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Ages & Stages

Intervention Strategies for Concerned Parents

Teens who abuse alcohol or other drugs can be as secretive as undercover agents, leading double lives. In Partnership for a Drug-Free America's Partnership Attitude Tracking Study, only 14% of the parents surveyed acknowledged the possibility that their teen had tried marijuana. Then the teens were polled. Three times as many—42%— admitted to having smoked pot. Kids often try to hide their alcohol and drug use from parents, and parents are often in denial about their children's activities.

When Parents Believe a Teen May Be Experimenting With Drugs:

According to studies of young people in drug treatment, some were using alcohol and other substances for more than two years without their mothers or fathers knowing. By the time a parent suspects their child has a drug problem, chances are she or he has a really big problem.

By the time a parent suspects their teen has a drug problem, he may have a serious problem.

Trust Your Instincts: If you have been carrying around the nagging feeling that your teen may be doing drugs, don't ignore it. Talk to your child and explain your concerns in detail. Be prepared -- your child may open up about his or her drug use and ask for help. Be strong and reassuring. Your teen may have made a mistake, but now is the time to correct it. Get your child into treatment with a mental health or addiction counselor. Your pediatrician can help guide you if you don't know where to start.

Monitor the Situation: If your child denies substance use, don't write it off. Monitor closely. Having physical evidence -- like finding drugs or paraphernalia in your child's bedroom, pictures on Facebook or text messages about buying, selling or using drugs -- can help to force the issue, which raises the question: Is it ethical to search your teen's room or invade his privacy?

Privacy: If you do not have particular concerns about your child's behavior, it is reasonable to allow teens a degree of privacy, which increases as they mature. However, when signs point to substance use, a parent has every right to violate a kid's privacy and look for drugs. Teenagers are not autonomous adults living in their parents' houses. Sometimes, in order to protect them, this is what is necessary.

Talk to Your Pediatrician: Follow up on your concerns about your child's behavior even if you do not find physical evidence. Speak to your child's pediatrician and be explicit about the details. Your child may have a medical or mental health problem presenting with behavior changes. Whatever the source of the problem, your pediatrician can help you figure out what is wrong.

Tips for Getting To the Truth and Stating Your Concerns:

  • Do not confront your child when you or she is angry or intoxicated. Wait until everyone has cooled off and sobered up.
  • Agree on a plan before talking to your child.
  • Select a time when you have privacy and interruptions will be minimal.
  • Put all of the cell phones away and send the other kids in the family outside.
  • Avoid direct accusations of drug involvement. After all, you could be wrong. Some behaviors that suggest substance abuse, like a flat affect and acting distant, could also be symptomatic of depression. Or perhaps the teen is having a hard time in school but hasn't confided all the details.
  • Don't belittle or heap on the guilt, as in, "You keep this up, mister, and you'll kill your father!" Substance abusers are usually well acquainted with self-loathing and may already feel remorseful for the heartache they have caused. Ratcheting up their feelings of worthlessness and shame probably will not motivate them to stop. If anything, it might compel them to get high, in order to mute their pain.
  • Try stating your concerns this way:
    • "We've noticed some changes in you lately." Name them. "We love you and sense that something may be troubling you. Sometimes people act differently because they experiment with drinking or other drugs and then realize that they've gotten in over their heads."
    • "Should we be concerned about that? If so, we hope you will be honest with us and tell us so that we can help you to stop, because drugs are too big a problem for any kid to have to handle all by himself."

Additional Information:

Last Updated
Adapted from Caring for Your Teenager (Copyright © 2003 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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