It can be one of a parent’s worst fears, something you dread and hope never happens. You’ve discovered (or highly suspect) that your teen is using drugs and/or alcohol.
Maybe you’ve found a hidden stash or some drug paraphernalia or simply noticed a string of new and unusual behaviors and personality changes inconsistent with typical teenage development. Perhaps you’ve overheard your teen and her friends talking about “Texas Tea” or caught her high after a party.
The circumstances don’t really matter. What matters is what you do next.
You don’t want to push your teen away, yet you also need to steer him toward safer and healthier behavior. Knowing the right things to say and do—as well as what to not say and not do—will better ensure these outcomes, while still maintaining a positive relationship between you two.
Even with the best resources and help at your side, this process of confronting your teen and getting him to change his ways will probably be hard. It might be scary.
But it’s something you need to do.
Now stop, take a deep breath, and read our top six tips on what to do when your teen is using drugs.
#1 Don’t Ignore the Problem
You might be thinking to yourself (perhaps in a voice eerily similar to your teen’s when she talks to you), “Well duh! [Cue eye roll]. Of course I wouldn’t ignore my teen drinking or using drugs.”
But how many times, in both real life and popular media, have you heard adults make excuse for teenagers such as “they’re just experimenting,” or “it is okay as long as they only drink at home,” etc.?
It’s not uncommon for parents to downplay their teen’s substance-using behavior. They may do this because they think the problem will go away on its own in time. Some may have dabbled in the same actions in their youth and suffered no long-term consequences and thus would feel hypocritical or that stepping in is not necessary.
Still others might choose to ignore the signs and refuse to act, because intervening admits the problem is real. Acknowledging your son or daughter abuses drugs can easily bring up feelings of guilt, shame, regret, anger, and more. Parents may fault themselves or each other and feel like failures. Some would rather live in denial.
But ignoring the issue, no matter the reason, only further puts your child at risk, as even minimal usage of drugs or alcohol can be highly dangerous.
Some substances, such as inhalants, can cause severe long-term damage or death upon first-time use. Moreover, alcohol and drugs play a significant role in all of the top three leading causes of teenage fatalities: Accidents (including auto crashes and drowning), suicide, and homicide. Anytime a teen is high or drunk, impaired judgment and motor skills leave them more susceptible to these dangers, as well as an increased risk of fighting, unsafe sex, risk-taking, and sexual assault.
Finally, dismissing your teen’s “experimentation,” hoping it will fade in time, risks that the drug use will only become more regular and detrimental. The younger people first begin to abuse substances, the more likely they are to develop a dependence or addiction that lasts throughout their life, because brains do not stop developing until the age of 25. No one knows how many hits or drinks it takes to trigger addiction and it is not the same for everyone; addictions can develop suddenly and unexpectedly, and once your brain is hooked it is never the same.
At this critical time, it is important not to blame yourself. This reaction is normal, but your focus should be on ways to move forward. Teens drink
and do drugs for a multitude of reasons, and you are far from the only parent dealing with this difficult issue. Playing the blame game and imagining “What If” scenarios about the past only distracts from finding solutions for your teen in the future.
#2 Be Prepared
When you discover that your child is abusing a substance, talking with him is one of the most important, effective, and certainly first steps you should take.
But don’t just rush in there half-cocked, guns blazing. With a situation this delicate and crucial, you need to step back and take the time to make a proper plan.
First and foremost, setting aside time to prepare allows you to reign in your initial, more volatile emotions. You shouldn’t approach your teen while blinded by anger, sadness, or the like, as it won’t do either of you any good. Reel in those intense feelings and do your best to remain level-headed. Taking preparation time will aid in that.
You may also want to mentally ready yourself for the trying tribulations ahead. Confronting drug or alcohol use can be an intense experience for you and your teen. Though you can never fully anticipate or prepare for the emotions you may undergo, prepping your mind and heart beforehand will keep you from becoming overwhelmed.
If applicable to your family situation, the next step is to ensure you and your spouse, partner, or other heads of the household devise and maintain a united front. Think, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
No strategy to solve your child’s substance abuse will work if one or both parents blame or contradict the other, fail or refuse to enforce established rules, or enable the teen’s behavior.
Teenagers will immediately recognize any division between the two of you, leaving them confused or ready to exploit these discrepancies. Instead, you must both be equally vigilant in your disapproval of and tactics against drinking and drug abuse.
Finally, you must plan for the actual conversation with your teen. Decide an appropriate time and location, a place where your teen will feel comfortable. Review what evidence you have of her drug use. Know what you want to say and what questions you will ask, as well as formulate responses for common questions that may be asked of you (more on these three points in the next section). All of this preparation will help keep the discussion focused and retain your authority during the conversation.
#3 The Talk Part 1: What to Say and Do
Now that you’ve sufficiently prepped, it is time to sit your teen down, address his alcohol or drug use, and outline what your expectations are in the future.
To get the most out of this time, limit distractions by putting away or turning off cell phones, televisions, laptops, and other electronics (I can hear your teen gasping in shock already). As previously stated, choose a place to talk where your teen feels at ease but make sure it has minimal distractions and is not in a public setting.
Also do not try to have a serious conversation with your child while she is drunk or high. For instance, should she come home late at night after party, clearly intoxicated, you may want to talk right then and there. But in this state your teen will be more prone to anger, sleepiness, and not remembering your conversation the next day, all of which will render your message ineffective.
Begin your talk by presenting evidence of your teen’s substance use so it does not seem like you are randomly accusing him. Share the signs you have noticed such as changes in behavior, personality, and friends, and bring in any confiscated drugs or paraphernalia. Teens will undoubtedly deny using drugs and say they have no idea what you are talking about, but that’s a lot harder to do when they are staring down a clearly-used pipe pulled from under their bed.
On the other hand, don’t assume you know everything and avoid direct accusations. Perhaps you misinterpreted the changes in her attitude, which are actually the result of a different issue like depression or puberty.
On the other, other hand—hang in there, this is a complicated process—teens will make up stories and try to wriggle out of admitting their actions. It’s up to your instincts, judgment, and knowledge of your child and the acquired evidence to discern fact from fiction.
Do not tolerate lies but reward honesty. Let your teen know you want to work together, and that telling the truth will make everything easier. You may want to give some sort of short-term immunity or lessened consequences for honesty or, at the very least, tell your teen you are proud of him for telling the truth.
As you continue, clearly define what actions you do and don’t approve. Teenagers often misunderstand or take advantage of grey areas, and you should not just assume they know your stance on every issue, even those as basic as not using alcohol and drugs.
Address why these risky behaviors worry you. Here you can reference some of the dangers of substance use, anything from drunk/drugged driving to the increased likelihood of violence and unsafe sex.
However, only mention a few of these potential consequences and stick to topics relatable to your teen. You don’t want to overload her or refer to dangers too long-term or otherwise obscure for her to care about.
And never, ever, ever start listing statistics. Teens will zone out faster than you can say, “half of all traffic fatalities among 18-24 year-olds are alcohol-related.”
Ask your teen questions to root out the reason(s) why she turned to drugs. As an act of rebellion? Peer pressure from friends? Loneliness or depression?
When you understand the specific contributing causes of your teen’s substance abuse, you’ll be able to better tailor your approach to get her help according to her personal needs.
Additionally, to acquire a better understanding of your child’s world, ask about his friends. Doing this will also divert some of the pressure your teen may be feeling due to all of the focus on her. However, because people usually hang out with like-minded individuals, you can learn a lot about your kid based on what you learn of his friends.
What are their attitudes toward drugs and drinking? What do they think of people who do and don’t use? Are there friends that push your teen into doing things he’s uncomfortable with?
Let it be up to your teen whether to reveal specific names. Otherwise she’ll feel like you are demanding her to rat on her friends and will shut you out. Likewise, never say you don’t like one of your child’s friends or pass judgement (“I don’t like Kimberly, she’s a pothead”). This will only anger your teen and cause her to lash out or divert the discussion away from her behavior.
Throughout your talk always keep in mind the internal struggles your teen could be facing. Perhaps the reason he turned to drugs is because he is depressed or emotionally vulnerable. Maybe he wants to quit using but has become physiologically addicted and cannot stop on his own. Or he could be deeply ashamed and embarrassed by his behavior and that you found him out.
With that in mind, don’t heap on guilt or call your teen a failure. Certainly stress that you severely disapprove of her drug use, but continually emphasize that you love her and will be supportive in all her efforts to get clean and make better choices.
Even if your teen was not driven to substance use because of some deep-rooted vulnerability and does not show any signs of regret over his actions—he is brazen or proud of them, even—be firm but still handle the situation with compassion. Bringing in anger or attempts to shame will only evoke the same responses from your child, further pushing him away, leaving him no closer to pursuing more positive behavior. The goal of intervening is to stop your teen’s drug abuse, not to yell and emotionally punish for the sake of it. Issuing (tangible) consequences can be a tactic in service of the former but is not itself the objective.
Your talk should be a conversation, not a confrontation.
Take the time to genuinely listen to her answers to your questions and try to see her point of view, as well as encourage her to ask questions of her own. Check yourself throughout the conversation. Are you talking a lot more than you are listening?
Keep in mind, however, that periods of silence are okay. Teens need longer to think and express themselves than adults. And remember, while you have been thinking about this conversation for some time, your teen has not.
Teenagers will likely ask about your personal experiences. Did you feel peer pressure growing up? Did you ever go through ______ like me? And, of course, the main one they’ll want to know: Did you ever drink underage or use drugs?
If you didn’t partake in substance use as a teenager, that’s great. Handling this situation will be no problem. However, if you did consume either in your youth, you might panic upon hearing this query, fearing it will unravel everything you are now trying to do.
First, know that you do not have to answer the question if you don’t want to. You are not on trial, and it is not your behavior that called for this conversation. This talk is about your teen, and it is his actions that need to change. Responding to your teen’s asking can lead teenagers to think you are unfair and commanding them to do as you say, not do as you do.
Instead, recognize that your child is asking you for a reason. For the majority of teens, when they ask if you have tried drugs, the heart of their question is what should they do?
What you were like when you were his age matters to your child, even if she doesn’t show it or realize it herself. By asking about your behavior, your teen hopes to justify her own actions or learn how to do things differently, based on your example.
Again, you are not obligated to respond to your teen’s initial question; however, if you choose to, keep your answer short and simple. “Yes, I tried pot a few times,” or “Yes, I sometimes drank at parties,” are more than sufficient. There’s no need to go into any more detail than that.
Furthermore, preface your answers by saying that you wish you had made better choices, the dangers of drugs and alcohol (especially to youth) were not as well known when you were young, and many drugs are much stronger today than they were in the past.
Make sure you do this before you give your answer, though. If you attempt to give these qualifications after you’ve admitted using substances, your teen will interpret them merely as lame excuses. All he will hear is that you got to do it, but he cannot. You can explain some of the consequences you suffered because of drinking or doing drugs and how situations would have turned out better if you had made different choices, but, unless you underwent something truly traumatic and life-altering, even this can fall on deaf ears.
Therefore, re-directing your teen’s question about your past, instead of answering it straightforward, is often the best strategy. Put the focus on her and what she needs.
Remember the fact that reading this article shows that you are a caring and responsible parent who only wants the best for their teen. No one has all the answers and no one always says the right thing. If the conversation doesn’t work the first time, keep trying. Continue reading and researching and don’t give up.
* * *
By Tyler Wroblewski
Click here for our Part 2, which covers tips on establishing rules and consequences, reaching out for help, and treatment centers.
Smoking Joint: From Chmee2 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
You Can Do It: From Steven Depolo at https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/3968766889
Teen Boys Smoking: From https://pixabay.com/en/weed-smoke-drug-marijuana-joint-837125/
Overwhelmed Woman: From jazbeck at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jazbeck/8025692978
Fallen Person with Pill Bottle: From Manos Bourdakis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Parent Blaming Self: From https://pixabay.com/p-111426/?no_redirect
Angry Woman: From Lara604 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lara604/2369412952/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Parenting Disagreement: From https://pixabay.com/en/argument-couple-disagreement-female-2022605/
Planning: From https://pixabay.com/p-593333/?no_redirect
No Phones Allowed: From Pmox (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Crack Paraphernalia: From Espiritusanctus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Honesty, Trust, and Respect: From Zaneology at https://www.flickr.com/photos/zaneology/8407967205
Car Crash: From Damnsoft 09 at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sitting Teen Girl: From Nathan Csonka at https://www.flickr.com/photos/nathancsonka/3685178495
Teen Girls Smoking: From Valentin Ottone at https://www.flickr.com/photos/saneboy/3595175373
Depressed Girl in Corner: From Baker131313 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Shouting Silhouettes: https://pixabay.com/en/arguing-female-male-man-shouting-1296392/
Talking on Bench: From https://pixabay.com/en/west-friends-sit-bench-peace-826947/
On Trial: From https://pixabay.com/p-1587300/?no_redirect
Teen Hugging Parent: From Tulane Public Relations (Move-In Day Uploaded by AlbertHerring) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
THC Levels: Original Image from Pauk (Transferred from ru.wikipedia) [CC BY 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Text added by author.
Talking to Teens: From Shane Global Language Centres at https://www.flickr.com/people/shaneglobal/?rb=1