(Although I’ll talk about this important issue in terms of a boy’s behavior, it could just as easily be about a girl.)

It’s an all too familiar story. A young teen who was once loveable, happy, a reasonably successful student and all around good kid has become surly, disrespectful and defiant. He is wearing the uniform of the druggies, sweatshirt hood drawn up over his face, pants hanging low. He spends hours in his room, uncommunicative. He spends even more hours out of the house, places unknown. He is often sleepy and red-eyed when he finally does come home. Any request for information is met with hostility. When you’ve searched his room, you have found drug-related paraphernalia and cryptic notes that are alarming. Old friends don’t call any more. The kids he is bringing around have reputations for finding trouble. Now your kid has found them.

No attempts to talk to him have helped. You have begged, pleaded, cried, scolded, and threatened. You have taken away privileges and things that are special to him. Maybe you’ve even had difficult talks with the school or the local police. Nothing seems to make an impression. You are watching your child disappear into the drug culture. The stakes are high. He’s playing with criminal behavior that could get him in jail and he’s putting things into his body that could kill him. You are right to be scared. You are right to fight for his life.

The first thing to do is to take a step back and analyze what is going on. Like most parents, you’ve probably been dealing with the symptoms (hair, dress, curfews, and contraband), not the deeper problems (feelings, peer pressures, family dynamics, addiction). You will be in a much better position to come up with solutions if you have a better idea of what the real problems are. See which of these possibilities, if any, fit.

Why Kids Get Involved with Drugs

Some kids become druggies because they can’t figure out another way to fit in. The entrance requirements for the drug clique are easy. Just use and buy drugs. Presto. You have a group to hang with. For kids who are lonely or feeling they don’t have what it takes to gain membership in another high school group, this is very, very seductive.

Some kids get in over their heads and don’t know how to get out. What started as a way to fit in takes on a life of its own. Other kids threaten them if they try to leave the group. I even know of kids who were told that the group would hurt their family if they didn’t steal, deal, and use. What looked like escalating criminal activity was really a frantic attempt to protect their family.

Some kids who use drugs are self-medicating. I’ve worked with several kids who discovered that they felt better when they tried marijuana at a party. They kept using because they liked the relief. It turned out that they were suffering from an untreated depression or a high level of anxiety. When we got them on proper medication, they no longer abused illegal drugs.

Some kids have the mistaken idea that in order to be okay they have to be better than other people. They know they can’t compete with the “good kids” in the family or at school. They have the idea that they can’t be a star in any area that counts to their peers. Their self-esteem then depends on finding at least some way to be “better” than other people. So they become the best at being worst. It may be painful but it works.

Some kids use drugs for all the attention it gets them. If he were the perfect child, would he get anywhere near the same amount of attention from you? Does he know that he would? Is it possibly true that he just doesn’t have any outstanding academic, sports or artistic talents but has ambitions for fame? In his discouragement, he may have turned to the only arena where he feels he can be successful. If being a star achiever isn’t possible, being a “gangsta” will have to do. From his point of view, at least he’ll be noticed.

Some kids are just plain bored. Playing with criminal behavior is exciting. The drama and risk of getting drugs, hiding them, using them, and maybe even selling them is its own kind of high. If he were seeing me for therapy, I’d be asking a kid like this how it is that he isn’t involved in something that gives him a “natural high”? What is he doing for excitement? What kind of risk-taking actually makes a kind of sense? What activity might stretch him beyond his comfort zone in a positive way?

Some kids think that using drugs is normal. They have friends whose parents smoke dope with them. They know adults who rationalize their own illegal drug use by stating that it is no worse than alcohol and should be legalized anyway. They watch TV and see ads for all kinds of medications for all kinds of ills. Feeling down? Take a drug. Can’t sleep? Pop a pill. Can’t have sex? There’s a drug for that too. Some movies glorify the drug culture. Some music makes it all sound very, very cool. Parents need to model meeting challenges in other ways. We need to teach our kids about the satisfaction and excitement that comes from stretching ourselves and succeeding.

And, of course, there is the possibility of a true addiction. It’s simply not true that kids don’t develop a dependence on marijuana. Some do. It’s also possible that you don’t know what else your kid has been taking.

What’s a Parent To Do?

I wish there were easy answers to this. There aren’t. Every kid is different. Every family has different capacities. But perhaps these principals will give you something to work with.

First: Love him. Love him. Love him. Even though it may seem to you that a body snatcher has come along and taken the place of your child, this is your son. Try to find ways to put aside your anger, fear, and disappointment. Let him know that the reason you are angry and afraid is that you care deeply about him. Catch him being good as much as you can. Give him a hug and a pat at least a couple of times a day, even if you don’t feel like it. Without the current of love and caring that runs between parent and child, you can’t have influence.

Find his strengths: Identify the things that are going well, however small. These are the things you can build on to develop better self-esteem and better communication. Does he obey you at all? Does he give you a hug now and then or respond to one from you? Does he come to dinner with the family? Share any news? Laugh at a joke? Anything like this means that he is not totally disengaged from the family. Remember this to give yourself hope and encouragement. Compliment him whenever you can to strengthen the connection between you.

Now talk to him. Talk. Do not scold, preach, yell, or threaten. Just talk. And listen. Let him know that you are sorry that you two got locked into warfare when what you wanted was to look after his welfare. Share your guesses about the underlying causes and see what he thinks. See if he will engage with you around solving the problem. He might. Be prepared to return to the discussion over several days and weeks.

Reassure him: Let him know that you see through the bad behavior to the talented, smart kid he is. He doesn’t have to meet some abstract standard of perfection or compete with anyone else for your love or attention. He is valued for who he is. Be prepared to tell him honestly what you think his strengths really are. Ask him what he has in mind for himself? What would help him realize those dreams? How can you help?

Try to get him involved with something he likes that will put him into a different group and take up his time in a positive way. He needs new ways to feel good about himself. Work behind the scenes and get someone else to call him with an offer or an idea. (Remember, a kid his age doesn’t generally want to take suggestions from his parents.) Is there a coach who would be willing to recruit him for a team? Is there a kids program that needs teen helpers? Do you have a friend who would be willing to hire him?

Make an appointment with a psychiatrist who is familiar with substance abuse for a comprehensive evaluation. Let your son know that sometimes people get involved with illegal drugs because there is something legitimate going on. You care enough about him to find out.

Get engaged with the school. School guidance people have seen lots of kids like your son. They have also seen lots of parents who have abdicated their responsibility for their teens. They don’t know that you are a concerned parent unless you tell them. There may be a substance abuse program connected to the school. If so, this is no time for false pride. You need their help. Take advantage of what help is offered.

Get your extended family to help in a positive way. Saving a child is a family project. Tell them it doesn’t help for them to tell you, or him, all the ways he is going wrong. You know that. He knows that. What you need from them is practical help. Can they take him along on weekend outings? Are any of his adult relatives doing something he’d like to learn? Are there any younger cousins who look up to him who would like his attention?

Find out who the other parents are: It generally helps when parents band together. There are probably at least a few of his friends with parents who are as concerned as you are. Get together and brainstorm ways to get your kids busier with positive things. Take turns taking the kids to events, or tutoring them, or coming up with jobs. If you can agree on consistent rules about curfews and responsibilities, the kids will be less able to use the old excuse of “everybody else’s parent let’s their kid . . .” Most important, you can build a support system for yourselves.

Let him know, calmly, that the rules are the rules. Your son is engaging in illegal and risky behavior. Remind him that it is a parent’s job to help their kids grow up physically healthy and emotionally strong and you intend to do your part. You don’t want him to go to jail, overdose and get sick, or die. You will therefore never get off his back about drugs. But perhaps together you can figure out where you can back off. Hair style? Clothing choices? Work together to set reasonable rules for your home.

Figure out what you will and won’t do if he gets into legal trouble. Will you get a lawyer to help or is he on his own? Calmly tell him what those limits are – and mean it. Then be prepared to follow through. Some kids seem to need to test all the limits. You can’t force him to be a law-abiding citizen. But you can go with him to court and quietly be there for him while he deals with whatever the justice system decides to do. Although I would never recommend jail time as therapeutic, it’s an unfortunate truth that it is what it takes for some kids to get it. Maintaining the relationship will give you a shot at helping him turn things around when he gets out.

Consider finding a therapist who specializes in teen substance abuse: A column like this one can only give you very general ideas. It is no substitute for talking with someone who can help you take a look at the total situation. If your son won’t go, go yourself. An experienced therapist will be able to help you figure out how to approach your son and what you can do for him – and for yourself.

You are probably asking just how you will have time for all of this. You probably don’t want to have to do any of it. You probably wish it would just all go away. I don’t blame you a bit. There are few things as difficult or as frustrating as maintaining our love and our cool when a teen is doing everything in his power to drive us away. This is the ultimate test of our own adulthood and our own character. Like most tests, it isn’t fun or easy.

You are fighting for your child’s life because you love him. You probably couldn’t live with yourself if you didn’t at least try your best to save him. The truth is that you’re already spending time and emotional energy saying things and doing things that haven‘t been effective. It’s possible that if you direct the time you are already spending a little differently, you will start to get better results. With support for yourself, a lot of love for him, and more than a little luck, you may help your teen figure out that being drug-involved gets him nowhere except in trouble. You are there to show him the way out.