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Ages & Stages

When Teens Use Drugs: Taking Action

Assessing how to handle an adolescent’s substance abuse is a decision that few parents are prepared to make alone. We suggest consulting a mental health professional who specializes in this field. If you are having trouble knowing where to get help, speak with your child's pediatrician. He may be able to begin intervention himself, then refer you to an experienced local practitioner.

Other sources for recommendations include:

  • The psychiatry/psychology departments at area hospitals
  • Your state or county department of mental health or public health
  • State or county chapters of professional organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers The American Medical Association
  • Any of the following three national help lines:

The direction therapy will take depends on the extent of a youngster’s involvement with drugs. Typically, the problem is more serious and goes back farther than the parents imagined and the teenager is willing to admit. According to Dr. Schwartz, the types of substances and paraphernalia used reveal a great deal about an adolescent’s experiences with substances.

“Let’s say that you find a bag of marijuana in your kid’s room,” he says. “It’s almost always going to be his, even though he may claim that he’s ‘holding’ it for someone else. This tells you that the teenager has gone beyond the passive acceptance of marijuana at a party once or twice and has actively made a purchase. Also, he wants the drug badly enough that he’s willing to risk storing it at home.


Your child's behavior and willingness to quit using and engage in treatment and other mental health or behavioral problems will also help guide treatment will also influence which intervention is most suitable.

  • Treatment ranges from outpatient to residential with many different levels of intensity in between. The majority of kids with drug problems can be managed in an outpatient treatment program. 
  • Kids who are likely to have withdrawal benefit from medical support during the initial phases of treatment. 
  • Kids who have co-occurring mood, anxiety or thought disorders may need an “Acute Residential Treatment” setting where they can be stabilized for days to weeks before coming back home. 
  • Some kids have so much trouble remaining sober in their usual surroundings they need a residential program to help them get into a solid recovery.
  • Finally some kids refuse to engage in any type of treatment.  If this is the case and your child is using drugs, the state’s law enforcement or social services agencies may be able to help support you and your child, though generally involving these agencies is a last resort when a child is unwilling or unable to engage in any other treatment and continues to use drugs.
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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