Adolescent Abusing Drugs?: The 7 C’s of Leverage

Think there is nothing you can do to stop your kid from using drugs? Try these.

Posted Feb 13, 2013

In previous posts I have made the case that drug use during adolescence is risky and advocated that parents take action if it appears that their kid is using drugs.  Many parents, though, either don’t know what to do or think that there is little they can do to stop their kid from using.

Although nothing is foolproof in preventing kids from abusing drugs, there are things that adults can do to make it less likely that kids will use drugs.

Step one is to ensure that all of the decision-making adults are on the same page.  If there is not agreement among the adults, adolescents will take advantage of any differences of opinion about how to proceed.

The next step is to open a dialogue with the child and find out—if possible—what motivates the use.  Is there an underlying psychiatric issue?  Extensive peer pressure?  Boredom?  If there is something going on here, take appropriate action.

If your child is using drugs in a way that seems dangerous, then it is time to get tough.  Formulate a plan of action, be prepared to put in a lot of time implementing it, emphasize your love and concern for the child, drag your kid to an AA or NA meeting, consider seeking professional assistance, and then start setting limits on non-essential behaviors and consider employing “The Seven C’s” (which I detailed in my book Almost Addicted) in order to try to leverage your child into better choices about drugs and alcohol.  So what are “The Seven C’s”?:

1)    Cash—Except for school lunches or other essential needs, don’t give any. You might be surprised how frequently kids will tell me that they get the money they use to buy drugs from their parents.

2)    Computer—Withhold access to computer.  If your child must be on the computer for school or other similar purposes, carefully monitor the amount of time they are online. 

3)    Curfew—Set a strict one and enforce it.

4)    Cell phone—Given that your child can in fact survive without a cell phone—we all did—but thinks he can’t, withholding access to a cell phone is often a highly effective form of leverage.  

5)    Car—Restrict access.  If your child must drive check the odometer to ensure it matches up with the amount of driving he’s allowed to do.

6)    And 7) Credit cards (which counts for two C’s) –Same principle above as cash.  Be keen to ensure items that are being purchased are in fact needed and not being sold for cash.

These are obviously general rules of thumb and can and should be altered as necessary in individual cases.  For example, I was seeing a 15 year old boy a few years back who had taken to jumping off a nearby bridge into a river 60 feet below.  His parents were desperate to have him stop jumping, knowing that another boy had died several months earlier jumping off that same bridge.  I was sitting with him and his parents and they couldn’t think of anything they might withhold in order to leverage him into changing his behavior, when I looked down at the brand new spotless, shiny sneakers he was wearing. 

I looked at the parents and said, “What about his shoes.”

The kid looked horrified.  “No way.  My old shoes sucked.”  The parents did confiscate his shoes for a week and, lo and behold, he stopped jumping.

There might be other things that could serve as leverage—such as attending a school dance or something else that is not critical for the child’s well-being.

Before I close I want to state the obvious:  Some kids will continue to use drugs despite clear and consistent pressure from parents not to do so.  And in instances where the drug use is ruining the child’s health or jeopardizing his or her ability to stay in school, parents and other adult caregivers are sometimes forced to take drastic measures—such as kicking the child out of the house or going to the courts and asking that their child have mandated treatment in an inpatient facility—because they can’t watch their kid, in essence, destroy his life.    These steps are indeed drastic but, if the drug use has risen to a life threatening level, to not take some form of action along these lines is tantamount to sitting by and watching someone die.

Obviously it is best when adolescents who are using drugs decide for themselves that they need to make a change and then stop their drug use on their own.  But if they either don’t or can’t do so on their own, then employing leverage along these lines is a critical next step. 

*Thanks to Valerie Grimes Snow for her suggestions and input on this post.