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™, an online learning program created by Kimberly Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW, therapists and experts in helping families who are struggling with substance abuse issues. Life Over the Influence is a part of The Total Transformation® Program Online Package.
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 a 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 her use, we’re going to focus on what you can do to respond to the issues that result from his or her 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 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.
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
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 it’s your right and responsibility to make sure illegal substances are not in your house. After all, you will be held responsible. That’s real life.
Related content: Teens and Privacy: Should I “Spy” on My Child?
Should I Call the Police?
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 say to your child:
“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 content: Is It Time to Call the Police on Your Child?
Prepare for Your Child to Be Angry
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 say to your child:
“Would you tell the police they owed you money if the police 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 in your home. And you are establishing a firm boundary.
Cut Off the Cash Flow
If you know or suspect that your child is using substances, one of the best ways to put a wrench in her buying is to cut off her cash flow.
Now is the time to close the First National Bank of Mom & Dad. Don’t give cash for things like movies, lunch, or clothes. Write a check or pay the school directly for lunches, or let her brown bag it. Buy her 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 her for special occasions. You could offer to take her to a movie or an event—something she can’t convert to cash to support her use.
If you start to feel guilty for not giving them money, just remind yourself that any cash could go to support her use, and you’ve made this decision in her best interest.
Many kids act as if it’s their right to have money. It’s not. It’s a privilege. And the privilege is lost when substance abuse is involved.
Also, money is 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 of substance abuse. It will help your teen feel uncomfortable and she will have to decide if these consequences are worth it.
Inform Your Family Members
So what can a parent do when a well-intentioned relative gives your child cash? Explain why you’re withholding money, and educate them on what happens to the cash he gets. Be clear: it will support his drugs abuse.
You can’t control these family members, but if you’ve explained the situation, they can make informed decisions themselves. Your relatives actually need and deserve to know the truth if you think that your substance-abusing child is going to them for money.
When He Uses His Own Money for Drugs
What if your teen works and uses his own money for drugs or alcohol? What can we do then? Not a whole lot. That’s a personal boundary, and you can’t control it.
In fact, it is often helpful to remind yourself that you can only do what you can do and your child is ultimately responsible for his actions. You can’t control everything.
Also, keep in mind that your child’s job may actually be a positive thing for him. He probably worked hard for that paycheck. And he may be learning the following good lesson: “Damn, 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.
Love, Balanced with Boundaries and Natural Consequences
Be a caring parent to your child, but not his caretaker. The difference between caring and care-taking comes down to clear and 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 to begin to experience and learn from natural consequences.
If he stays up too late, the natural consequence is that he’s tired and miserable the next day. The lesson he learns: If I don’t want to be tired all day, I need to go to bed earlier.
If he doesn’t study, the natural consequence is that he fails the test. The lesson he learns: if I don’t put some effort into my classwork, 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 care-taking 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 too. If you rescue him from natural consequences now, it’s simply delaying those life lessons.
Don’t Give Up
This is important: there is a difference between rescuing your child and going to the other extreme of giving up. Offer your child help and support, but don’t rescue or enable him.
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 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.