You’ve just found your teen is drinking alcohol or using drugs. What do you do? Anger and anxiety wells up within you and your mind starts racing.
“I thought I had taught them better.” “Why are they doing this to their bodies?” “How could my child betray me?” “I thought I could trust my child.” “Why didn’t I see the signs?” “What do I do now?”
You aren’t alone. In fact, your child is among a large population of students that are using or abusing substances.
According to DoSomething.org, an organization 5 million strong that promotes positive change on and offline:
- “60% of seniors don’t see regular marijuana use as harmful, but THC (the active ingredient in the drug that causes addiction) is nearly 5 times stronger than it was 20 years ago.”
- “The United States represents 5% of the world’s population and 75% of prescription drugs taken. 60% of teens who abuse prescription drugs get them free from friends and relatives.”
- “By the 8th grade, 28% of adolescents have consumed alcohol, 15% have smoked cigarettes, and 16.5% have used marijuana.”
Your teen, like so many of their peers, is engaging in experimentation, and in some cases, abuse of drugs and alcohol. Teen drug abuse is no joke, and even though the reasons are more complicated than just “teens being teens” or “society,” it’s important to understand the “why” of teen drug use.
Understanding Why Teens Experiment with Drugs and Alcohol
Suddenly, your adolescent child just isn’t acting like themselves: his grades are dropping, maybe they are more irritable than before, disrespectful and defiant. He seems to be looking more tired or red-eyed, and he’s spending more time with other teens you don’t know well. Acting on your gut instinct, you investigate his room. You find an empty bottle of beer and marijuana paraphernalia.
Before asking how it’s good to understand why teens use drugs and alcohol.
They’re just trying to fit in with peers. Peer pressure is a real factor in adolescent life and a definite motivator for teen drug abuse.
Your child has another mental health issue. These two disorders share risk factors. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “overlapping genetic vulnerabilities,” “overlapping environmental triggers,” and “involvement of similar brain regions” are just some reasons that teen substance abuse and mental health issues are diagnosed together.
It is an experiment that has gone out of control. Maybe they tried it once and somehow drug or alcohol use got out of control. Some users who do drugs for this reason still need intervention, and they may be more open to getting help.
They think it’s normal to use drugs. There’s a lot of misinformation or just a lack of information about the dangers of drug use. With marijuana laws opening up in more states, many teens are convinced that it is a safe drug to use.
They are bored. A bored teen is a teen at risk of participating in illicit activities. Keeping your teen hanging out with the right people and in a variety of activities or an afterschool job can help keep them from becoming bored enough to participate in risky behaviors.
Your teen has an addiction. Your teen may be genetically predisposed to addiction, and therefore, it became more difficult for them to say “no” when they needed to. Now, they need help breaking their cycle of addiction.
Now that you are aware of the possible reasons your teen uses drugs, it’s time to get your thoughts in order to prepare for discussing teen drug use with your child.
Gather Your Facts and Evidence
Before accusing your child of using drugs or alcohol, gather your evidence. A misunderstanding could be bad for your argument. Although some parents do not like to snoop, if you suspect your child is using or abusing drugs, you must gather evidence. If this is not something you are willing to do, that is fine as long as you are sure your child has or is using drugs or alcohol. If you do decide to search their room for drug and alcohol paraphernalia, be prepared to defend your reasons for doing so. No matter what, your teen will see this as an invasion of privacy. Be ready to explain your actions to your teen.
Common places to find drugs and paraphernalia are backpacks, under beds, in closets, in their car (glove box), used medicine bottles, purses, makeup bags, books, and bookcases.
Get in the Right Head Space Before Intervening
Only 10 percent of teens who need treatment for substance use problems actually receive it, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Whatever the desired outcome of your intervention with your teen is, you must be prepared to follow through. This is the only way to ensure that drug use does not continue.
Speak to your spouse or the child’s other caregiver about the issue. You both have to be on the same page about teen drug abuse, and although you may not agree on every aspect of this complex issue, you must show a united front when discussing with your teen. This is stressful for everyone and has the possibility of having serious effects on your family. Now is not the time to blame and shame. It’s about getting on the same page and following through.
Have a Plan When You Confront Your Teen About Using Alcohol or Drugs
Every intervention, even a brief one, needs a plan – the desired outcome. You’ve already missed the train on the initial drug talk if you did not already have that conversation with your child. They have seen, they have tried at this point – they are familiar with substance use. Now it’s about persuasion.
What is the desired outcome of your intervention? Will the goals be?
Common intervention goals:
- Reduce the risk of harm as a result of continuing drug use.
- Socializing with other adolescents who do not need drugs or alcohol to have fun.
- Attending individual and family therapy.
- Visiting a rehabilitation or detox center.
If it’s easier for you to remember your talking points, you can write down talking points of the issues you would like to address during your conversation with your teen.
Create a Safe Place to Talk About Substance Abuse
When deciding where to have a brief intervention, it’s important to consider the following: comfort (yours and your teen’s), privacy, atmosphere and access to luggage and travel supplies if rehabilitation is an intervention goal. For teens, it’s best to keep the discussion group small – just the closest family members and perhaps a trusted therapist. Too many people can make the conversation too overwhelming, especially if someone is using or withdrawing from drugs. It is always best to choose a time when you know your loved one will be sober. Have tissues ready in case anyone becomes upset. Also, having water and snacks in the room can make it easier to have a long, full conversation. Once anyone leaves the room, the conversation can lose momentum.
Prepare Yourself for Their Reaction
The first negative reaction you will likely encounter from discussing drug and alcohol use with your adolescent is anger and distrust over you “snooping” or going through their room, car or mobile device. Remember to stay calm, keep the conversation moving, and stay positive. This isn’t about punishment, it’s about helping a child who is having trouble making safe choices for their bodies. The goal is to convince them that participating in illegal and destructive behavior is unacceptable.
General Do’s and Don’ts When Talking to Teens About Drug or Alcohol Use
- Contact a trained professional (therapist or mediator) to help you learn how to approach your teen.
- Read about teen substance abuse and take note of drug trends in your area.
- Stay in the present, and stay on track. Remind yourself and your teen that their drug use is hurting themselves and their family.
- Research support groups such as Alateen and Parents Anonymous as a resource for you on the path to sobriety and recovery.
- Rehearse your conversation with your child. Be ready to have some kind of answer to all of their possible reactions.
- Demand action immediately following your conversation. The drug use and abuse ends with this conversation.
- Trust your instincts.
- Do it alone if there are other caregivers who need to be heard.
- Bring someone to speak with your teen that will sabotage the discussion or is mentally ill or an addict themselves.
- React immediately upon finding out about the drug use. Follow the steps outlined earlier in the article to prepare yourself for addiction in teens.
- Take it personally if your teen becomes angry or denies drug use.
- Be negative. Try to use positive statements such as “I love you, and I am worried about your alcohol use.”
- Focus on them. Focus on their behavior. That’s the real problem here.
Don’t Give up and Don’t Give In
There can be no gray areas here. Your teen will find ways to circumvent your rules if you don’t make your guidelines absolutely clear. Rules aren’t made to be restrictive, they are made to keep your child safe from harm. When preparing your initial plan, these rules need to be ready. This is not something to be deliberated at a later date. The endgame must be clear to yourself and to your teen with no wiggle room. In addition, consequences for failure to follow your rules need to be addressed as well. If you are unsure of what kind of rules to set, you can look up contract templates on the internet. Both you and your child can read and follow. Remember, your rules should be created not as a punishment but as a way to protect your child and encourage him or her to engage in safe activities. This might mean setting a curfew, limiting visits with friends you know can be a bad influence, not allowing them at other teen’s homes without supervision, coming straight home after school, etc.
Now that you have set up and agreed to the rules, enforcement must take place. Just because your child said they would follow your rules, doesn’t mean that they will. If they do not abide by them, be prepared to enforce the consequences you laid out in your initial contract. To prevent your child from reverting to drug use, be sure to follow up with them daily, ask them where they are going when they leave the house, check for signs of drug use, ask questions and reach out to other parents. Other parents can help immensely by giving you extra sets of eyes to supervise your teen when you can’t be there. For instances like these, it does indeed “take a village.”
What Help Can You Get if Your Teen Needs Help with Substance Abuse?
If getting through to your child is proving difficult or they begin using drugs again, it may be time to call in professionals if you have not already. Addiction in teens is not a “phase” or a normal part of growing up, and early intervention is the key to a successful, substance-free future. Be the hero your child needs you to be and stay strong. And always ask for help when you need it.