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How to Cope with your Teenagers Using Drugs

teenagers and drugs

teenagers using drugsSome teenagers use drugs—which is a fact that many parents may not want to face. According to The National Institute on Drug Abuse, in their annual Monitoring the Future Survey (2016):

  • 5.4 percent of 8th graders, 9.8 percent of 10th graders, and 14.3 percent of 12th graders, have used illicit drugs (other than marijuana) in the last 12 months
  • 36 percent of 12th graders use marijuana; 6 percent of those 12th graders use marijuana daily
  • 68.9 percent of high school seniors do not view regular marijuana smoking as harmful.

While drug use as a whole is declining, there was also a reduction in perceived risk of harm and disapproval amongst teens of using a number of substances occasionally—such as crack cocaine, heroin, Vicodin and inhalants.

While no parent wants to deal with their child taking drugs, these statistics show that it is a reality that drug experimentation is common amongst teenagers, and some of them use drugs every day.

My own experience is that I started smoking at 10 years old and experimented with drugs at 12 years old. And I wasn’t alone—my peers were doing it too. It was common to find a group of teenagers outside school smoking marijuana and taking other illicit substances outside of school.

Sadly, there was no open conversation in my house about experimentation. There was a zero tolerance approach: I knew that if I was found to be taking drugs or use alcohol and there would be a punishment. I wish that there had been a forum to have open discussion about drugs and a supportive environment if I wanted to discuss my experimentation. I wonder, if I’d had that, whether I would’ve felt so isolated and motivated to escape with drugs. I guess no-one really knows. Sometimes parents have their own stressors and are unable to deal with
unruly teens.

Even though my drug use led to substance use disorder, I am now in long-term recovery. But that isn’t the case for all teenagers—some we sadly lose to addiction.

As parents, there are steps that you can take either to create a dialogue about drugs, in the event your teenager wants to experiment (and that is something you choose to condone) or provide a supportive environment if you discover that they have taken drugs. What is most important is to be prepared and open to a conversation.

Parents can rest assured that they aren’t the first to deal with teenage drug use; there are many others dealing with it and there is help available. No parent wants their child to harm themselves or get into difficulty. But children will experiment—most parents did. You can, however, set healthy boundaries—which you can set once you are better informed having read the resources available. Scare tactics, blame and punishment can push your teenager away.

I spoke to Shane Watson, Prevention Specialist, asking him what he’d recommend to parents who’s teenagers may be using drugs. He said,

  1. Don’t be in denial. Even amazing kids from great families can make unhealthy and impulsive decisions due to the fact that their brains are wired for impulsiveness and pleasure-seeking during the teen years.
  2. Maintain open communication. Have a relationship with your kids.
  3. Know what the signs and symptoms of drug use are and don’t ignore them. Be willing to have those uncomfortable conversations.
  4. Be clear on your disapproval of substance use. Parental disapproval can be a protective factor. Meanwhile, if a child believes that their parents are even slightly okay with drug use, they are more likely to use.
  5. Get connected with professional help. Depending on the situation, the solution can vary from individual counseling, group counseling, intensive outpatient, early intervention/diversion programs, and inpatient programs.
  6. Don’t lose your composure. While it can be an emotional thing to find out your child is using, if you lose your cool they will shut down communication. The last thing you want is for your child to feel like they can’t talk to you. That doesn’t mean that you don’t correct behavior, but it means that you do so in a respectful and loving way.
  7. Give your kid a way out of a difficult or dangerous situation. Agree on a code word they can text you and you will come and pick them up, no questions asked.
  8. Find out why they’re using. What feeling are they seeking? Can it be replaced with something healthier (i.e. stimulant users doing extreme sports or benzo users getting into yoga and meditation)? Are they self-medicating? Is there a neurotransmitter issue that needs to be addressed medically?

And one last thing, as far as correcting behavior goes. It’s not fun to talk about consequences, but sometimes they’re necessary to modify behavior. A lot of parents think that they lose all leverage during the teen years when peers’ opinions begin to matter more than parents’ opinions do to a teen. Parents still have some leverage when it comes to a teen’s cash, car, cellphone, credit card, computer, etc. Those things matter a lot to teens and preteens. If and when consequences need to be enforced, ones that center around those things can be motivating for a teen to change their behavior and remain drug-free. A privilege like the use of the family car or a smartphone data plan can be tied into the need to be drug-free.”

While teenagers might not show it, they want to feel heard and loved. In providing an open, non-judgmental environment, it may allow your teenager to feel that it is safe to talk and they won’t be shut down. Such a supportive environment might make the difference between your child coming to you for help; or them shutting down because they feel that you are unapproachable.

Sometimes, though, boundaries and healthy discussions can be insufficient. There are occasions when teenagers step beyond experimentation to substance misuse. In this event, there is help available. What is key in this situation is early intervention and human connection—which has found to be more effective in getting them the appropriate support and treatment. Support groups like SMART Recovery Family & Friends, and CRAFT (Community Reinforcement Approach & Family Training, are great resources which provide support and guidance. But letting a teenager reach their rock bottom, or cutting them off could be potentially harmful. Further resources are available at Moms Stop the Harm and Overdose Awareness Day.


About the Author

Olivia Pennelle Writer and wellness advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), is in long-term recovery. Liv passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to recovery. Her popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen is a resource for the journey toward health and wellness in recovery. For Liv, the kitchen represents the heart of the home: to eat, share, and love. You will find Liv featured amongst top recovery writers and bloggers, published on websites such as: Recovery.Org, The Fix, Intervene, Workit Health, iExhale, Sapling, Addiction Unscripted, Transformation is Real, Sanford House, Winward Way & Casa Capri.

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