You just found marijuana in your son’s sock drawer or an empty vodka bottle under your daughter’s bed. Now what? How do you react without making matters worse?
When to Talk
Don’t delay in talking to your child. Take a little time to get educated about commonly abused drugs and adolescent substance use trends so you can better assess your child’s risks. Some parents, for example, would be horrified if they came across heroin in their child’s possession but much less disturbed if they found a half-empty bottle of Vicodin — yet both are opioids and can be equally dangerous. And alcohol use is considered by some as almost a rite of passage, yet it kills more teens than all other drugs combined.
Your first stop may be a meeting with your pediatrician or a licensed mental health professional who specializes in adolescent problems to help you evaluate just how serious the problem is. They can help you to plan what you’ll say to your child and what consequences you’ll impose. It’s critical that you and your spouse are on the same page before speaking to your child. Now you’re ready to have the conversation but you need to set aside a specific time to talk with your child when you won’t be interrupted.
What to Say and How to Say It
You’re likely feeling a whole range of emotions about your discovery — disappointment, worry, anger, sadness. Try to channel all the inner calm you possess when talking to your child. Yelling, demanding explanations or shaming will only close the door on dialogue and make answers that much harder to find. Instead:
When their turn to talk comes around, your child is likely to be feeling a mixture of embarrassment and panic, so expect initial responses along the lines of “It isn’t mine,” “I only did it once and I didn’t even like it,” or “It’s not a big deal.” Your child is going to try to put the best face possible on this, and you’re going to want to believe them. That can be a bad combination.
Don’t allow yourself to get diverted. Instead, encourage conversation by asking open-ended questions that require reflection; for example, you might ask if they’re often around other people who use substances — if it’s common at school, for example — and how they feel in those situations. Try to determine what substances they’ve used (remember, the stash you found may be the tip of the iceberg) and how often they use them. Ask for their thoughts on how to proceed.
If you do get them talking, a vital question is whether they use substances to make things better or more bearable. The answer can help pinpoint signs of depression and anxiety, a common reason for people of all ages to turn to drugs and alcohol.
At the end of the conversation, you may have created a firm plan as to how to move forward, or you may have only laid the groundwork. If so, make it clear that you’ll be talking again (and follow through).
When and How to Get Help
Even if you’re convinced your child is no longer using substances and will live up to the terms of your agreement, the next step is to see a professional who can assess their mental and physical health. A checkup with a general practitioner experienced in addiction issues can be a good choice. Ask in advance for the doctor to address substance use and its effects and advise your child on how to seek help if needed. Realize, however, that because of privacy laws, the doctor may not be able to share the results of this exam unless your child proves a danger to themself or others. Still, you’ll have the relief of knowing that knowledge has been shared with your child from a source outside the home — which often carries more weight, as any parent knows.
If, however, your child reveals they are having trouble with their substance use, keep calm and take immediate action. Help is available from a variety of sources, including addiction treatment facilities, therapists, and groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for teens. Thanks to the combined effects of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the Affordable Care Act, more insurance plans than ever now provide mental health and substance use disorder coverage.
If your child finds it impossible to stop using drugs or alcohol or refuses to cooperate with the treatment you have laid out, a formal intervention led by an expert may be effective in getting your child to accept the help they need. Educational consultants who specialize in behavioral issues are another group that has expertise in evaluating and referring adolescents.
It may also be helpful to know that depending on which state you live in, parents may be able to admit their child for substance abuse treatment without their consent up until age 18. This isn’t ideal, of course, but don’t dismiss the idea because you’re convinced there’s no hope if your child opposes it. Studies suggest that even those who enter treatment as a result of a compulsory court order do as well or better than those who seek treatment on their own. The desire to change often comes as treatment progresses.
A Stand Worth Taking
It’s natural to hope that what you’re seeing is merely harmless youth experimentation. But remember, growing brains are much more vulnerable to damage from alcohol and drugs (including marijuana) than ours. In addition, research confirms that the younger a person is when they start using an addictive substance, the more likely they are to become dependent on it. Anything you can do to delay or minimize your child’s introduction to drugs and alcohol will pay off later.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes an adolescent drug rehab at Right Step, Promises young adult rehab, as well as a relapse program for young adults at The Recovery Place.