When Your Child is Abusing Drugs or Alcohol

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Nothing can be more devastating than to learn that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol.  We receive a large number of calls from parents who either suspect or have confirmed that their adolescent or young adult child is abusing substances.  All parents love and want the best for their children.  When a child is abusing drugs knowing what the best course of action to take is not easy.  In fact, it can be an overwhelming and confusing process.  In our experience we have often seen parents either under react or dismiss their child’s problem or over react.  The purpose of this article is to give some general guidelines as what your first steps should be.  Every situation is different and this article should not take the place of consulting with a Licensed Mental Health Professional or Substance Abuse Counselor.

If you have evidence of drug use such as observing them under the influence, finding drugs or drug paraphernalia than you should have a very open and frank discussion with your child.  This does not mean a confrontation in which you scream and cry telling them how upset and disappointed you are.  You must pick the right time where you are calm and have put some thought into what you want to say.  This includes telling them exactly what you have found and what you have concluded.  For example, “For the past few months I have noticed a change in you.  You come in late and your pupils are small.  You stay up all night and then sleep all day.  I now know what is going on.  I found a small bag with with straws and powder in your room.  I am really concerned and I believe you have a problem with drugs.”

You will also want to have researched and prepared a course of action for your child to take. You may propose that they attend an intensive outpatient or inpatient substance abuse program.  This is something you will want to consult a professional about.  Generally, people have a better chance of maintaining long lasting recovery when they do an inpatient program.  Inpatient programs are able to assess and determine if there are underlying mental health issues that may also need to be treated.  Also, they are able to provide a higher level of medical and structured care that is necessary for those using prescription drugs, large amounts of alcohol, or hard street drugs.  In those cases individuals will need a safe environment to detox.  Additionally, it can be beneficial for the individual to have some time away from friends and influences. For a young person experimenting with marijuana or alcohol only, an outpatient approach may work.   Young people who have been using drugs and alcohol often lack life skills and have made poor choices, and treatment should address these issues as well.

At this point your child may respond in several ways.  They may admit they have been using and agree to attend treatment.  Unfortunately, that is not often the case and instead they may completely deny or minimize their use.  You may hear “I only used one time.  That was my first time.  I swear.”  Or “That wasn’t my stuff.  It’s a friends.”  Or they may make promises to you that they will stop.  “I will never do it again.  I can stop on my own.  Just give me a chance.”  At this point you may want to put a sort of a bottom line or ultimatum to your request for them to get help.  This may be in the form of telling them they can’t live in your home unless they agree to go to treatment.  Although, this is not always easy for parents or possible if your child is under the age of eighteen.   If you do give a bottom line, it must be one you are willing and able to stick with.

As much as you want to believe your children’s denial or minimizing it is most likely not true.  The goal of an addict is to convince everyone else and themselves that they are okay.  They are often master manipulators and liars who have become that way as away to hide their use of substances.  If your child is refusing help, in a state of denial, and/or wants to continue using drugs and alcohol you may want to consider an intervention.  An intervention can be a powerful tool to break through denial and resistance to getting help.  Most good interventionists also offer families support that they need in addition to the intervention; they provide family training on topics like enabling, addiction and recovery.  They should also provide brief follow-up, assistance with after care planning, and case management.

What you don’t want to do is further dismiss or ignore the problem in hopes that it will get better on its own.  What tends to happen when parents try to manage a child’s drug use on their own without professional help or treatment is that they begin to put themselves in the role of policing or monitoring their child’s use.  They begin to engage in more activities like snooping, spying, drug testing, in attempts to control or fix the problem on their own.  This further stresses family relationships and simply doesn’t work.

There are other things to consider when confronting your child about their substance abuse. Make sure you choose a time when they are not using or suspected to be under the influence.  Choose a time when you will have their undivided attention.  If both parents are involved in the child’s life try to have this discussion together and show a united front.  Also, try to remain calm, don’t yell or argue.  Express your love and concern for their well being.  Be prepared with what you are going to say and have treatment option chosen and ready to act upon.  Consult a professional to further assist you with locating appropriate treatment resources.

Remember if confronting your child does not work or has not worked in the past you have another option.  You have taken the first step of bringing their use out in the open and offering them help.  If they refuse or are still in denial, you may need to take the next step of a  professional substance abuse intervention.  A professional substance abuse intervention may be able to help your child to accept the help that they desperately need.

Categories: adolescent and young adult
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