Steps to get the help your child needs
Suspecting that your teenager is drinking or using illegal drugs can be terrifying, but don’t panic. Instead, use these methods to get your child the help he or she needs.
Take teen substance abuse seriously. Many parents are inclined to excuse teen substance abuse, and especially alcohol use, as normal teen behavior. Some parents even go so far as to make their home a “safe space” for kids to drink alcohol because they believe it will help them drink less and behave more responsibly.
Unfortunately, studies suggest that allowing teens to drink at home leads to more drinking than their peers. Conversely, teens whose parents expressly forbid them from drinking have lower rates of alcohol abuse than their peers. Don’t excuse teen drinking or allow it in your home, and make it clear to your teenager that you don’t condone teen drinking.
Talk to your teenagers about alcohol and drugs. It can be hard to communicate with your teenager about alcohol and drugs, but creating an environment in which your teen knows he or she can talk to you about these issues is important. Even if your teen tries to tune you out, at least some of what you say will get through.
Shannon Battle is the clinical director of Family Services of America, a North Carolina–based mental-health treatment facility. She emphasizes that parents have to be honest with their teenagers about alcohol and drugs rather than engaging in scare tactics. “Don’t tell your kids things like ‘only bad people use drugs, if you smoke marijuana it will lead to crack/cocaine, it kills your brain cells,’” Battle told ESME. “Instead, be honest about your concerns. Talk about your observed experiences of others.”
Don’t overlook the signs that your teenager is using. There are some common signs of teen substance abuse, but many parents overlook them. These signs can include a sudden drop in your child’s grades, isolation from family, withdrawal from activities he or she once enjoyed, and hanging out with a new peer group. Rather than waiting for evidence that your teenager is using alcohol or drugs, Battle encourages parents to be proactive. “A parent’s responsibility is always to be proactive,” she says. “They don’t need to wait for evidence to begin seeking treatment or support.”
Support can include going to family counseling, or attending Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous together to learn more about other families’ experiences. By seeking out these resources before a teen gets too far into substance abuse, parents can help their teens avoid future problems.
Look for the reason why your child is using. When teens do use alcohol or drugs, often there are other issues going on that need to be addressed as well. These issues can include stress, poor self-coping skills, or mental illness. Unfortunately, parents are often in denial about their child’s mental illness and can stand in the way of the child receiving effective treatment. Battle states that “Many parents are often paralyzed to the fact that their teen is suffering with mental illness that contributes to substance use. . . . “They are blinded by avoidance and what appears to be typical teenage behaviors.”
If your teenager is using alcohol or drugs, it’s critical to look for the reason why instead of just treating the substance abuse. A thorough mental-health evaluation should be every parent’s first step when the parent suspects his or her child is drinking or doing drugs.
Get your child help. Once your suspicions are confirmed and you know your child is drinking or using drugs, it’s time to get your child help. The type of help your teenager needs will depend on the severity of the substance and your teenager’s substance-abuse habits.
Dmitri Oster, LCSW and program director of One World Counseling (a community-based outpatient treatment program in Brooklyn, New York), says that therapy and close monitoring may be enough for teens who are drinking or smoking pot; however, teens who use heroin or other opiates generally require targeted intervention services. Parents should look for substance-abuse treatment facilities with programs that are specialized for teenagers and that are run by clinicians with a solid background in developmental psychology and addiction.
Keep a close eye on your teenager, even when things seem better. Active parental involvement is critical for keeping teens on the straight and narrow. The “scared straight” tactic doesn’t work; as soon as the fear wears off, teens tend to go right back to their problematic behavior.
For teens with moderate to severe substance-abuse problems, parents need to be especially cautious even after their teens appear to have stopped their substance abuse. To keep their teens safe, these parents should monitor their social activities, get to know all of their friends, and limit how much money their teenagers have access to at any given time. Some parents may even need to administer random drug testing to keep their kids from engaging in substance abuse. Battle says it’s critical for parents to do whatever it takes.
Take care of yourself, too. Parenting a child with substance-abuse problems can be exhausting for two-parent families, but it’s even more challenging for Solo Moms. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, too. Let your friends and family know when you need help, and carve out time to engage in self-care for yourself in and among the chaos. Modeling good self-care habits is good for you and your child.
Jody Allard is a writer and mother living in Seattle. Her work has been featured in the Washington Post, Time, and Good Housekeeping, and on Vice, among others. When she isn’t writing, she can be found binge-watching HGTV and embarrassing her teenagers.
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