10 Tips for Responding if You Discover Your Teen Drinking or Using Drugs
Updated: Jul 20
By the end of high school 61% of teens have drunk more than a few sips of alcohol, and 45% of them have at least tried marijuana, never mind the mile-long list of other substances from computer duster to over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines kids are experimenting with to get high these days. You can be doing everything the experts advise and still bust your teenager and a friend stealthily vaping pot when you thought they were studying math. Yes, we want to delay use as long as possible to maximize brain development and minimize addiction...but this doesn't have to mean your child is now destined to be living under a bridge drinking Mad Dog out of a paper bag. The difference in whether their experimentation turns into repeated or addictive use hinges largely in our response to it.
Here are 10 tips that can help you use these challenging moments as opportunities to strengthen your teen's protective armor against all the forces of self-destructive temptation out there.
1. Timing is key. Wait to have the discussion when your child is not under the influence or extremely agitated. Take the time you need to put your own anger or other extreme emotions in check so you can stay calm and rational, and plan how you're going to approach things. You can have some flexibility in when you talk, but not whether you do. It's okay to say "I know you're really upset at us today, so we're going to give you another day before we talk about what happened last night. Then it's important that we do talk, so we can all move forward from it," or "I'm really upset about this right now and want to make sure I respond in a helpful way, so I need to take a day before I'm ready to do that." You can never throw in "I love you very much" too many times.
2. Get clear on your motives. When you find out that, despite your PTA presidency, perfect attendance at every horrible band performance, and all-organic farm-to-table home-cooking, your child has still gotten into alcohol or drugs, you likely have a swirling combination of intense feelings. Fear, shock, disappointment, self-doubt, betrayal, guilt, embarrassment, shame and powerlessness are are just some of the bubbling emotional lava under the surface, that often erupts as just anger onto our "disobedient" kids. This typically takes the form of punishment, lectures and other attempts to be controlling and right...all of which push our teens away and into defensiveness, hostility or dismissiveness, and prevent our input from mattering. Other parents may default to “freeze” mode under the overwhelm of it all, and tend to ostrich in the sand to avoid the conflict, hoping it’ll magically “work itself out (Spoiler alert: It won’t).”
Ask yourself “Why is this so important to me?” and “What do I really want here?” When we sift out all the emotions that are really about ourselves, at the core of it all is FEAR based in the fact that we love our kids beyond words, would take or send a bullet to fiercely protect them from harm, and want them to live healthy, fulfilled, thriving lives. It's okay to share this transparently and authentically with your child. If you feel yourself escalating or getting off track, take a deep breath...and re-root yourself in these two questions and the intense love that's at the basis of your concern.
3. Take a "time out" if needed. If volume or hostility are inflating for either of you, take five or save it for later before the conversation heads to a destructive point of no return. It's also okay to not have all the answers or feel at a loss for words at the moment and to say "Let me think about that and come back to you on it later" or "This is hard for me because I'm feeling a lot of things at once, and want to respond in a helpful way...so I need to take a few minutes and then I want to come back to this."
4. Ask questions...then listen. You want to approach this as a conversation, not a confrontation. If you launch into a lecture, even if it's filled with all the "right" stuff noted above, you not only cause your teen to shut down and tune you (and your almighty wisdom) out, but lose the ripe opportunity to get the crucial information you need to guide her in healthy directions. In order to help your child steer around substances for the time being, and ideally avoid ever developing a problematic relationship with them, you need to understand why she went there and what she gained from it. Was it to feel belonging or be liked by certain people? To have fun or relieve boredom? To soothe anxiety or melt away self-consciousness? Did it work? What was the experience like for her and how does she feel about it now? Ask her...and then listen, listen, listen. Even if she doesn’t offer up anything yet, you’ve shown her that you care about what she’s experiencing and are willing to listen.
5. Confront with facts, not judgments. Tell your child what behaviors and other signs you've observed in him that have you concerned. Be conscious of not being judgmental and staying focused on his behavior vs. committing “character assassination.” For example, “This last weekend I noticed alcohol missing from the garage refrigerator...” versus “You're a liar, and I won't stand for this.” Do your research about the substance(s) he has used, so you can present the exact facts that have you worried versus "Drugs are horrible for you...you're going to ruin your life!"
6. Design constructive consequences. It's a rational outcome that using one's phone to plot and post on social media about his substance use, or engaging in debauchery while staying overnight at a friend's house results in loss of these privileges until your teen can be trusted to take better care of himself in these settings. But avoid using punishment and removal of social and gadgetry privileges as the default and complete consequence. Yes, you want to craft consequences allowing you to more closely monitor your teen and for her to gradually earn back trust, but you also want to help her acquire what is missing that led her to use in the first place. Use the information gained in the "ask questions" phase to help her strengthen needed skills and healthy alternatives to use. Guide her towards learning more about the teen risks of using her chosen substance. A written agreement can be helpful for documenting expectations for your child in earning your trust, as well as what you agree to in terms of her gaining privileges. Also establish what will happen if use continues, such as even fewer freedoms and more interventions.
7. Seek counseling or other interventions that will help your teen fulfill his needs in healthier ways. You now know what his intentions were in using substances, so you can be sure he is equipped with 1001 healthier ways to meet the same needs. If the substance "worked" as hoped, you've got even more work to do, as a powerful brain pathway is now wired for him that will require intentional rewiring and replacing. If your child is self-medicating emotional distress and lacking effective coping skills for life stressors and feelings, some counseling may be helpful. He may need help connecting to activities that'll give him a sense of accomplishment, excitement, positive risk-taking, or belonging. Or perhaps some more adult mentoring. If he's relieving school-related stress, he may need your advocacy in getting extra academic support, evaluation, or help with social challenges at school. Your teen may also need YOU to honestly assess and work on aspects of yourself, or to engage in family counseling with them to strengthen your relationship. If the drug or alcohol use is particularly destructive, dangerous, or repeated, seek specific substance abuse counseling to keep things from progressing any further.
8. Discuss strategies for your child to avoid using in the future. Ask her what these temptations and pressures actually look like in her world (because it's usually not the cheesy "C’mon, don’t be a dork - everybody’s doing it" version of teen peer pressure we picture from 1980’s “Afterschool Specials”). Do NOT make your poor kid role play with you at this age, but do brainstorm and design some realistic ways she can take care of herself while still maintaining cool points with peers. Include several options involving secret codes that you and your child can stealthily communicate via device, and humbly be willing to be made the bad guy. One from my son's arsenal (which we co-created) was "I can't - my Mom's like a frickin' drug dog - she stands at the door, stares into my eyes and makes me breathe on her whenever I go anywhere." As teens get older, expecting them to avoid situations and friends that don't involve substances gets more unrealistic, so helping them develop tools to handle themselves well is crucial.
9. Get help with the conversation if needed by involving others whom your child respects and who also care for him/her. Recruiting an admired older teen or young adult can be particularly powerful here, as their wisdom is often seen as more relevant and "in the know" than those of us who haven't been teens for "a little while."
10. Express your unwavering dedication to doing whatever is within your power to keep them healthy and safe, because it’s your #1 job, and you love them that much. Even if it means that they’re angry at you for awhile, think you’re the “lamest” parent around, and refer to you as “The Feds” for the next 6 years. All better than you being one of those “cool parents” getting your child's calls from jail, rehab, or the hospital.