My Child Is Using Drugs or Drinking Alcohol—What Should I Do?

by Kimberly Abraham, LMSW and Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW
My Child Is Using Drugs or Drinking Alcohol—What Should I Do?

You thought your son was just “experimenting” with drugs, but had stopped. Now he’s failed a drug test for his work–study program at school, and you know: this is serious. Your teen daughter is hanging around with kids who are notorious for drinking and partying on the weekends. She’s come home drunk twice this month. This morning you found vodka in her room. What do you do? The following is an excerpt from Life Over the Influence, a new program created by Kimberly Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW, therapists and experts in helping families who are struggling with substance abuse issues.

There is a difference between rescuing your child and going to the other extreme of giving up.

If you’re reading this article, you’ve got pretty good reason to believe your teen is abusing substances. Rather than focus on getting your teen to admit he’s using, or the degree of his use, we’re going to focus on what you can do to respond to the issues that result from that substance use.

Teen–proof Your Home

The first thing you can do is be proactive. Remember when your child was a toddler and you put baby gates across the stairs, locks on the cabinet doors and you put all your breakables out of his reach? Well, it’s time to teen–proof your home now. If you drink or use substances, lock it up. Or better yet, get it completely out of the house. If you have prescription medications, lock those up too. Don’t assume that just because your teen is using one substance, he’s not open to getting high in a different way.

Related: Are drugs or alcohol ruining your child's life?

You may be thinking, “This is my home, I shouldn’t have to lock things up.” Would you have said that when he was a toddler? “This is my home! I shouldn’t have to put the poisonous cleaners in a locked cabinet just because he’s two.” Your teen is still a minor, and whether you should have to teen–proof the home is beside the point. It’s still a part of parental responsibility, and it’s something you can actually control.

I’m Afraid of What I Might Find in His Room. Besides, it Smells in There….

Parents often wonder where to draw the line with privacy when a teen may be using substances. Remember, this is your home. Privacy is a privilege. Is it a good idea to read your thirteen–year–old’s diary just because you’re wondering if she’s mad at you? Of course not. But if you suspect your teen is using substances, privacy goes out the window. It’s your home, and your right and responsibility to make sure illegal substances are not in your house, because you will be held responsible. That’s real life. If you had a tenant, and thought he had drugs in the room, would you say, “Oh, I don’t want to upset him by invading his privacy.” Of course not!

If you find substances in your child’s room, you will have to decide what course of action you’re going to take. You know your child best. It’s a judgment call as to whether or not you should call the police. If it’s the first time you’ve discovered the substance, you may decide to flush it and let your child know, “Look, I found pot and I flushed it. If I find it again, I’m calling the police.” If you’re concerned the substance abuse has reached a level where the court should be involved, you may choose to call the police the first time you find it. The type of substance found may also play a role. If you find liquor, that may strike you differently than if you find heroin. Even with liquor, he can be charged as a minor in possession. Make sure you are prepared for the court to be involved if you call the police.

Related: Are you scared and confused, wondering what to do about your child's substance abuse problem?

Many teens will actually have the nerve to be angry at their parent for flushing their stash. They may even tell you, “Hey, you owe me money for that!” You can respond calmly and let your child know, “Would you tell the police they owed you money if they took it? This is real life.  If you bring it into my home, you’re going to lose a lot of money, so make an informed choice.”  By doing this, you are starting to make substance use uncomfortable for him, and you are establishing a firm boundary.

I Need Some Weed…Can I Get Twenty Bucks?

If you know, or even suspect, that your child is using substances, one of the best ways to put a wrench in his buying is to cut off his cash flow. Now is the time to close the First National Parent Bank & Trust. Don’t give cash for things like movies, lunch, clothes. Write a check or pay the school directly for lunches, or let him brown bag it. Buy the clothes yourself. Don’t give cash for birthdays or holidays, or big–ticket items he can pawn or exchange for drugs.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything for him for special occasions. You could offer to take him to a movie or an event—something he can’t cash in to support his use. If you start to feel guilty for not giving money, remind yourself that any cash could go to support his use, and you’ve made this decision in his best interest.

In this day and age, many kids act as if it’s their right to have money. It’s not. It’s a privilege, one that’s lost when substance abuse is involved. And it’s something you have complete control over: no one can force you to give your child money. You can tell your child, “Look, my giving you money is a privilege, based on trust. And right now, you’ve lost that trust.” This is both a natural (lost trust) and responsive (withholding money) consequence to substance abuse. It will help your teen feel uncomfortable and he will have to decide if these consequences are “worth it.”

So what can a parent do when a well–intentioned relative gives your child cash, after you’ve withheld it? Tell Grandma or Aunt Sue why you’re withholding money, and educate them on what could happen if they give your child cash: he could use it for drugs, and they could actually be supporting his substance abuse, not buying him the jeans he said he needed. You can’t control these family members, but if you’ve let them know what the situation is, they can make informed decisions themselves, and it’s not a secret. Remember real life: your child will eventually be an adult, and he may go to relatives any time he needs or wants something. They will have to make their own decisions on what they’ll choose to do.

What if your teen works and uses his own money for drugs or alcohol? What can we, as parents, do then? Not a whole lot. That’s a personal boundary, and you can’t control it. Your child’s job may actually be a positive thing for him, and he may have worked hard for that paycheck. The lesson may be, “Huh, my whole check’s gone on a bag of weed.” That’s a natural consequence, and your child will have to decide if it’s worth it to him. Again, in real–life, many people blow their money on things that aren’t good for them.

Related: How real life consequences can help your child.

Love, Balanced with Boundaries and Natural Consequences

The difference between caring and caretaking comes down to clear, consistent boundaries. When your child was five, you were literally his caretaker. You held his hand when he crossed the road, cut his meat for him and monitored him closely. Over the years, you’ve allowed him to make more age–appropriate choices, and begin to experience and learn from natural consequences. He stays up too late, and he’s tired the next day. The lesson he learns: If I don’t want to be tired all day, I need to go to bed at a certain time. He leaves his homework until the last minute, rushes, and fails the assignment. The lesson he learns: If I don’t put some effort into my class work, I’m not going to do well. These are lessons we all learned in life as a normal part of development. As adults, we continue to learn lessons through natural consequences every day.

So why do we tend to fall back into caretaking mode when our teen starts using substances? Because it’s scary, even terrifying, and it feels like there is so much riding on his choices. Remember, the best we can hope for as parents is to prepare our kids for real life. In the real world, your child will encounter many situations in which a lot will be determined by his choices. As adults, we make important decisions every day. Your child will, as well, his entire life. If you rescue him from natural consequences now, it’s simply delaying those life lessons.

Related: How to handle it when your child has substance abuse issues.

This is important: there is a difference between rescuing your child and going to the other extreme of giving up. We’ve addressed the rights and responsibilities that are part of parenting a child who is using substances. If there’s an area you’re unsure of, or if you’re encountering a particularly difficult situation and aren’t certain what your rights or responsibilities are, consult a professional therapist. Ultimately, you know your child best, and while these guidelines can help you establish boundaries and hold your teen accountable, you must use your best judgment when making decisions regarding your child.

* Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from Life Over the Influence, a new program created by Kimberly Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW, therapists and experts in helping families whose members are struggling with alcohol or drug use. This excerpt addresses a small piece of the very large issue of substance abuse. For more information on how to handle it in your own family, including how to give consequences and when to seek treatment for your child, please click here.

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Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues.


Kim, this has come to me at a time I need it most. My son who is 17 has been a challenging child, if you may, most of his life. He was always persistent, and unfortunately has had people give into him too much. He has never had clear boundaries set or consequences for his actions. School has always been a constant struggle. He is dyslexic and has ADHD. He was the sweetest boy, with a big heart. He is loved by most people. It was just always a challenge as he would never listen. His father took me to court for custody of him when he was 11 as he thought I was being too hard on him when I had chores and rules for him. He inevitably won as my husband is away a month at a time and the court felt that he needed two parents at home to handle him. I know this was a hard move for him as it was me. As much as he loved his father and his father loves him, he did not receive the nurture he needed. Well, It has only become worse. When we learned for sure that he was doing drugs and to our knowledge it was marijuana his father started to give him some boundaries and consequences. I am afraid it was much too late. He left home at the beginning of summer to only go from one person's couch to another. He has no motivation, no money and no interest in school. He will go to school, but think nothing of skipping out in a whole afternoon of classes. He sees nothing wrong with his actions. He has met some new friends over the summer who are not good role models. He is easily led. He has come home at the end of the summer with much pleading to try to get settled and go back to school, but has once again left. He says he can make it on his own, but is surrounding himself in a life of drugs and I am afraid crime will be next. What can I do to help my son? I need to keep my strength as I have two other boys 11 and 8, and keep focused on how to turn him around. Thank you for your time.

Comment By : brokenandscared

My concern is with my college-age children. My daughter, who never drank when she was under age, is now abusing alcohol nearly every weekend. She's an otherwise smart and responsible young lady. How can I get her to see that her behavior is too risky. We never drank, so she didn't see responsible drinking in action. (I make no apologies for that--any drinking is high risk in my view). We realize she's old enough to make these choices herself, but she's forgotten all the warnings we gave regarding the dangers of alcohol when she lived at home. She has made serious mistakes under the influence that she's been open with me about, but she hasn't made a move to slow it down. She doesn't know how much she drinks exactly because they "play games and use little cups to drink from, so it isn't measured."

Comment By : mom loves meg

I believe our 20-year old son my have ODD, too.  But, let me give some other background, first.  He has what I feel are unresolved grief issues.  His four-year old brother, his 59-year old Grandpa, his 50-year old Aunt and his 37-year old Uncle, all died of cancer.  His step-Grandpa died of a rapid, degenerative brain disease.  His closest Uncle, since age 40, has had multiple heart attacks, and strokes.  His 65-year old Grandma lost her vision.      And, now, his other Grandma, 81, is very recently dying of cancer, too...   He is away at college, now.  And, he is unwilling to go for help, as he always has been.  On the surface, he appears to do well.  Good student, good friend.  Really, over all, great kid!  Great sense of humor, mostly shown to his friends.  Rarely at home.  Sarcasm is his communication "tool" with his family.  All in all, outside of what person is deep onside our son, there's a not-so-"good" acting person around his family.  He has been very emotionally detached, which has been so heartbreaking for the rest of us.  I really noticed that all started when his other younger brother almost died from an asthma attack.  That happened after some deaths, and before others.  I'm pretty certain that he just can't take any more loss, so his self-preservation mode kicked in..and has stayed in, ever since.  Friends wouldn't notice anything going on inside of him, except that his best friend knows our son bottles it all up inside.  He has even told him how unhealthy that is.  My most recent concern is a second, of two situations, within 18 months time.  The first was when our (as we knew him) non-partying son went to visit his other college friends.  Next we knew he was in the ER.  He was rough housing, with a friend, when his 6'6" tall body hit the dorm floor, which was paper thin carpet over concrete.  He ended up having extensive emergency surgery to fix his broken jaw, cracked in four places, requiring stitches, a metal plate, eight screws and his mouth being wired shut.  Eventually, after a long, difficult haul (for his parents...he's very physically resilient, and doesn't ever complain), thankfully, he's doing fine, today.  Now, this past weekend, he was visiting other college friends, playing football, and fell backward into a culvert, while attempting to make a catch.  He ended up falling backwards, onto the concrete bordering the culvert ditch.  He fell back on his head, requiring emergency staples in the back of his head, due to a huge gash.  My concern is that he's been drinking, despite the fact that he has always been the one that has walked away from peer pressure, including his closer friends that have been known to party some.  My husband adopted our son, when he was just two years old.  And, my reason for concern are these...  His biological Dad, my ex-husband, is an alcoholic, and has not been his life since he was two.  My brother is a recovered alcoholic.  And, my Dad was an alcoholic, too.  We do not drink in our home.  But, obviously, genetics are strong in the other direction.  My fear is that our son's two falls may have been alcohol-related accidents.  My gut just keeps telling me that they are... no matter how much he didn't drink before college, because of his sports involvement ethics, and because of his own personal ethics.  Fact is his friends, as wonderful of kids that they are, most do drink.  Questions are:  How do we get our independent, strong-willed, closed lip, and heart son, to go for grief help, when he's been adamant about not going for some time, now?  Also, regarding the falls, my brother has told me not to even ask him if alcohol was involved in his accidents, because whatever trust we've built will diminish.  Lastly, his unofficial ODD is strong in the disregard, and disrespect, areas of his immediate family....namely us, which includes myself, our other two sons, who are younger brothers, and his Dad, my husband, who has been there for our son, physically, and emotionally, since we met.  It has been a one-sided demonstration of effort, on our side, which has left the rest of us disheartened, and emotionally exhausted from endless trying.  No plans of giving up.  Just wishful plans that there is a light at the end of this dark, scary tunnel that we watch our son through...                          

Comment By : momsfourboys

It's very important for parents of children on ADD/ADHD meds to educate their kidz on the interaction dangers if they were to mix drugs and alcohol with their prescription meds. My son is on Concerta, and I remind him often when he goes out with his friends, to not drink or take anything from them that he's not completely sure is safe - like tylenol. Two years ago, a co-workers son thought he was taking an aspirin from a friend of his and it was his mom's prescription pain killer. It interacted with his ODD med and he died. Remind them often so it's a knee jerk reaction when confronted with the decision to take drugs or drink or not. Also, I read my daughters diary once, thinking there wouldn't be anything in it - that she was young and all I would find was silly girl stuff. Instead, I discovered an older boy was sexually and verbally harrassing her on the bus and had been doing it for months despite her letting the bus driver know. As soon as I read it, I called the transportation department and the school. Everyone was questioned, my daughter was horrified that I read her diary, but was glad that I intervened. I asked her why she never told me about the boy on the bus. She said that she didn't think of it - she had already told an adult (the bus driver). We are responsible for them, good or bad, until they turn 18. Hang in there everyone! I'm so glad we have EP with lots of helpful information.

Comment By : luvmykidz

I did enjoy this program and did receive some valid information regarding our son but have to point out that once they don't get the money, they will start stealing for their 'weed'. The medical industry is poisoning our society with the big business of "fix all pills". There is no room in our society for the Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer or Pippy Longstocking. Did Mrs. Ingals run to Doc Baker and get Albert some ADHD medicine because he was out of control in the class? Look at the food we are eating! Can you say processed or chemicals? Proper diet, exercise, water, a job and/or good smack on the butt is pretty decent medicine. We are still struggling with our teen and again, I enjoy reading the articles but the bottom line is not giving up on your child, ever.

Comment By : Tonya

* Dear EP Readers: Kim knows all too well the heartache and fear that comes every day from loving someone who is abusing substances. Her father was an alcoholic and she was married to a man who struggled with addiction. Her son, now an adult, has struggled with substance abuse since adolescence, from alcohol to marijuana, cocaine and heroin. We hear the fear and worry in your responses to this article and we wish so much that we could give a simple answer to the questions everyone with a loved one using substances needs to know: “How can I get him/her to realize there’s a problem, and what can I do to help?” This is such a difficult and complicated situation to deal with, and there are so many of us facing it today. We don’t want to give a partial answer to the question, “What can I do to help my loved one?” There are things you can do, however, and we’ve planned a series of articles in Empowering Parents to address this topic—we will continue to offer support and information through these articles. We also developed the program, Life Over the Influence, as a way to help others in the same situation and address this widespread concern. It was borne out of Kim’s years of experience finding answers to these questions and is intended to help and support anyone who has a loved one with an addiction. The comments we’ve read show how very much each of you loves your child, no matter if they are still minors or are adults now. It sounds like you’re all doing a good job of recognizing your need to stay strong, and we know that can be tough. It’s also very positive that some of your children feel they can come to you and be open. If your child doesn’t feel that way right now, take heart, because it sounds like you are leaving the door open should he/she ever choose to do so. Please continue to join us in future articles in EP on this topic and know that you are not alone.

Comment By : Marney Studaker–Cordner, LMSW and Kim Abraham, LMSW

The problem lies in the fact that our children don't listen to us, but they are watching our every move. The see us satisfying our desires by drinking alcohol and/or smoking, yet we tell them not to do it. They rebel the only way they know how, with what is available to them. My children knew that we did now allow any alcohol or tobacco in our house. They learned that they had a bed in MY room in MY house. They were to keep MY room clean. They were to respect MY home and not do anything disrespectful there. Our daughter knew that the only way to get out from under the iron fist was to get an education. That changed her perspective and forced her to concentrate her energy on education. If we truly "train up a child in the way he should go, when he is old, he will not depart from it." Too many parents are too busy doing their thing to notice what their kids are doing. There is no reason for them to be "dating" or having relationships. There is no reason to give them an allowance and getting a job pulls them away from the family. Our children never worked before they went to college. We sat at the dinner table together every night and we went to church together.

Comment By : Grandma

My 15 yr old son started tauting the benefits of weed, natural, made him feel good. There was no talking sense into him or stopping him. Two of my siblings have died of drugs, I felt frantic. With the help of a counselor we made a contract that stated we'd drug test him weekly. If he came up dirty consequences would happen. He did come up dirty. I took him to a local Up in Smoke meeting (60$,3hrs) at the local juveille court house, that is mandatory for youth that have been arrested for weed. It was a totally education all about how weed is no longer natural. the consequences of the kids in the program; probation, fines, some lawyers fees, Urine tests weekly, community service, a police record, etc. It didn't seem as attractive afterward. Also, with the help of my son's friends parents getting involved & letting my son know they didn't want him around their kids if he was going to smoke weed was a big help. When consequences come from other people besides the parents, it's more powerful, and natural consequence. If my son has another dirty drug test, we'll be going to Marijuana anonomous meetings (free)next. If he continues he will be entered in an outpatient drug program. this is expensive and not everyone can afford this. (4 days a week, 3 hrs/day) If he still continues, he'll need to go to a therapuetic boarding school program. Deperate times, desperate measures. It truly is pot today, harder drugs down the line for many, and my son is/was doing more than teen experimentation, he had an obsession. I really believe if you can rangle a village for yourself, neighbors, friends parents of your child, coaches, churches whoever..Reach out, you can't afford to lose this battle. I have hope for my son now.

Comment By : garnishing

How do you get your kid to realize that what she is doing is wrong? I found out that my high-schooler has been smoking pot irregularly for 2 years now, as well as drinking coffee liqueur and other alcoholic beverages. She honestly sees no problem with it. She claims that it is no big deal and it is okay because everyone does it. Her grades are suffering--she went from being a 4.0, trustworthy, gifted student, to a C and D student. I NEED help with her.

Comment By : aaaaaaaabbbbbbbbb

* To 'aaaaaaaabbbbbbbbb': It can be worrisome as a parent when your child is making choices that you believe are not the best choices. It’s even more upsetting when they don’t even view their choices as wrong. What is probably going to be most effective in this situation is to focus on what you can do instead of trying to make her understand what she is doing is wrong. Kim and Marney give some excellent suggestions in this article on empowering yourself and regaining control within your home. We would also recommend that you check in with someone in your local area for support through this. Here are some links to help you find that: & You might also want to check out these other articles on EP: Throwing It All Away: When Good Kids Make Bad Choices & Risky Teen Behavior: Can You Trust Your Child Again? I know this is a difficult time. I wish you luck as you work through it. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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