If you are concerned that your child is using drugs or alcohol, you probably have a lot of questions about what to do. Don’t let your apprehensions and uncertainty stand in the way of reaching out. It’s never too early to intervene and talk to your child about drug or alcohol use. And, it might just save their life.
How Do I Know if My Child Is Using Drugs?
As a parent, trust your gut instinct when it comes to noticing whether your child’s behavior is different or something is off. If your teen is behaving oddly and you are wondering whether you should say something, always err on the side of caution. Make time to have a conversation to see what is going on in their life. Given that teens are more prone to exhibit risk-taking behaviors that can put them at risk for injury, overdose, unprotected sex, and drunk driving, drug abuse can be serious and potentially life-threatening.1 Also, their brains are still developing and can be severely impacted by the impact of substances.1
Below are common behavioral signs that your child is using drugs. Your child may:2,3
- Lie about their drug or alcohol use.
- Regularly get drunk or high.
- Drop out of school or miss class regularly.
- Get in trouble at school or with the law.
- Feel depressed or suicidal.
- Brag or talk frequently about using drugs or alcohol.
- Pressure their friends to use drugs or alcohol.
- Fail classes or receive lower grades than they usually do.
- Change their interests or friend groups.
- Take risks while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, such as drunk driving and unprotected sex.
- Ask for or steal money regularly.
- Isolate themselves from family and former friends and spend more time in private.
Physical signs of drug abuse may include:3
- Changes in appetite.
- Changes in sleep patterns.
- Sudden weight loss or gain.
- Lack of concern for physical appearance or hygiene.
- Bloodshot eyes.
- Larger or smaller pupils than normal.
- Unusual smells on the body or clothes.
- Slurred or incoherent speech.
- Poor coordination.
- Seizures in absence of epilepsy.
Your child may also just seem “not himself”. If you’re noticing sudden personality changes, odd outbursts, or sudden changes in motivation, substance abuse may be a factor. If you are noticing any of these signs, you should find medical or psychiatric help before your teen spirals out of control.
Is It Really a Big Deal?
Even if your teen says they are only experimenting with drugs and/or alcohol or you had relatively benign experiences with your own personal drug use in the past, you are taking huge chances by not intervening early. Drug use and the associated consequences can escalate quickly.
As a parent, one of the most powerful and cost-effective tools you have is communication. Parents often dread speaking to their children about suspected drug and alcohol use and may avoid it all together. While it may be a difficult subject to broach, talking to your child early and often is the best way to address the risks of drug use and prevent problematic substance use in the future.
If you don’t think your child’s drug use is serious because it just began, consider that it only takes one overdose to die.It is also important that you remain an active part of your child’s life and know who their friends are, how they are spending their free time, and how they are feeling so you can handle issues as they arise.4
The consequences of not speaking up after you start noticing a pattern of possible drug abuse behaviors can be devastating, not only for your child but your entire family unit. A teen’s substance abuse can escalate and result in:4
- Inadequate nutrition/severe weight loss.
- Risky sexual behaviors.
- Car accidents.
- Truancy/expulsion/dropping out.
- Legal problems, including incarceration.
If you don’t think your child’s drug use is serious because it just began, consider that it only takes one overdose to die. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of teen drug overdose deaths in the United States climbed 19% from 2014 to 2015, with 772 overdose deaths among adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19.5 The report found that opioids were the driving cause of overdoses, with heroin being involved in the majority of overdose cases.5
You must talk to your children about the dangers of drugs, and especially make it clear that it is impossible to know what is in the drugs they buy from fellow teens or off the street. Emphasize that prescription drugs are no safer than illicit drugs and that combining drugs can be fatal. It may help you check out a resource like the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens website to review some information about drugs and their dangers together, so you’re not just saying “don’t do drugs” without a clear reason. Your child will have more information they can access to make decisions about what to do when faced with the opportunity to use.
What if I Think My Child is Using Drugs but I Don’t Have Proof?
If you think your child is using drugs, but you aren’t sure, it doesn’t hurt to just ask them about their experience with drugs or alcohol. You can start the conversation by addressing a recent behavior change (e.g., “I’ve noticed that since you started hanging out with Amy, you’ve been going out with different groups of friends. Do these friends ever drink or use drugs?”).6
If you have picked up on signs that your child is drinking or using drugs, it can be useful to bring those up during the conversation as a way to back up your claims. It is not necessary to have physical evidence like empty bottles or needles, but you can say things like, “Last night when you came home, you smelled like alcohol and I heard you throwing up,” which will be all but impossible for your child to deny.6
Before the conversation, you can prepare by:6
- Looking in their room or car for drugs or drug paraphernalia: Some parents refuse to look through their teen’s things because they don’t want to invade their privacy. Other parents believe they have a right to do so to protect their child. If you do choose to search for suspicious items, you can look at areas that don’t normally get checked or cleaned like under the beds or chairs, or in the recesses of the closet. You can also check to see if there are any items stored inside hollowed-out books, used bottles, stuffed animals, or even candy wrappers. Think about where you would hide things if you were in your child’s situation.
- Closely observing your child: Paying attention to what your child is doing and where they are can help you figure out if there is cause for concern. Pay attention to which friends they are hanging out with, how they are doing at school, their physical appearance, their personal habits, and any unusual behavior.
- Tracking changes: If your teen breaks the rules or does something suspicious, you can take note of it in your head or record it in a journal. You can track your child’s pattern of behavior and make reference to any concerning changes during your discussion. You can also keep track of alcohol and prescription drugs at home to see if any have gone missing.
If you find drugs or paraphernalia in your kid’s things, be prepared to talk about how you found them. Your child may be upset that you went through their stuff but you can defend your choice of looking through it by expressing your deep concern for their safety and wellbeing. You can say something like, “I’m sorry that you feel like I broke your trust but as your mother/father, I have a duty to do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”6
How Do I Talk to My Child About Drugs?
The first conversation you have with your child about drugs will likely not be the last. In fact, you should have this conversation many times over the years. If you’ve never had the conversation, it’s not too late to start. If your child is already using substances, or you suspect they are, approach them with the goal of discussing this specific behavior, expressing concern, and relaying specific rules and boundaries you expect them to respect.
Timing is key when it comes to communicating with your child. Try to have the conversation when you know that both of you are sober and calm.
Do's and Don'ts
- Speak calmly and keep a steady manner.
- Come from a place of trying to understand and support your child.
- Offer your love and concern, not anger or judgment. Make it clear that you love your child unconditionally but will not accept drug use.
- Really listen to what your child is saying, and show that you are doing so with your words and body language.
- Put your phone and all other distractions away so you can fully focus on what your child is saying and give them your undivided attention.
- Starting the conversation if you are unprepared or don’t feel ready to have a conversation.
- Getting angry or heated.
- Expressing judgment toward your child. Make clear that you disapprove of the behavior but you love your child.
- Accepting everything your child says at face value. Trust your gut. If you think something’s wrong, it probably is.
What If I Use or Have Used Drugs?
If you currently use drugs or alcohol or you have used substances in the past, it can make things more difficult—you may feel somewhat hypocritical in telling your children not to do drugs or drink. Don’t let this stop you. Do all that you can to prioritize the health and wellbeing of your child. When you do decide that you want to have the conversation, below are a few tips on how to approach it:7
- Keep the focus of the conversation on their drug use.
- Avoid giving a lot of details about your substance use.
- Give them explanations about why you don’t do drugs now and the problems that using caused you.
- Tell them that you want them to avoid making the same kind of mistakes that you did.
Are There Resources for Parents?
If you are looking for more support, you can reach out to the following free resources:
- You can visit websites like Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, which offers free, one-on-one Parent Coaching to help parents talk to their children about drug and alcohol abuse. When you call, you will be paired with a volunteer coach who is trained in Community Reinforcement and Family Training (CRAFT). Coaching takes place over the phone, over the course of 5 calls during a 6-week period. You can get started by calling their helpline at 1-855-378-4373.
- You can join a 12-step group at any time. These groups are designed specifically for family members of addicted individuals:
o Nar-Anon Family Groups: For family members of addicted individuals.
o Al-Anon.org: For family members of alcoholics.
o Coda.org: For people struggling with codependency issues.
You can also familiarize yourself with addiction and the science behind it:
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens has a page of free videos that you can watch that present different scenarios that your teen may encounter on a daily basis, as well as informative videos on how addiction happens and why it’s so difficult to overcome.
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse has an interactive, online eBook full of information, quizzes, and statistics about teen drug abuse.
- Documentaries like the Know Dope Documentary show the devastating effects of teen drug abuse and provide insight into how addiction affects the entire family unit.
- Websites specializing in substance abuse that share the latest in addiction science, news, and research include the National Institute on Drug Abuse or Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
If your child does have a drug or alcohol use problem, it may be time to start looking at treatment programs that specialize in treating young people. Inpatient and outpatient programs both provide a level of stability and supervision that are designed to provide your child with the support they need to overcome addiction. During treatment, your teen may engage in therapy and one-on-one counseling to address the underlying issues fueling their drug or alcohol use.
Can I Make My Child Go to Rehab?
As a parent, you are your child’s advocate and should always come from a place of love and compassion. It’s important that you keep an open mind and heart, while also placing boundaries on what is and what is not acceptable behavior. If your child needs treatment, you can call us today to speak to a treatment support specialist or you can use SAMHSA’s treatment locator. You can also talk to your doctor, therapist, or pediatrician for a referral to a recommended treatment program for teens.
Don’t be surprised if your child refuses to enter a treatment program and pushes back. As a parent of a child who is refusing to enter treatment, this can be frustrating and present you with an uphill battle. Do you respect your child’s wishes, or do you force them into treatment?
If your teen is in need of immediate treatment and she is in danger of harming themselves or others but refuses to enter treatment, there are measures you can take. Certain states will allow a blood relative, guardian, police officer, physician, or court official to petition for treatment even if the child does not consent.8 For example, in Massachusetts, you can request to commit someone to substance abuse treatment if they are at risk for serious harm. In order to submit a petition, you must go to the local court and fill out all the necessary papers and file the petition at a District or Juvenile Court.8 Check your particular state’s laws for whether you can compel your child to go to drug treatment. Unfortunately, there are no consistent laws across states regarding what happens if a child and their parent disagree about needing treatment. And interestingly, according to a study conducted on parental decision-making according to state laws, researchers found that the majority of treatment centers do not require parental consent. State laws favor the rights of minors to access treatment independently.9
Even if an unwilling child is forced into treatment, minors in most states can legally refuse treatment and discharge themselves.9 This may be when you call upon your community of family, teachers, friends, church members, or community organizations to help you motivate your child towards seeking help. In terms of forcing your child into treatment, there is no right or wrong answer and, as the parent, you are in the position to make the call that you think is going to ensure that your child is living in a safe and healthy environment.
How Can I Prevent Future Drug Use?
When your relationship with your child is close and supportive, the relationship can serve as a protective factor against future drug use or relapse. When children have a strong bond with their parent, they are more likely to feel good about themselves and more likely to ask for help if they need it. Below are some ways to support your child in living a healthy, drug-free life.
It’s hard to think that your child could develop an addiction, but for many people, drug use begins in their youth.
- Keep a line of communication open with your child: Make it easy for your teen to talk honestly with you by encouraging trusting, open communication. If your child feels like they can come to you, you will likely have an easier time guiding them towards healthy decisions. When you talk to your child, try to listen without interrupting them. Ask open-ended questions that do not require a yes or no answer. If you hear your child talking about something you don’t like, control your emotions and take a deep breath. If you react negatively or judgmentally, your child may be less likely to open up to you in future conversations.10
- Become familiar with what household substances can be abused: Inhalants such as the gases in whipped cream dispensers, the aerosol propellant in vegetable oil sprays, nail polish remover, hair spray, and felt-tip marker fluid are available around the house and they are often first drugs that teens begin experimenting with. Teens may purposely inhale these products to get high on the fumes. What most young people don’t realize is that these chemicals are extremely harmful to the brain and can lead to death.11 In 2016, it was estimated that as many as 1.7% of high school seniors reported abusing inhalants in the past year.11
- Respond quickly to warning signs. Being aware of the signs associated with drug and alcohol abuse is an effective way to prevent continued drug abuse. When you are familiar with the signs and symptoms of substance abuse, you can take action right away. Watch for social changes, changes in friend groups, and other warning signs.
- Foster a safe environment: You can take preventive steps to ensure that your teen is not abusing, stealing, or selling prescription drugs in the house by keeping prescription medications locked away and properly disposing of medications after you have finished using them. Given the high rates of opioid and prescription drug abuse, it is important that you dispose of all unused, unnecessary, or expired pills. These medications should be removed from your home as quickly as possible to avoid any chances that your child will use or sell the medications. If your child has struggled with substance use, keep your house free of alcohol, even if, for example, you can drink in moderation. Your child does not need this temptation in their home environment.
- Watch for relapse: Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. It is possible that your child will continue to struggle with triggers and cravings for drugs and alcohol over the course of their entire lifetime. In order to minimize relapse risks, it is important that your child avoid triggers as much as possible and learn to manage those they can’t avoid. Every person has different triggers, but common ones may include stress, sadness, boredom, or hanging out with friends who use drugs or alcohol. After your child has gone through treatment for their alcohol or drug use, you can help keep them on track by checking in with them often about how they’re doing and encouraging them to continue seeking support through recovery groups, therapy, etc.
It’s hard to think that your child could develop an addiction, but for many people, drug use begins in their youth. Teenagers are susceptible to using and abusing drugs, and it’s important that, as a parent, you pay close attention to what’s going in your child’s life and note any concerning changes. Don’t wait to talk with them if something has made you suspect substance use. Hesitation may allow it to continue and worsen. If your teen needs help, reach out today to learn what your options are for getting them the care they need to stop drug use in its tracks.
- Winters, K. C., & Arria, A. (2011). Adolescent Brain Development and Drugs. The Prevention Researcher, 18(2), 21-24.
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2017). Substance Abuse/Chemical Dependence in Adolescents.
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. (2015). For Parents: What to Look For.
- Ali, S., Mouton, C. P., Jabeen, S., Ofoemezie, E. K., Bailey, R. K., Shahid, M., & Zeng, Q. (2011). Early Detection of Illicit Drug Use in Teenagers. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(12), 24-28.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drug Overdose Deaths Among Adolescents Aged 15-19 in the United States: 1999-2015.
- The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. (n.d.). Intervention eBook: What to do if your child is drinking or using drugs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). Talking to Kids About Drugs: What to Say if You Used Drugs in the Past.
- State of Massachusetts. (2016). Frequently Asked Questions About Civil Commitments.
- Kerwin, M. E., Kirby, K. C., Speziali, D., Duggan, M., Mellitz, C., Versek, B., & McNamara, A. (2015). What Can Parents Do? A Review of State Laws Regarding Decision Making for Adolescent Drug Abuse and Mental Health Treatment. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, 24(3), 166-176.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2009). Make a Difference: Talk to Your Child About Alcohol.
- National Institutes on Drug Abuse for Teens. (2017). What are Inhalants?