When You Suspect Your Kid has a Substance Abuse Problem

7 ways to approach your child if you think he or she uses drugs or alcohol.

Posted May 11, 2017

CCO / Pexels
Source: CCO / Pexels

I recently worked with a mother who was struggling with the suspicion that her teenaged son was abusing drugs and alcohol.  As she expressed her concerns in a therapy session, it was understandable that she kept vacillating between anger, fear, and denial.  One of the scariest realizations for a parent to face is the possibility that the changes they observe in their child’s moods, academic performance, physical appearance, choice of friends, thoughts, and behaviors could be due to substance abuse.  It’s human nature to hope that minimizing or denying a problem can somehow make it go away.  But parental radar is often quite accurate. I’ve worked with many mothers and fathers over the years who have said, “I know my kid. And I know when something is wrong with him or her.”  The question I am often asked, and the one parents seem to grapple with is, “What should I do with my suspicions?”

My answer is always the same: “Don't ignore your suspicions- act on them.” If you suspect your child is abusing drugs or alcohol, go through their stuff. Really. Search their room, their drawers, their book bag, anyplace where you think substances could be hidden.  The initial response I often get is, “But isn't that an invasion of their privacy?”  Yes, it is.  But when it comes to behaviors that can seriously impact your child’s safety and wellbeing, it’s okay to forego privacy and do what you have to do to protect and help your child.  Many parents still feel uncomfortable going into their kids’ bedrooms, closets or drawers, and would rather ask their child directly about their substance use.  Although I believe there are productive ways to discuss the issue, keep in mind that a teenager who is seriously into drugs or alcohol will not readily admit to it, or give an accurate account of their use. And I believe it is a parent’s right and responsibility to intervene when they suspect their child is abusing substances.

If you find evidence of hidden drugs or alcohol or have a strong suspicion that your child is using, here are some suggestions about how to take the next step and talk to your child about this difficult issue:

  1. Keep in mind that any conversation you have with your child can only be productive when they are sober.  Attempts to talk about your concerns when they are drunk, high, or hung over will never yield meaningful or positive results.
  2. Approach your child with genuine concern, compassion, and a sense of calm.  Although feelings of fear, anger, or confusion are normal, they will make your child defensive, more secretive, and encourage further shut down.
  3. Be specific in your concerns without being accusatory or attempting to provoke feelings of guilt or shame.  Describe the changes you’ve noticed or the red flags that have you worried.
  4. If your child does admit to using, encourage them to explain why and what they get from it. This can provide useful information that can be processed with a professional down the road.
  5. Discuss the dangers of drug use and the dangerous complications and consequences that come from substance abuse. This is not “scared straight,” it’s a reality check.
  6. If you have a family history of addiction, educate your child about the generational dynamics of substance abuse and their genetic vulnerability towards developing an addiction if they continue to use.
  7. Above all, don't minimize the problem.  Seek professional help for your child so a formal assessment can be made and appropriate treatment provided.