What to Do if You Suspect Your Teenager Has an Addiction
If there’s anything more frightening than suspecting you’re addicted to drugs, it’s suspecting that someone you love—especially your child—is the addicted one. Some parents worry so much about this possibility that they adopt police-state tactics: searching their teenagers’ possessions, hacking into computer files, checking car mileage against how far it should be to where the kids say they were, calling to “check on” the kids every half hour they’re away from home. All in the name of being able to spot and stop any possible drug use sooner rather than later.
There are several reasons this approach is a bad idea:
- It has a toxic effect on family relationships. Put yourself in your children’s shoes: how would you feel about living with someone who constantly treated you as guilty until proven innocent?
- It makes your teenagers feel you’re looking for excuses to get mad at them—so if and when they do come up against peer pressure to use drugs, they’ll be afraid to turn to you for support.
- It can trigger the very thing you fear in the form of “I’ll show them” behavior. Teenagers are notoriously impulsive and hotheaded—they really can’t help it—and the last thing they need is anything else to rebel against, complete with “instructions” on how to rebel.
- Even if you do find evidence of drug use, you’re handing your teenagers a “You had no right” argument when you confront them. And even if you win the argument, you’re likely to lose the long-term war because family support and trust are important aspects of staying sober.
So if snooping and interrogating are out, how can you recognize a developing addiction before it’s too late? And what do you do if it does happen?
KNOW THE SYMPTOMS
When someone is becoming dependent on drugs, there are almost always visible changes in behavior and habits. Notice any differences in dress, appetite, energy, regular activities or friends—especially if the general direction is toward the negative (falling school grades, increased sullenness, sloppier grooming, reluctance to introduce new friends to you). In many cases, actual drugs, drug paraphernalia or pro-drug slogans may be left in plain sight.
BUT DON’T BE QUICK TO PANIC
With the exception of actual drugs or paraphernalia, many of the above symptoms may simply indicate growing-up mood swings—and even if real drugs have been used, one-time experimentation doesn’t necessarily lead to addiction. So don’t automatically assume the worst, and if the changes are fairly minor, wait a week or two to see if they pass, continue or move further in the negative direction.
WHEN YOU CONFRONT, DO IT WITH RESPECT
If what’s concerning you is a simple matter of moodiness or sloppiness, start by asking, “I’ve noticed you’re behaving differently [brief details of what you’ve noticed] and I’m wondering: is something wrong?” If they open up immediately (whether or not the problem is actually drug-related), you’ve taken the first step in the right direction. If they brush it off with, “Everything’s fine,” don’t push the subject immediately unless there are clear signs of imminent physical danger. Wait and watch carefully, keeping the lines of communication open and making sure your kid stays aware you are ready to help without judging.
INVOKE YOUR AUTHORITY WITH CAUTION
If it ultimately comes down to insisting your child go to detox for his own good, don’t overdo the “I’m in charge and I’ll make you do it” attitude—as noted above, this may get him into rehab but it won’t help him want to stay sober afterwards. Stay firm but kind, ready to listen to his side of the story at all times. And be prepared to participate actively in family therapy both during and after treatment—and to be fully supportive in recovery, whether or not you find any changes personally convenient.
Remember that, ultimately, any drug problem is a family problem—not simply a matter of “fixing” one individual. Be prepared to learn about yourself, your child and your relationship. If you maintain a loving attitude, remain patient, admit your own mistakes and stay open to your child’s feelings, you can experience the joy of not only seeing them get and stay sober, but of seeing your relationship—and quite possibly yourself—grow tremendously as a result.