Do you suspect your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, but don't know how to address the topic? Maybe you've noticed a rapid weight change, odd sleeping patterns, falling grades, or a change in the group of friends he/she hangs out with. Maybe your child's mood or energy level has changed. Perhaps your child has become secretive, or just seems off.
Many parents don't notice the signs of their child's drug or alcohol abuse right away. Often times, a child has developed a serious problem before parents begin to suspect anything is wrong. Results from Partnership for a Drug-Free America's Attitude Tracking Study reveal that only 14% of surveyed parents acknowledged the possibility of their teen trying marijuana, while 42% of the polled teens admitted to having smoked marijuana. Teens hide their alcohol and drug use from their parents, and parents seem to deny their child is using drugs and alcohol.
The First Steps:
Trust your Instincts: If you have the smallest inkling that your child is doing drugs, don't ignore the situation. Talk to your child and explain your concerns. Your child may open up about his/her drug or alcohol use, or he/she may be defensive and deny it. Be prepared for either situation, and stay strong and reassuring. If your child is using drugs or alcohol, the sooner you address it, the sooner you can find treatment for him/her with a mental health or addiction counselor, if needed.
Monitor the Situation: If your child denies drug/alcohol use, don't write it off. Continue to monitor your child's behavior and note any changes in his/her appearance. Keep an eye out for physical evidence like paraphernalia in your child's bedroom or pictures and messages on social media about buying, selling, or using drugs.
Talk to Your Child's Doctor: Even if you aren't positive that your child is using drugs, consult with your doctor about any change in your child's behavior. The doctor may be able to discern if the change is due to drug use, a mental health problem, or a medical issue. Your child's doctor can also help you find treatment providers, depending on your child's needs.
When you voice your concerns to your child, make sure that you are both calm and sober. Choose a time and setting that allows for privacy and limited interruptions. Make a point to put cell phones and other distractions away.
When it's time for the actual talk, be direct and calm, advises Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. and Associate Editor at Psych Central. It's typical to feel angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, and disappointed when you discover your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, but let these feelings fall away before you approach the situation. Lisa Kaplin, Psy.D, a psychologist, life coach, and parenting teacher, states, “The best way to approach your child is with delicacy, not drama. If you approach them with panic, anger, aggression, or accusations, you can be sure your child will tell you absolutely nothing.”
“Avoid direct accusations of drug involvement,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics. Odd behavior could be due to underlying problems at school or even signs of a mental health issue like depression. Also, do not make your child feel guilty or punish them for their behavior. “Substance abusers are usually well acquainted with self-loathing and may already feel remorseful… Ratcheting up their feelings of worthlessness and shame probably will not motivate them to stop. If anything, it might compel them to get high, in order to mute their pain.”
It's best to address your child with sincere concern about their well-being. Don't yell, threaten, or lecture your child. That can often lead kids to withdraw and continue hiding their addiction. Often, teens will deny their drug and alcohol use or respond casually by downplaying the type of drug and the frequency of use. Respond to statements like “It's just pot” or “I don't do it that often” with a brief statement that lets your child know you don't want him or her to use any type of drug. You may want to state some house rules about drug and alcohol use or list the consequences of repeated drug/alcohol usage.
Kaplin recommends asking open-ended questions to get your child to talk about his/her habits. Responses to this type of question are typically more honest.
Here are some examples of open-ended questions you could ask your child:
“Can you tell me more about that?”
“How did you feel in that situation?”
“What will you do if that happens again?”
“How can I help you with this?”
If your child admits to using drugs or alcohol, continue to ask open-ended questions about what types of drugs he/she has used, how often, and how you can help him/her going forward. Talk to your child about treatment options and what could help him/her get through this time. Don't forget to thank your child for being honest about drug or alcohol use. Let your child know that you are ready to help and support him/her.
If you suggest counseling, know that your child may resist the idea. Try making an appointment for your child and requesting that he/she tries it. If your child refuses to try counseling, establish guidelines for the future and find out what treatment he/she will try. Guidelines could include consequences for continued use of drugs or alcohol, or for missing an appointment. You could also ask your child to talk to you if they want to use again.
Discovering your child is using drugs or alcohol can be scary and frustrating, but try to keep a level head. If you feel your emotions are getting out of control, take a break and return to the conversation when you are calm. Whether your child is dealing with substance abuse, a mental health issue, or a medical issue, finding the proper treatment is critical. Many therapists specialize in working with teens and can guide your child through these problems. They can also help you adjust to the struggles of having a teenager.
Intervention Strategies for Concerned Parents
How to Talk to Your Kids When You Think They’re Using Drugs
What to Look for – Signs and Symptoms