I Think My Teen’s On Drugs, Now What?

I am often asked by parents whether their teens are addicts or alcoholics. Most of the time I find that they are usually jumping to the conclusion that their kids are one hour from a major overdose before gathering all the facts related to their teens use of mind altering substances. Whole books have been written to answer these concerns. What I am going to do here is to present the most important consideration that must be made by parents who is worried about their teens involvement is substance abuse and addiction.  It is important to note that I do not differentiate between legal and illegal ones when talking about mind altering substances. I, also, include all the other addictive behaviors, sex, gambling, compulsive eating and eating disorders, and compulsive work and working out activities in any evaluation of a teens substance use, abuse and/or addiction because they are just a different form of the same problem. I look at the core problem behind all abusive and addicted behavior is low or no self-esteem and self-worth which develops into the habit of thinking and acting like a loser. The actual addictive behaviors are just symptoms of that core problem. With this in mind, let’s explore my thoughts on what parents need to do to get a handle on their teens substance abuse problems.

In evaluating the degree teens are involved in substance abuse and addiction, it is very useful to answer the following questions:

  1. How old is the teen?
  2. Is the usage regular or sporadic?
  3. If regular, how regular? Daily, how many times a week, continual?
  4. Is it a weekend recreational thing (partying with friends or continual throughout the school year?
  5. Has it only become noticeable during vacation times?
  6. Has there been a noticeable decrease in positive, school related behaviors, such as doing less homework, ditching school, more disruptive or less participatory in class, a significant change in friends, or a change in sleeping patterns?
  7. If the concern is drinking related, is he/she regularly drinking to a point of being totally out of control, not remembering what they did while drunk (in a blackout) or passing out? Any of these appearing on a regular basis are indications of serious abuse and alcoholism.
  8. If the concern is about smoking pot, is this an everyday affair?
  9. Does your teen or young adult think that he/she has a problem?
  10. Is there any evidence of any use of meth amphetamine, cocaine or depressants (pills, cough syrup, and heroin)? There is no casual, recreational use of these drugs, especially meth amphetamine which is highly addictive after very little use.

Many of the questions I have posited might not be, individually, an indication of anything special. I am suggesting that only after answering all the questions, will you get a clear enough picture to start to figure out the answer to your original concerns. It is even more important that you have answers to most of these questions before you consult with a mental health professional because those are the questions that he/she will have to have answered before giving you any advice on how to precede. (Another good reason for doing this before consulting mental health professionals is that many of them never ask these questions and therefore miss-diagnose the problem. I once had a psychiatrist diagnose one of my youth program clients as being in the manic phase of bi-polar without ever asking about illicit drug use. The kid was actually speeding his brains out on crystal meth-amphetamine! )

So let us suppose that your teens are in the throes of an addiction (I am including alcoholics in this category), what are the options available to you? The first “it depends “ is, it depends on your teens’ age. Under 16 and, possibly 17, you have a lot more options because you can call on the governmental, juvenile social services resources and, if necessary, leverage the ever threatening hammer of the juvenile justice system. As your kid approaches 18, you are likely to get less and less cooperation from governmental resources because they figure that he/she will age out of the system before they can have any positive effect.

Question 9, above, is most important in deciding what your course of action will be. If your teens are, as they say in 12 Step programs, “sick in tired of being sick in tired!” and have admitted that their usage is out of control AND they want to do something about it, your job has immediately become much easier because all you need to do then is to get them to an appropriate recovery program and continue to support their being there. If they are in denial about how mired in addiction they are, you will need to consult with an addiction specialist who can advise you how best to intervene.

Before any thoughts of intervention, it is very important that you make sure that you are not inadvertently doing things that will contribute to increased usage by your teen. 

  1.  Screaming louder, nagging and throwing guilt and shame are not interventions. They are exercises in frustration, on your part, and will almost certainly produce the opposite from the desired result from your kid. The reason for this is that they already know that they are messing up, big time, and are full of guilt and shame. You laying more of that on them will just increase the intensity of their negative feelings of themselves. The only thing you will accomplish is to get them to use more because that is the only way that they know to deal with and blot out all those negative feelings.
  2. Pay attention to ways that you might be enabling the behaviors, such as providing an unlimited supply of monetary support. Stop giving money without first asking what it is for and then demand a store receipt for it before you will provide any further cash. Better yet, you do the purchase for him/her.
  3. Another behavior that is very enabling is covering for them. It postpones their eventually bottoming out, which is the only time when there will be an understanding on their part that they have a problem and need assistance to conquer it. Examples of covering for them is to write excuses for school that they were too sick to go to school when the reality of the situation was that they were too hung over or crashing too hard after coming down from a crystal meth binge. The same goes for work. When the boss calls to find out why they didn’t show up for work, continually covering for them by saying they are too sick to get to the phone will save their jobs, but will it save their lives? Please note that this and for that matter, all these suggestions are for how to deal with your kids who you know are addicts or heavily abusing drugs and alcohol. Occasionally covering for your kids who screwed up and has learned a lesson from it, is just part of parenting. This suggestion is aimed at regularly covering for them.
  4. Make sure that all valuables and cash are locked up and not accessible. Become real aware of the inventory of your possessions to make sure that none are disappearing. Not following this suggestion puts temptation in the face of your kid and when they help themselves to your goodies to support their habit, will contribute to their already guilt-ridden psyches.
  5. Make sure that all your recreational and prescriptive goodies (alcohol and prescription medicines) are locked up for both the same reasons as #3, above, and because you will be directly enabling their usage. A recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that a third of the prescription drugs illegally obtained by the teens in their study came from their families medicine cabinet! I can’t tell you the countless number of times I have heard teens in recovery groups admitting to drinking their parent’s alcohol and adding water to the bottle to cover up the thievery. Full disclosure compels me to admit doing this myself when I was a kid.
  6. You and your spouse would benefit greatly by joining Alonon, an organization for significant others of alcoholics and addicts. At these free meetings you will find other parents who have already been through what you are going through who will teach you how then did it. It is a great resource. You do not need to do this alone without the support that the other members of Alonon can give you.
  7. If you or your spouse or significant other uses recreational drugs or drinks heavily, you have two choices. You can either stop your use or you are going to have to become a hypocrite and use in secret. The environment always wins! If you are creating an environment where your use of recreational drugs and heavy alcohol use is the norm, expect your kids to do as you do. Please understand that your kids won’t get the distinction between your occasional use of pot and their continual use. They also will not understand that you’re putting away a six pack or two of beer watching Sunday night football and then going to sleep is any different from their drinking with their friends while, at the same time, driving. If you can’t do without using, even for the sake of your kids, then you probably ought to investigate your priorities and/or if you, too, have an addiction problem.  

So here are some of my thoughts on intervention: 

  1. If your teenager gets arrested it is important that the juvenile justice system, usually through the probation department, knows that you are concerned and involved as a parent. You also need to let them know immediately if you teen has special needs, such as medications, or special concerns, like suicidal tendencies or he/she is Gay or a Lesbian, so they can properly care for and protect him/her.  
  2. Do not immediately push for his/her release unless there is a real danger of being in the detention facility. There is nothing like a few days in a locked down facility to get the point across that maybe the track they’re on might not be the best one. I once knew a county court judge, Bruce Dean, in Ithaca, New York where I ran my first street program. Judge Dean was fond of pointing out his chambers’ window to the county jail across the parking lot and exclaiming, “That is where they get religion!” If you spring your kids the moment they get arrested, you are both not allowing time for the experience to sink in that maybe they had better do something different and you are sending a signal that you condone their behavior. If you let them sit for a little while, when they do get out, there will most likely be a window of opportunity when they will be willing to get some assistance with their problems. What will assist that decision will be your pointing out to your kid that if he/she is already in some sort of treatment program before the court case is to be heard, the chances of the court just continuing staying in that program, rather than putting him/her away for a while, is pretty high.
  3. Have all your homework as to what treatment options are available done long before you need them and then become a patient opportunist while waiting for a window of opportunity to present itself. Those windows usually occur after some sort of a setback that acts as a wakeup call to the teen. Getting dumped by a girlfriend because she would not put up with him being constantly stoned could be such a wakeup call. If you are able to pick up on his despair and he shares with you the reason for the break-up, that could be an opportunity to let ask him if he is ready to stop using pot and let him know that if he wanted to do something about it, you will get him the assistance he needs and you will be there for him. Notice how I phrased that. There was no haranguing, no throwing of guilt, or put downs, just an offer of assistance. If it is not this time, when he has finally had it and is ready, he will remember this conversation and will ask you.
  4. If your teen has been arrested for a substance abuse related crime and is in the juvenile court system, it is important for you to understand how that system works. Briefly, the purpose of juvenile courts is primarily treatment, not punishment. The judge is part everything; judge, jury, social worker, uncle, aunt and hammer when necessary. The judge’s main task is to do whatever is necessary so that the teen moves on to a better life. Juvenile court judges have lots of latitude in deciding how to handle the case. The main actors in a juvenile court are the judge, the state’s attorney, the defense attorney, and the representative of the probation department. The support personnel are the bailiff (the uniformed officer who keeps order and serves as traffic control) and the court clerk The flow of a case through the court is a) an appearance immediately after arrest before the judge where the charges will be read and the judge will decide whether to hold the teen in custody or to release in the parents’ care. b) the case will be put on the court calendar with enough time for the probation department to do an investigation of the case, the teens prior behavior and the family environment. c) the case will be heard by the judge (there are no juries in juvenile court) with the state and the defense presenting their testimony and the judge will render a decision. d) if the judge decides that the teen has committed the offence, the probation representative will be called upon to advise the court on possible treatment options. If probation did not complete its work before this court date then the case will be again postponed to give them time to do that work. e) the judge will take into consideration the recommendations of probation, the state, the defense and the parents and decide on an appropriate plan for the teen. . – You can play a major role in this process by your active involvement. The way you can have the most positive influence on your teens case would be to have done your research beforehand so that you can suggest an appropriate treatment plan to the probation officer that will be interviewing you either in the probation office or in your home. Hopefully probation will agree with you and adopt your plan as theirs. It would be very good for you to also present this plan in a letter to the judge with copies to the other main actors (give it to your teens lawyer who will do the actually distribution). As much as they all are concerned with making sure that the adjudicative treatment plan (juvenile court term for sentence) is appropriate for the teen, none of them have any prior experience with your teen so if your plan is well researched and practical, they will probably adopt it. This is how, as a social worker for my non-profit agency, I regularly influenced the outcome of almost every case where I went to court with my kid clients.
  5. Now that home drug testing kits are available, if you suspect that your teens are using drugs, despite their claims of innocence and you have good reason to think they are lying, by all means test them. Before actually testing them, ask for an honest answer to the “have you used anything in the past two weeks?” question. Let them know that there will be no punishment for a yes answer. If you get the “don’t you trust me?” reaction, your answer can be that trust is earned and if they say that they didn’t use and the drug test come back negative, that you would be more likely to trust their answer the next time around. These tests have to be surprised ones with no prior warning because there are products readily available that will mask drugs and create a false negative.      
  6.  If the test comes back positive, that is an opportunity to discuss openly with your teen, about his/her use and how it could affect the rest of his/her life. Before you have this conversation, please make sure that you have done your research so that your facts are accurate. For instance, when all night dance raves were the thing teens did, some died while raving on Ecstasy. Parents tried to scare their teens by saying that if they used Ecstasy they would die. Most teens knew that it wasn’t the Ecstasy that killed ravers; it was dehydration and heat exhaustion that did them in, due to thousands jammed into confined spaces with little water and no ventilation. The parents who spouted this line, immediately lost credibility. 

Before I leave this subject, a few words on some preventative measures you might do with your teens to hopefully prevent their ever becoming abusers or addicts.

  1. Make sure that you do everything you can to assist them to develop great self-love and esteem. Teens only turn to addictions when they are trying to fill that empty hole in their psyches that exists when they do not like themselves very much. Exercises like my mirror exercise where every time they see their reflection they must smile and say one nice thing about themselves, when taught from a very early age, go a long way to developing that self-love.
  2. When you suspect that your teens are going to be exposed to alcohol, it is a good time to start talking about responsible drinking. My mother always told us that you never drink alone and you never drink when you are feeling bad or nervous. That message was hammered into us kids. It probably saved my life more than once. Of course, the primary message is that it is much better to walk through life without having to rely on a chemical crutch such as alcohol and drugs. I always preface the responsible drinking statement with, “ If you must [or insist on ] drinking then……” and go into the montra of "you never drink alone and you never drink when you are feeling bad or nervous." 
  3. I mentioned this in one of the previous sections and it deserves repeating here. You as parents need to model for your teens responsible behavior when it comes to alcohol and drugs (legal and illegal). They will do as you do NOT as you say. You drink alone or belt down a few after a hard day at work, don’t be surprised if they do likewise (only most likely way more excessively than how you do it).

Hopefully, I have covered most of the questions you might have regarding substance abuse and addiction and your teens. If you still have more questions or need coaching to get through this with your teen either find someone in your community who has lots of experience dealing with these problems. In my experience, professionals in the youth work and the substance abuse treatment communities are the most knowledgeable. Law enforcement or probation officials and religious leaders more often than not will provide information based on their views of what ought to be rather than on solid research of solutions that actually work. Of course, you can always call on me for a second (or a first) opinion.

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