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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.
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
Physical signs of drug abuse may include:3
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
If you are looking for more support, you can reach out to the following free resources:
You can also familiarize yourself with addiction and the science behind it:
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.
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.
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.
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.