Many parents falsely assume that their son or daughter would never abuse drugs or alcohol. However, even parents who think that strict enforcement of a household no-drug policy will preclude the possibility of their kids using may be surprised to know that substance abuse is occurring under their own roof.
A national survey indicated that about 8% of kids ages 12 to 17 have used illicit drugs in the past month and nearly 16% have used them in the past year. Meanwhile, approximately 9% have used alcohol in the past month; 22% used it in the past year.1 While many of these teens use only occasionally or experimentally, about 8% of them 12 years and older meet the criteria for a substance use disorder that needs treatment.2
Unfortunately, even parents who are aware of the real risks of teen drug abuse may be unsure of how to help prevent it in their home. Some common mistakes that parents make regarding the prevention of their kid’s drug abuse include:
- Not setting clear expectations around drug use.
- Underestimating the impact of mental health issues on substance abuse.
- Not taking experimentation seriously.
- Not noticing changes in your kid.
- Blaming yourself.
- Not getting help right away.
Lacking Clear Expectations
Sometimes, parents underestimate the power of their influence on their kid’s drug or alcohol use. A study of adolescents indicated that those with parents who had not given them strong messages against using substances were 20% more likely to use than teens whose parents made their disapproval clear.3 Other studies have shown that parents who exert more control over their kid’s lives by employing a more authoritative parenting style have kids who are significantly less likely to use alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. But the parents who were most effective in preventing substance abuse in their children combined a healthy form of control with high levels of warmth, empathy, and understanding.4
Other research has produced similar findings, showing that preventing drug use in teens requires parental involvement; strict, but not harsh, parenting; and effective communication between kids and parents.5 Examples of effective communication on this subject include:
- Telling your children you expect them not to experiment with drugs and alcohol.
- Encouraging honesty by remaining nonjudgmental. For instance, don’t refer to using alcohol and drugs as something done only by “losers” or “thugs.” This will make your child defensive, and if they have already experimented, these phrases are likely to make them feel ashamed and guilty and less likely to be open with you.
- Talking about your boundaries with other aspects of drug use, such as not driving under the influence or riding with others who are using drugs and alcohol.
- Setting up a plan with your children so that they can call you for a ride regardless of the hour, rather than taking chances by riding with friends who are using.
Underestimating Mental Health Issues
Another issue that many parents are unaware of is the higher risk of substance abuse when a teen suffers from a mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety—studies estimate that 11–48% of adolescents have a co-occurring disorder.6 About 9% of males and 19% of females who had a substance use disorder also had an anxiety disorder.6 And teens who experience depression—which can result in feelings of sadness, anger, and hopelessness—are twice as likely to abuse drugs as those who do not have it.7 Teens who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were 5 times more likely to use drugs than those without the mental illness.8
It is possible that a proper mental health diagnosis and effective treatment of the symptoms of depression, PTSD, anxiety, and other disorders may help prevent substance use behaviors from progressing or from developing in the first place. It is also important to consider family history as it relates to mental illness since genes play a major role in its development. Being aware of any increased risk of mental illness due to genetics can help you be more alert to the signs and symptoms if they arise.
Not Taking Experimentation Seriously
Many parents believe that it’s routine for kids to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana at parties; sometimes, parents even supply the drugs and alcohol. They may mistakenly assume that kids can’t become addicts or that experimentation will cease as a teen matures and moves beyond the high school years.
Parents might justify enabling behaviors by claiming that kids are going to do it anyway, so it is safer for them to experiment with using alcohol or drugs under parental supervision at home than to do so out in the community. However, research shows that it is a serious mistake for parents to think this way. One study of adult drug users who started using as kids stated that they felt that their substance abuse problem might not have developed if their parents or other adults in the community had intervened, instead of assuming it was normal and turning a blind eye to the situation.
Regardless of why a teen does so, the facts show that experimenting with drugs and alcohol is not harmless. It is far more likely that a teen who abuses drugs will grow up to be an adult who does so too.9 For example, teens who started using marijuana at age 14 or younger were 6 times more likely to be “classified with illicit drug dependence or abuse” than those who first tried marijuana after the age of 18.9
Failure to Notice Changes in Your Kid
Many well-intentioned parents may overlook signs that a child may be using drugs, including:10
- Changes in peer groups: Your child stops associating with old friends and finds new ones. If the new peers seem to be troublemakers or rebellious, that can be an especially strong warning sign.
- Changes in appearance: Your normally well-groomed kid stops bathing or changing into clean clothes, or your daughter who left the house with perfect hair and makeup everyday no longer cares about her appearance.
- Trouble at school: Your teen’s grades suddenly drop without explanation.
- Missing school: Your child begins to skip classes or skips school entirely.
- Loss of interest in hobbies: They no longer care about activities that were once important to them, such as sports, dance, or church youth groups.
- Changes in eating and sleeping: Your early riser now wants to sleep all day or your child is suddenly awake all night. They may have an unexplained loss of appetite or even become extremely hungry and want to eat all the time.
- Emotional outbursts: Your teen may start arguments with family members or be openly hostile or aggressive.
Of course, many of these changes may indicate the onset of a mental illness or a reaction to stress, rather than drug abuse. However, these are all signs that something is going on with your kid that needs further evaluation.
If you are already aware that your kid has a drug problem, you may blame yourself, which is a natural reaction but not a helpful one. Focusing on what you did or did not know is a waste of time and energy—focus on getting help for your child instead. Realize that you can do nothing to change the past, but you can change the future.
One of the most helpful things you can do is to not set a bad example around your child with your own substance use or abuse. Keeping drugs and alcohol out of your home environment is an important way to support their recovery process and ongoing sobriety.
Other things you can do to help include:11
- Talking to your child and seeing if they will open up to you about their drug use.
- Not getting hung up on asking why they are taking drugs. Often, they don’t really know, and these types of questions may make them defensive.
- Not focusing on blaming yourself, family members, or peers.
- Letting them know that you are concerned.
- Staying calm.
- Reassuring them that you are here to support them through this time.
Most importantly, take care of yourself, physically and emotionally. If you fail to care for yourself during this time, eventually you will lack the internal resources to care for your child. Some good self-care practices include:
- Eating and sleeping on a regular schedule.
- Taking some time to do something nice for yourself, such as having dinner out.
- Enlisting friends and family to help supervise your child so that you can take breaks.
- Getting therapy for yourself to manage stress and learning to set boundaries.
- Avoiding the tendency to engage in unhealthy habits as a means of coping with stress, such as overeating, drinking, or compulsive shopping.
- Seeking out support groups for parents who are dealing with similar situations.
Not Getting Help Right Away
It is frightening to realize that your kid has a drug problem, so many parents back off, especially when their child gets angry or denies there’s a problem. You may think you are making a big deal over nothing or think such thoughts as:
- Maybe this will go away on its own.
- My brother did the same thing in high school and he’s fine now.
- I smoked pot and drank a lot at that age. I grew out of it and never had a problem.
- Other kids do drugs and their parents aren’t worried about it.
- It’s only a little marijuana, which is legal in many places now.
- Alcohol is legal for people who are 21. It’s not a big deal.
All of these thoughts and behaviors are a common response to a child’s drug problem, but you must remember that teen alcohol and drugs use is not just a normal, acceptable developmental milestone, especially if it is accompanied by the behavioral changes noted earlier. Early drug and alcohol use significantly increases the risk of developing a serious substance use disorder, so it is far better to potentially overreact and have your child assessed than to ignore it.12 Research shows that the earlier a substance use problem is treated, the less likely it is to progress and the easier the problem is to treat.12 Other reviews of studies show that early intervention reduced further substance abuse in adolescents, particularly for binge drinking.13
Sometimes, parents hesitate to get help for their child because they think that their child will have to go to a rehab center for many months and be away from home. This may not always be the case since, depending on the severity of the substance use and related issues, there are different levels of treatment intensities and settings. Some of the various treatment interventions for substance abuse include:
- Individual counselors who can provide assessment and counseling. A counselor in your community may be able to treat your child by seeing them on a weekly basis. Some less serious drug abuse issues can be treated on an outpatient basis through counseling.
- Detox programs to help your kid get off drugs. This is especially true if your child is dependent upon certain types of drugs or is using multiple drugs. This may require your child to go to a detox center for a few days prior to moving forward with formal substance abuse treatment.
- Outpatient programs that provide specialized treatment for adolescents. Many of these programs meet after school for several hours as many as 5 days a week. Outpatient treatment is often structured around a group setting and may also include family counseling.
- Inpatient treatment programs may be best for teens with relatively severe addictions that require around-the-clock supervision, or for those who have a serious mental illness in addition to a substance use disorder. These may last 30 to 90 days, during which you can have regular visits with your child and be in contact with their treatment team for updates on their progress.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). National Survey of Drug Use and Health.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). America’s Need for and Receipt of Substance Use Treatment in 2015.
- Becoña, E., Martínez, Ú., Calafat, A., Fernández-Hermida, J.R., Juan, M., Sumnall, H., et al. (2013). Parental Permissiveness, Control, and Affect and Drug Use Among Adolescents. Psicothema, 25(3), 292–298.
- Shakya, H.B., Christakis, N.A., & Fowler, J.H. (2012). Parental Influence on Substance Use in Adolescent Social Networks. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 166(12), 1132–1139.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2003). Preventing Drug Use Among Children and Adolescents: A Research-Based Guide. Second Edition.
- Hulvershorn, L., Quinn, P., & Scott, E. (2015). Treatment of Adolescent Substance Use Disorders and Co-Occurring Internalizing Disorders: A Critical Review and Proposed Model. Current Drug Abuse Reviews, 8(1), 41–49.
- Youth.gov. (N.D.). Mental Health: Co-occurring Disorders.
- Deykin, E.Y. & Buka, S.L. (1997). Prevalence and Risk Factors for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Chemically Dependent Adolescents. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(6), 752.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). The TEDS Report: Age of Substance Use Initiation Among Treatment Admissions Ages 18 to 30.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
- Northern Ireland Direct Government Services. (n.d.). Drugs and Your Child.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health.
- Carney, T. & Myers, B. (2012). Effectiveness of Early Interventions for Substance-Using Adolescents: Findings from a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 7(1), 1.