How should you react the first day you hear your teenager is abusing drugs?
You’ve been suspicious that your teen is using marijuana, or some other drug. You’ve asked your teenager about it before, but they’ve given you plausible stories. One time you thought they looked high when they came home at night, so you mentioned it. Your adolescent told you some dust blew into his eyes, and he’s been rubbing them. You thought that sounded a little strange, but you trust your kid. Another time you thought you smelled a little bit of smoke on your teenager’s clothes, but you just couldn’t be certain. When you asked her about it, she told you that her friends invited some kids over that she’d never met before. She said those kids started smoking. She even went as far as telling you she’d make sure to never hang around those kids again.
Finally, one night you figured out the truth. What you’ve been suspecting turned out to be right. Now what?
1. Take the time to process your emotions. Call someone you’re very close with, who also knows your teen. Preferably this is your teen’s other parent, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Talk it out. Take a few hours to let your emotions settle. You’re probably feeling a combination of fear, anxiety, anger, betrayal and sadness. If you immediately react, you’re likely to say something you’ll regret. The last thing you want in this situation is to have to backtrack with your teen later.
2. Be firm. When you go to discuss this with your child, do not approach them weakly. You don’t need to be mean, and yelling doesn’t help either. However, you do have to be clear about your stance on their drug use. You need to tell them both what you think of it, and how you feel about it. People confuse what they think with how they feel. What you think is the facts you know about their decisions, and the risks they are facing. What you feel is the emotions you’re experiencing, such as hurt, betrayed, foolish, angry, etc. Telling them what you feel is very important and tends to sink in more than telling them what you think. They can argue with what you think, but not how you feel.
3. Don’t be naive. Your teen is likely to make you all kids of promises. They are likely to apologize and promise never to do it again. For you to just believe them because they are crying, or because you really want to believe them is naive. You need to realize that drugs are stronger than will power. Initially your child probably will stop using. However, they will easily slip back into it. At the very least you should read up on recommended steps for helping your teen stay drug free. Usually though, you should take stronger steps than that, and insist on some kind of treatment.
4. Get yourself help. You’ve been unintentionally enabling your child’s drug use. This is not to blame you for your adolescent’s choices. However, because you didn’t know they were using, you were still willing to give them money to go out to dinner or the movies. Without meaning to, you’ve been supplying money for their drugs. From what I’ve seen, parents often are very surprised by the ways their drug using teens have manipulated them. You need extra help to avoid this. Two great, free places to start your education are Celebrate Recovery or Alanon. These both have groups for codependent [enabling] behaviors. From there, you may decide to seek out more help.
5. Take your time. Your initial reaction doesn’t have to include the consequences you will give your teen. It is completely fine to tell them you’re upset and you need time to think. It’s okay to tell them you’ll let them know within the next few days what consequences your teen will have for choosing to use drugs. Immediately telling your teen they’re grounded for 6 months is both unreasonable and rash. It also puts you in a position where you have to enforce something ridiculous. From here on out it is essential that you only give consequences you’re willing and able to enforce.
6. Call your child’s physician. I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough. There are numerous effects of drug use that both you and your teen don’t know about. There are risks that you are completely unaware of. For example, there are problems with the mix of certain drugs with certain medications that are extremely dangerous. There are also many drugs that need proper detoxification under the care of a medical doctor. Make sure your teen is cared for by a doctor if they have been using drugs.
If you are reading this and find it relates to your situation with your teenager, my heart breaks for you. Finding out that your child is abusing drugs is one of the most scary things a parent can face. Take a deep breath and go slow. Get educated as quickly as possible. Find out what you need to do to change the home environment to both protect your other family members and to help your teen get sober. Make sure that safety concerns are addressed first.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT