children.
If you’re interested in foster care, get in touch.
Dr Owen Bowden-Jones (2016) “The drug conversation: How to talk to your child about drugs.” The Royal College of Psychiatrists. Latimer Trend.
Morgan, N. (2013) Blame my Brain. The amazing teenage brain revealed. Walker Books Ltd.
Mason, B. (2015) Relational risk-taking and the therapeutic relationship in The space between: experience, context, and process in the therapeutic relationship. Karnac. London