Seven tips for dealing with teenage drug use
A guide to navigating concerns of your teen using drugs and some suggested next steps.
Parenting a teenager can be deeply confusing, even when things are going well. They might lead bewildering social lives with a parade of friends that come to your house every day for a week, eat all your food, then disappear never to be seen again. They might angrily refuse to shower for no reason, or insist on dressing like it’s 1994, complete with vintage Reeboks. There are so many bafflingly popular but seemingly untalented YouTube stars to keep track of. Sometimes it feels like you don’t understand them at all. That’s pretty normal.
There might come a point where you think they’re behaving more strangely than usual, to the point that you worry something serious might be wrong. Maybe they’re frighteningly agitated and unusually tired. They might snap or get aggressive, they’re always in their room It’s out of character for them. It’s more than just normal teenage moodiness or hormones. You can’t help but worry about drugs. If you find a suspicious baggie among their things or see an incriminating photo on social media, that worry might explode into full-blown panic.
It’s hard to stop your thoughts from racing ahead: did I do something wrong? how could they do this to me? Are they going to end up dead? And inevitably, you have to decide what to do: Do I confront them? Do I pretend I don’t know? Do I ground them? Will that make it worse?
You’re not alone. Many parents and carers have to navigate this situation at some point in their child’s life. It’s going to be a stressful time, but you can get through it. Our tips will help give you some direction to decide your next steps.
1. Ask questions, but keep an open mind
When you discuss your concerns with your child, it’s important to keep in mind the possibility that they are not taking drugs, and there may be other reasons for their behaviour. Sometimes, our anxieties jump straight to the conclusion of drug-taking because it is such a frightening prospect and it seems we’re always hearing horror stories about teens and drug use. The truth is, though, that drug use by young people has been declining over time, and teens are less likely to experiment with drugs than you might expect. There is a multitude of other potential causes for strange behaviour.
They might be dealing with anxiety, depression, or a mental illness. They might have just broken up with the girlfriend you didn’t know they had. Maybe they’re questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation. They might be failing their classes and feel too scared to tell you. Being a teenager can be as confusing as parenting a teenager, and there can be many causes of unusual behaviour. When you ask them about what’s going on, be prepared that the answer might be the opposite of what you expect.
2. Support yourself
You’ve probably heard this before, and it might not be what you want to hear — but it’s a cliché for a reason. It’s probably the most important thing you can do. There’s only so much that any of us can fit on our plate. These sorts of problems are often going to be more of a marathon than a sprint. Taking care of yourself is a way of preparing for it.
Parents often ask us, “What good is getting help for me?”
- First of all, it’s to help you cope with the stress you will be experiencing. You need to be in the right headspace to support someone else, and you will likely need support to get there. Think of it like the take-off instructions on a plane: you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you help can others.
- Getting help can also help you learn more effective strategies for dealing with the problems your child might be facing. Nobody is born as a drug counsellor, so learning to deal with these problems with the help of a professional is often very helpful.
- Finally, it can also help you anticipate problems down the track. You’re not the first parent to walk this road, and won’t be the last. You can learn from the experience of people who’ve seen these sorts of issues play out before, and prepare yourself for the issues that are likely to pop up down the track.
So: get support. If you’re not sure where to start, you might want to visit our peer forums to speak to people who have been where you are. They can help you consider your next steps, which may include speaking to an alcohol and drug counsellor, your GP, family and friends, a narcotics anonymous group — or even all of that.
3. Avoid a power struggle
Avoiding a power struggle is often difficult for parents, especially if they see their child engaging in potentially risky behaviour. As parents, a sense of panic, dread, or anxiety often accompanies the thought of your child using drugs. That can create an abrupt or even explosive emotional reaction. This is completely normal!
Sometimes this reaction might take the form of a power struggle. Often, it will feel like a tug of war. You try and force them to stop using, or stop seeing certain friends, or do what they’re told — and they’ll stubbornly refuse. Sometimes, they’ll do the opposite, just to prove they can.
Don’t engage in that tug of war. It’s a struggle that you’ll rarely win, and will often do more harm than good. The harder you try and pull them in a certain direction, the harder they’ll pull back and dig their heels in.
4. Work with them to set boundaries
We all need boundaries. They’re important and help to clearly communicate expectations. At the same time, they’re coming into adulthood, and independence is often something they’re willing to fight for. As we discussed, power struggles are to be avoided.
I know what you’re thinking — “But if I don’t tell them to stop using drugs, how can I make them stop using drugs?”
The answer, in my experience, is: you can’t. You can’t make them stop using drugs, you can only guide them by involving them in the process. Agree on what’s important (whether it’s health, safety, being contactable, or something else), and work together to have these needs met. Allowing them to be part of the decision-making process means that rules aren’t being forced upon them, but are a collaborative decision that everyone was involved in. It helps to communicate respect, and open communication.
5. Foster healthy communication
Substance use is an emotional hot topic. Feelings like fear, worry, and anger might lead to an unhealthy argument. Keep in mind that it’s normal to feel these things! But feeling angry and yelling are two different things. It’s important that communication is kept healthy. This means being respectful of your teenager and their needs. Help them feel respected and cared for.
Often, this means being curious. Take the time to display a genuine interest in why they want to use. Are they trying to manage their anxiety or depression? Are they trying to fit in with peers? Are they trying to cope with feeling lonely? Try and understand where they’re coming from.
This means being honest and open. Explain to them where you’re coming from. Take the time to try and explain to them what you’re worried about. Often, as parents, we have the benefit of time and experience on our side. We see problems down the road that teenagers haven’t even thought of yet. Help them understand why you don’t want them using.
This doesn’t mean being judgemental. Teenagers are surprisingly sensitive, and your disapproval will often hurt more than they’ll let on. Try not to yell, or bully, or guilt, or shame. These all are likely to damage or shut down communication.
6. Educate yourself
You may also want to consider educating yourself and your teen on harm minimisation techniques. Helping your teen to understand the strategies that can be used to minimise the danger of drug use does not necessarily mean that you support the decision to take drugs. Think of it like sex education: most Australian parents aren’t thrilled at the idea of their teenager having sex, but many still ensure their child is educated on sexual health measures such as STD and pregnancy prevention. Harm minimisation strategies for drug-taking can be approached in the same way. Most of us aren’t all that familiar with harm minimisation practices, so have a chat to one of our counsellors about finding a nearby support service who can help you learn.
7. Keep communication open
Problematic substance use usually isn’t a sustainable lifestyle. If your teenager isn’t ready to stop right now, they might be in the future. When they reach the point where they do start to think about alternatives, it’s important that they know there are people who are willing to support them to make a change. So: keep communication open. That doesn’t mean you have to condone their drug use, or be happy about it — but make sure they know that when they want to make a change, it’s something you’ll support. They might need to hear it over and over again, but you’re never going to regret making sure that they know you love and support them.
Being the parent of a teenager using drugs can be hard work. Parenting, in general, can be tiring, so parenting your child through a potential crisis is exhausting. There’ll be sleepless nights, dreadful thoughts, and painful arguments. You’ll devote enormous amounts of time and energy trying to manage the situation. It’s not an enviable situation, but remember that the stress you’re feeling comes from a place of caring and love. After all, we just want what’s best for our children.
And please, don’t stop here. Go back to my first point, and get some help. Some of you may have already tried, and it wasn’t helpful. As frustrating as it might be, try again. There’s always a helper out there that fits you, but they’re not always the first person you try. You’ve got a heavy burden to bear, but it’s not one you need to carry on your own. Keep trying until you find somebody who can help you share the weight.