How to Confront the Problem

One of most parents’ worst nightmares is discovering that their teenage son or daughter is abusing drugs. Sadly, with prescription drug abuse becoming more and more popular amongst teens, even kids that would never touch illicit drugs like marijuana, ecstasy, or cocaine are experimenting with prescription drugs. Because they were prescribed by a doctor, many teens assume they are much safer to use. However, they can be just as dangerous as street drugs.

If you suspect, or know for a fact, that your teenager is abusing drugs, you may not be sure how to confront the problem. Rest assured, you certainly are not alone. Even if you feel you have a good relationship with your child, confronting a drug problem can feel like a daunting Pandora’s Box. But it is a conversation that absolutely must happen. No matter how reluctant or scared you feel, remind yourself that even if it doesn’t go well, a trip to the morgue to identify your child’s body due to a drug-related car accident or an overdose would be 100 times worse!

Perhaps you don’t feel afraid or reluctant, but rather unsure as to the best way to confront the issue. In any case, keep reading for helpful tips on how to address this serious problem with your teen.

Be proactive, not reactive. This is difficult for many parents. If you’ve just discovered that your teen is abusing drugs, you are likely feeling a wide range of emotions. Anger, sadness, disappointment, guilt, and fear are all common emotions for a parent to experience in this situation.

But even though those are all very normal feelings, you don’t want to confront your teen in reaction to those emotions. If you do, it will very likely rapidly escalate into an ugly interaction that will accomplish little except to put your teen on the defensive and make further conversation about the issue extremely difficult and unproductive.

Instead, you need to be proactive in your approach. Your number one priority is not your own feelings, but the welfare and safety of your child. No matter how disappointed and angry you may feel, you have to remember that even the best teens make bad decisions at times. Your role as a parent is to set appropriate limits, keep communication open, provide guidance, and help your teen make healthy choices.

  • Don’t confront when you are tired, upset, angry, or rushed. Granted, this is easier said than done, but you need to be calm and collected when you confront your teen. Choose a time when you are rested and have plenty of time to talk. If you are upset, take some time to gather your thoughts and do what you need to do to calm yourself first. During the conversation, if you find yourself getting emotional, take a deep breath and count to ten. That may sound overly simplistic, but it will help stop you from saying something you may regret later.
  • Don’t try to confront your teen while he or she is high. Trying to talk to someone who is under the influence of any substance is generally futile. If your teen is hostile, aggressive, drowsy, irritable, or overly stimulated due to drugs, the conversation won’t be productive and could escalate. Some parents have found that morning is a good time for this conversation, as the day is fresh and teens are less likely to be high in the morning.
  • Use a firm but loving approach. You are the parent, not your child’s friend. Let your child know that you have good reason to suspect (and be sure you do have good reason) or that you know for a fact (and be sure to have evidence) that he is using drugs. Make it clear that you are concerned for his wellbeing and safety. He needs to feel that you genuinely care about him, as opposed to (for example) your main concern being that he might embarrass you or be a disgrace. If you make it about yourself or “appearances” (i.e. what other people might think) he will resent you. Accusing, blaming, yelling, screaming or attacking will backfire.
  • Strive for genuine understanding as to why he is using. Ask him why he started using drugs. The answer may surprise you. It may be because a friend pressured him, or because he just wanted to fit in. He may have been trying to self-medicate another problem (e.g. depression or anxiety). Perhaps he was bored or curious, but now he’s addicted and doesn’t know how to stop. Don’t ever assume he did it just to defy you.
  • Learn more about what he is using and where he is getting it. He may not readily disclose his sources, but you need to help him understand the seriousness of the situation and the potential consequences of his use. Again, make it clear that his wellbeing is your first priority. Knowing what he is using and where he is obtaining it will also help you determine the best course of action.
  • Really listen to your teen. If your teen starts to open up, be sure you listen closely. Many parents make the mistake of lecturing rather than listening. If your teen feels heard, he is more likely to continue to open up to you. But again, if you get into lecture mode, he will get defensive and quickly put up walls. By really listening, you pave the way for future, constructive conversations with your teen.
  • Talk about your own experience with drugs as a kid if applicable. Many parents are afraid to let their children know that they once experimented with or used drugs. But this is the perfect opportunity to help your teen learn from your own past mistakes, and also help him realize that you may understand more than he thinks you do. Teens tend to forget that you were once their age and experienced many of the same pressures, insecurities, etc.
  • If you never used drugs or alcohol, then use any personal stories you can about people you know who did, particularly if there were tragic outcomes. Perhaps there was someone in your high school who was injured or died due to drug use. Teens tend to believe they are indestructible, so personal stories are generally much more effective than impersonal statistics.
  • Whatever you do, don’t lie. If he learns that you lied about your own history, it will damage your credibility and your relationship.
  • Discuss the potential serious consequences of drug use. Again, refrain from lecturing, but make it clear that you want your teen to have the best possible life – now and in the future. Discuss how drug use of any kind can potentially destroy his life. For example, if your teen wants to go to college, his drug use can severely interfere with his grades and chances for a scholarship or acceptance into the school of his choice. Discuss the potential effects drugs can have on his health as well as the increased risks of getting into a car accident if he’s high or with a friend who is high while driving.
  • Clearly spell out rules and consequences of use. While it’s important that you approach this serious matter lovingly, it is also crucial that you make it very clear that you do not condone drug use and that it will not be tolerated. Set rules and consequences that are reasonable, and that you are able to enforce. These may include things such as strict curfews, limits to or loss of privileges (e.g., limited cell phone use), mandatory drug counseling (or drug treatment if indicated), loss of privacy, and so on.
  • Make it clear that he has to begin earning back his privacy and privileges. Let him know you will be supportive and help him in whatever way you can, while making the consequences of use very clear. You may want to have information from drug treatment programs on hand so that he knows you are prepared to get him into treatment if necessary.
  • Enlist professional help if needed. Don’t ever feel you need to go this alone. If you feel you cannot safely or effectively confront your teen, or you’ve tried but don’t feel you can enforce the rules you’ve set, or if he continues to use regardless, contact a professional for help. This may be a drug counselor, school counselor, mental health professional, or anyone who is experienced in working with families. They can support you and give you guidance. You may also find that joining a support group with other parents is very helpful.

Whatever you do, do not ignore the situation. If you suspect or know that your teen is abusing drugs of any kind, do not assume that it’s just a phase or minimize the seriousness of the situation. Denial and avoidance are not options for parents when it comes to teen drug abuse.