Teens and Drugs

Dear Sharon,

What would you recommend parents do when they have reason to believe their 17 year old teenager is using drugs? We’ve found “evidence” in the way of cut straws and rolled up dollar bills, etc. that give us strong suspicion. We are presently frozen in place and haven’t done anything at all, but are strongly concerned. Can you give us any advice as to our next moves?

Concerned parents

Dear concerned parents,

Unfortunately I believe you are right to be concerned. I have rarely known a parent who has suspected drug use that has been wrong.

Straws and rolled up dollar bills can be a sign of a habit with short and/or long term emotional and physical consequences, some of them potentially serious. The shock and stress that can come with worries about drugs can understandably freeze Moms and Dads in place. Nevertheless I have told parents in your situation that some sort of action is most probably needed. If there are other signs surfacing such as falling grades, sporadic school attendance, missed curfews, or peer relationships that parents find troublesome then there is usually even more need for an immediate and thorough response.

In most cases parents need to take steps at home and seek outside help as well. To begin parents have to speak directly with their children about their concerns. This is rarely if ever easy in part because most people struggling with an addictive substance do not easily admit to what has been going on. Of course if a teen is able to be honest and open solutions are easier to find.

It is often too difficult if only one or two family members are talking to a teen about the problem. Parents I know have gathered close relatives and friends together to express concern, love and possible next steps. Sometimes caring adults have talked individually to the teen while other times a group meeting or “intervention” has made a difference. Such conversations usually go better if care and honesty rather than criticism and anger are the tones from the adults present.

While sorting through the many issues in such a challenge I usually suggest that parents set aside as much time as possible to spend with their child. Enjoying each other’s company in the middle of high-pressure worries can help everyone feel less guarded and tense. A moment of calm and connection, although often difficult to achieve, can help resolve issues more effectively.

Unfortunately steps taken at home are often not enough to completely resolve the problem. For this reason I usually recommend that parents seek guidance from outside sources while talking to their child at home. Ideally the help parents receive offers all family members the chance to give input and benefit from information and solutions. If more than one family member is participating in the effort to get advice answers are usually easier to find.

Some parents I know have begun by consulting friends, religious or community leaders, trusted healthcare professionals or school personnel who have kept conversations confidential and who have been able to offer personal and professional experience, understanding and hopeful perspectives. I know of many successful inquiries that parents have made without children knowing that Mom and Dad are seeking support.

Contacting a local AA, or DA group can also be a good source of emotional comfort and practical information. There are drug treatment programs that parents I know have found helpful as well. Two of many such programs listed on the internet are Caron, http://www.caron.org/caron-new-york-city.html and Phoenix House, http://www.phoenixhouse.org/.

Whatever you choose to do at this point it is important to remember that families and children have their own unique character and process. I often tell parents that it is important to choose resources that seem a good fit for their child. Solutions that could be helpful to another family might not make sense for yours. I firmly believe that when parents offer concerted effort over time even a big problem can become easier.