You suspect your teen is using drugs. Maybe they’re not acting like themselves. Maybe they’re cutting school or shirking other responsibilities. Maybe their grades are dropping. Or their behavior is worsening. Maybe they’ve started hanging out with a bad crowd.
Maybe they’re being secretive and have even stolen money from your wallet. Maybe their physical appearance has changed with rapid weight loss or red eyes. Maybe you’ve noticed a change in their sleep habits, energy level and mood. Maybe you’ve actually found marijuana or other drugs in their room.
Naturally, the thought and possible confirmation of your child using drugs trigger a rush and range of emotions: anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness, fear.
If you think your child is using drugs, how do you approach them? Where do you start?
Two parenting experts shared their insight below.
1. Be direct and calm.
“This issue is too serious for subtlety,” said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. He suggested readers approach their kids “directly and immediately.”
Avoid letting your anger and frustration spill over into the conversation. According to Lisa Kaplin, Psy.D, a psychologist and life coach who teaches parenting classes, “The best way to approach your child is with delicacy, not drama. If you approach them with panic, anger, aggression or accusations, you can be sure your child will tell you absolutely nothing.”
Yelling, threatening and lecturing your child typically leads them to withdraw, sneak around and lie, she said.
Duffy also suggested approaching your child “from an emotional space of genuine concern for well-being.” He understands that being calm and centered is a lot to ask of parents. “But it is, without a doubt, the approach that works best in my experience.”
It’s common for kids to deny their drug use, or to respond casually (e.g.,” It’s just pot, and I don’t smoke it that often, anyway”). If this happens, “give a brief response in which you tell them that you do not want them to use drugs of any kind,” Kaplin said. Reiterate your house rules about drugs and alcohol use and “the consequences that come with that behavior.”
2. Talk when your child is lucid.
Don’t try to have a serious conversation when your child is drunk or high, Duffy said. “This might seem like common sense, but I have worked with many parents who have attempted to lecture an inebriated teenager.”
3. Ask open-ended questions.
It’s more likely that your child will be honest, and talk about their drug use if you ask open-ended questions. According to Kaplin, these are several examples: “Can you tell me more about that? How did you feel in that situation? What will you do if that happens again? How can I help you with this?”
If your child admits to using drugs, again, “ask them with open-ended, non-judgmental questions about what drugs they have used, how often, and if they plan on using again.” You also can ask “for their input on how to proceed.”
4. Don’t punish your child.
Avoid punishing your kids, Duffy said. It rarely works. For instance, “Taking a cell phone away will never keep a drug user away from using.”
5. Show your support.
If your child reveals their drug use, “Thank [them] for being honest with you,” Kaplin said. Let them know that you’re “here to help them. Tell them you love them.”
6. Get your child treatment.
It’s key to take your child to see a qualified therapist who specializes in working with teens and young adults. When talking about professional help, don’t negotiate with your child, or take “no” for an answer, Duffy said.
Instead be brief, firm and clear, he said. Duffy gave the following example of what you might say to your child: “It is clear to us that you have been using something, and we are really concerned for your safety. As your safety is our domain as Mom and Dad, we are going to pull rank here and schedule an appointment for someone for you, and all of us, to talk to about this issue.”
Depending on the situation, you can “give [your child] options regarding therapists or treatment centers,” Kaplin said.
Even if your child is over 18 years old, Duffy suggested having a similar conversation. While you can’t force your older child to attend therapy, you can leverage other things, such as your financial position, he said.
It’s also important to get clear on your limits, communicate them to your adult child and follow through, Kaplin said. For instance, “can your child still live with you if they’re using drugs? If not, when must they leave and will you help them with treatment or other living arrangements?”
Knowing your child is possibly using drugs is stressful, scary and painful. And it can be incredibly hard to have a calm conversation. If you feel yourself losing control, take a break, and return when you’ve cooled off. Whether your child admits to using drugs or not, having them see a qualified therapist is critical.