Whether you’re the parent or the friend of teenager who has a problem with drugs or alcohol, you may be concerned, confused, or uncertain about what may happen to them. It can be difficult to know what to say or how to help them, especially if you know very little about addiction. In the beginning, the most important thing to know is that your child or friend needs treatment as soon as possible. Most adults who suffer from addiction began having issues with addiction in adolescence, so early intervention is important.1
Learn About Teen Addiction
You may have many questions when trying to help a teenager with a drug or alcohol addiction. Perhaps you wonder what caused the addiction or want to know how to tell if someone truly has an addiction; maybe you’re trying to figure out what type of drugs they’re abusing.
There is no simple answer to why some people become addicted to drugs or alcohol and others do not—addiction is believed to result from a combination of biological, environmental, and social factors. Researchers have identified some of these causes that commonly contribute to addiction:1,2
- Genetics (accounts for 40–60% of the predisposition toward addiction development).
- Exposure to drugs in the person’s environment.
- Associating with peers who use drugs and alcohol.
- Parental drug use.
- A history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- Family conflict and discord.
- Mental illness in the person’s family.
- A history of emotional or academic problems.
When you think a teen abuses drugs or alcohol, you may question if you are overreacting or viewing their behavior as worse than it actually is. However, there are signs and symptoms that point to a strong likelihood that they are abusing or addicted to a substance, including:3
- Sudden changes in behavior (e.g., depression, anger, acting withdrawn, etc.).
- Changes in friends.
- Poor personal grooming.
- Declining grades.
- Loss of interest in hobbies and activities.
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns.
- Legal or school problems.
- Problems in family and peer relationships.
While teens abuse all types of substances, some are more popular than others. In a survey of high school seniors, 33% admitted to drinking alcohol in the previous month. The following percentage of seniors reported misusing these other substances in the previous year:4
- Marijuana: 35.6%
- Amphetamines: 6.7%
- Tranquilizers: 4.9%
- Opioids other than heroin: 4.8%
- Hallucinogens: 4.3%
- Cough medicine (e.g., dextromethorphan, DXM): 4.0%
- Synthetic marijuana: 3.5%
- Sedatives: 3.0%
- Ecstasy (MDMA): 2.7%
- Salvia: 1.8%
- Inhalants: 1.7%
It’s very common for family members or those close to an addicted person to enable their loved one. There are many reasons for this, all of which are rooted in care and concern, yet nonetheless end up prolonging the time that a person struggles with an active addiction by avoiding facing all the issues the substance abuse creates.
Some parents who themselves use drugs or alcohol may struggle to face their child’s addiction, choosing instead to ignore what they know to be the signs of substance abuse. They may also minimize the danger of a child’s drug or alcohol abuse by noting that their grades are still acceptable, or try to justify that at least their child did not drive while drinking excessively. Siblings may be aware of their brother or sister’s drug or alcohol addiction, but choose to help them keep the secret from a parent, fearing that they would get in trouble or retaliate against them for speaking about it.
It can be difficult for a parent to allow a teen to face the natural consequences of addiction. They may want to rescue them from legal charges or pressure their teen’s school to not suspend them for getting drunk at a school event. Other enabling behaviors include doing things for a child instead of allowing them to do it for themselves, such as a parent completing their drunk or high teenager’s homework for them. However, when a mom or dad ignores the symptoms of addiction or rescues a child from the consequences of it, they enable and prolong the child’s alcohol or drug addiction.
To help a teen recover from addiction, a parent needs to become aware of how they enable their child and stop engaging in these behaviors. Tips on how to avoid enabling include:5
- Do not give a teen money without monitoring it, since it may be used for drugs.
- Do not allow the child to use a car unsupervised.
- Do not let the child manipulate you into not getting treatment for them or into letting them stop treatment.
- Do not let the child avoid following rules around their drug use and other negative behaviors in an effort to avoid conflict.
- Do not take over the child’s responsibilities for school work, housework, and the like.
Know What to Say
When you believe your teen has a drug or alcohol addiction, talking to them can be difficult. Your teenager is likely to be defensive, in denial, or get angry when you tell them that you believe that they have a problem.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that highly confrontational interventions seldom work. NIDA suggests that if you approach your child about drug use, there are several steps to follow:6
- Free yourself from distractions and focus on your child.
- Stay calm.
- Have a plan.
- Think through what you plan to say beforehand.
- Show interest and do not blame and accuse.
- Encourage your child.
- Avoid negative emotions.
- Control yourself.
- Leave the situation if it becomes too much for you.
- Follow up with your child if communication breaks down.
Where to Find Help
Getting your child to go for help can be difficult, but good resources that provide assistance include:
- Addiction counselors. They can conduct an assessment for your teenager to determine if they have a drug or alcohol addiction. Counselors can then provide recommendations for the type of ongoing treatment they may need and can connect your teenager to a treatment program.
- Interventionists. If you have tried discussing getting treatment with your teenager and they do not agree to go for help, an interventionist may be able to help you overcome that barrier. They can meet with your family and other people involved in your child’s life to develop a plan to approach them about getting help for addiction.
- School counselors. They may be able to have a conversation with you and your teen about their drug use and provide recommendations for getting a professional assessment. This is especially useful if your teen already communicates with this person or has some sort of relationship with them. School counselors typically have contacts within the community where your child can get treatment.
- Youth pastor or counselor. Your church may have someone on staff who is trained to talk about drug use with teens and may be able to help get your teenager to discuss their problem and agree to take steps toward getting treatment.
- A family doctor or trusted pediatrician. Sometimes a teen feels more comfortable discussing their drug issues with a medical professional; a doctor will also likely have a list of referral sources for alcohol or drug addiction treatment.
- Bartlett, R., Brown, L., Shattell, M., Wright, T., & Lewallen, L. (2013). Harm Reduction: Compassionate Care of Persons with Addictions. Official Journal of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, 22, 349–358.
- Chakravarthy, B., Shah, S., & Lotfipour, S. (2013). Adolescent Drug Abuse-Awareness & Prevention. The Indian Journal of Medical Research. 137, 1021–1023.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What to Do If Your Teen or Young Adult Has a Problem with Drugs: How Do I Know If My Teen or Young Adult Has a Substance Abuse Disorder?
- Monitoring the Future Survey. (2016). National Survey Results on Drug Use 1975-2016. 2016 Overview.
- Fritzland, L. & Rumney, A. (2015). My Addicted Child: Codependency, Enabling, and the Road to Recovery. Corte Madera, CA: Recovery Works Publishing.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015). Family Checkup.