Home » Library » Parenting » Teens and Drugs: What a Parent Can Do to Help

Teens and Drugs: What a Parent Can Do to Help

(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.

Article continues below...
Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

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.

Teens and Drugs: What a Parent Can Do to Help

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2020). Teens and Drugs: What a Parent Can Do to Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.