Chapter 10

What to Do if My Teenager is Using Drugs

Parents have the most important and powerful influence on a teenager's health habits and you play an important role when it comes to steering your teenager to get professional help if that is needed. The influence of a parent occurs not only in what you say as a parent but also in how you behave. In this light, it is important for prevention-smart parents to show a positive example, which is one of the most powerful forms of communicating with adolescents.

Remember, the #1 task of teenagers is to make parents doubt themselves!

My teen uses drugs. What do I do now?

Finding out that your child is using or experimenting with drugs is an unwelcome discovery for parents. Confronting your child about his or her drug use is an uncomfortable and difficult event. This chapter will help prevention-smart parents respond to this challenge in a way that shows you care enough to have this difficult conversation, and lets a child know you will be there to support them in making alternative choices.

Do I really need to confront my child?

Parents need to talk to children about their drug use. Children who start using drugs at an early age are more likely to continue using, to use other more potent drugs, and to develop problems with their drug use. Recognizing your own uncomfortable feelings about confronting your child may actually help you understand some of what your child may be thinking when you have this conversation. Remember that youth rely on parents or caregivers to keep them safe, even when their behavior suggests they don’t need you for that any more.

Some parents may feel reluctant to confront a child about drug use. Here are some of the reasons from a parent’s point of view:

Preparing to discuss

Just as you would plan for a meeting with other adults, such as a business meeting or a talk with your friends, you need to prepare yourself for this conversation. Take the time to think about providing the best time and place for the talk, and who will be present. And though it may be easier to delay the conversation, try to have it as soon as possible.

More about these issues soon...

Practice what you will say beforehand. Think back to your own experiences in adolescence. You probably experienced various issues including relationships with other people, boredom, and had questions about sexuality. Perhaps you used drugs when you were young. These memories may provide a reminder that drug use can represent a way for a young person to deal with many of the same stresses you experienced. This may help you phrase things, and to offer useful alternative solutions to your child.

How to have the talk

Remember, this situation is one of life’s challenges and also an opportunity for both parent and teen to grow and develop skills and ways to cope with problems and stress together. We are all faced with choices that we have to make in our lives, and it is important to make the best choice possible, not only for the present but also for the future.

10 steps to focus the conversation and keep it positive

1. Find a special time to talk.

Don’t surprise your child by adding this on to a different conversation. At home? In the car? While out shopping? The place to have the conversation depends on the parent or caregiver, the child, and home environment.

2. Be united.

Perhaps arrange to have another adult, parent, spouse, or caregiver present. Make sure that you both give the same message.

3. Start the conversation with positive messages.

Reflect your care and concern for them. Use words such as ‘love, caring, concern, strengths, reality’. For example:

I love you and I am concerned that you may be using drugs.

Can I share my problem with you? I am anxious because I think you may be using… and that really concerns me because I know the harm this could cause now and in the future. Can we discuss it together please?

4. You are there to help

Give the message that you are ‘here to help’, and that your son or daughter can come to you at anytime. Here is a good way to say this:

I will do whatever I can, and if I do not know what to do I will try to find help. My reasons are for your happiness and success and because I care and I love you.

5. Try as much as possible to be calm.

Your teen may offer excuses or place blame on you or your parenting. This is normal, but it can make you feel defensive. Do not make excuses that this problem is your fault. Remember that the focus is on your teenager, not you. You might add that if it is seen as to do with you that you want to understand it and try to ensure you don’t repeat your mistakes again.

6. Be specific about your concerns and observations.

Stick to facts when you talk with you child. Finding drugs, noticing behavior change, getting reports from friends, peer groups, teachers, etc, are facts that are difficult for your teenager to dismiss.

7. Indicate it's your 'job'.

Indicate that as a parent it is your ‘job’ to keep him or her away from danger; and alcohol and other drugs can be dangerous. Here are some statements that can apply. You may want to be specific about the drug in question:

Drugs can hurt your brain. Your developing brain can be damaged by exposing it to drugs.

It is hard to make good decisions when you are on drugs. You might put yourself in an unsafe situation and not be at your best to protect yourself.

8. Do not rush

Allow your child to respond and encourage them to offer their point of view. Sometimes there may be long silences after you say something. When you stay relaxed, allowing silent time to pass before saying something new, you are letting your child know that this conversation requires his input, and is not just a one-sided scolding and warning from you.

9. Practice what you are going to say.
  • Talk to your reflection in the mirror, practice to a spouse, to a friend. Be sincere in saying it.

  • Always be truthful. If you used drugs during your teenager years, do not hide this. Emphasize that you regret it and that it did not make you a better person.

10. Be prepared for negative emotions from you teenager.
  • Expect denial and anger. Your teenager might try to change the conversation to what you did when you were his/her age. Remember that this is a conversation about your child, not you.

  • Be prepared that your child’s anger may reflect that he or she is ‘hurt’ about not living up to your expectation, or that you would think that he or she is a failure because they took drugs. The anger may also reflect that he or she is scared about what the consequences are going to be.

  • Remember that by staying calm and avoid rushing into doing most of the talking, the focus of the conversation needs to emphasize your child’s responsibility in decisions about drug use.

  • Clarify your role as a resource for making healthy choices, and not as his reason for using drugs.

Do not be afraid to act

This problem will not go away. If you do not confront your teenager about using drugs you may be giving a message that it is OK to use them, or that you just do not care.

For more on this topic, see Chapter 9: Does the Media Make a Difference?

What if my child needs professional help for their drug problem?

If your teenager continues to use drugs despite your efforts to get him or her stop, your child might need external professional help, counseling or treatment.

There can be many treatment or counseling options in your community. However sometimes such services and support are hard to find. It is recommended that you contact your local social service agency, help-line, community or health centre or family doctor to get advice as to which services and possible help might be available in your community.

How do you select a good program for treatment? There is a helpful resource for parents about what to look for and to expect regarding drug treatment services for teenagers authored by The Partnership at Drugfree.Org.

A research and public policy organization in the United States, Drug Strategies, conducted a study to determine what characteristics maximize the effectiveness of an adolescent drug treatment program. Summarized below are 7 key features that they identified. As a parent you should ask the administrator or director of the treatment program you are considering about each of these elements or ask yourself which of these is offered through the help you have identified. You want to pick a program that is most likely to help your teenager.

  1. The program is designed for teenagers. A treatment program that is developed specifically for youth is critically important for treatment success. The program should not just be an adult program modified for teenagers. And youth should never be mixed with adults if a treatment facility has programs for both young people and adults. The treatment strategy and training of the counselors needs to be specific to the developmental needs of adolescents.

  2. The program uses a detailed assessment process to determine the type and intensity of treatment that is best for your child. Your child should receive treatment that matches the specifics of his or her drug problem. It takes a comprehensive assessment by the clinical staff for the treatment plan to be adjusted to fit your child’s needs. Parents should ask if standardized and valid procedures are used by a program.

  3. A comprehensive treatment approach is used. Many teenagers with a drug problem also have other problems, such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Effective treatment programs need to develop a treatment plan for your child that addresses the adolescent’s problems comprehensively, and not focus only on stopping the drug use.

  4. Treatment includes family involvement. Treatment success is likely enhanced when the family is involved in treatment. Good programs place a high priority on your involvement in the program. Your role may include participating in group meetings and examining and changing your use of alcohol.

  5. Staff are qualified. You want to have your child treated at a program where the staff is qualified both as drug abuse counselors and as counselors with training in working with teenagers.

  6. The program offers continuing care. Success in stopping drug use usually requires that the teenager continue treatment after the initial “primary” treatment experience. Top-quality programs provide this continuing care for the teenager, often up to several weeks or months.

  7. Treatment outcomes. Not all programs regularly measure the outcomes of their treatment. But you should ask if the program does: If they do, ask for a summary of a report.

In some places and countries it is difficult to find support that meets any, let alone all, these criteria although things are changing and improving. You will need to find someone who can give some expert guidance on what you can do, who you can access for help and whether this seems appropriate for your child’s needs.


Imagine you are trying to get another parent to have a talk with their son or daughter about drugs. How would you respond to each of these possible excuses or reasons that a reluctant parent may offer for not wanting to have the talk?

What to Do if My Teenager is Using Drugs

This final chapter has tried to help the prevention-smart parent address the situation when prevention has not been as successful as we would have hoped. It aims to offer practical help and advice when you suspect or discover that your child is using drugs. Remember, your reaction and how you deal with it is extremely important if there is to be a way through this matter together and if your child is to look to you for help and support.

The key phrase when you find out is Don’t Panic. It may not be as bad as you imagine, and only by working together will you be able to help your child. Remember too that the drug in question may affect how you respond and deal with the issue. Finally, keep a focus on not only the drugs being used but also the reasons that led to this. Discuss with your child the ways you can address these “causes”.

Final Task:

Imagine you have been asked by a friend what to do, as they have just discovered their child is using drugs. What would you say to this parent now that you have read this chapter?

Here are some websites to help you learn more about getting professional counseling and treatment if your child’s drug use is a serious enough problem.

United States

The Partnarship at Wide range of practical information about how to talk to a child who needs treatment and what you can expect if your child goes into treatment.
From the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a summary of principles of treatment is provided, including what you can do as a parent to help improve the likelihood of treatment success for your child.

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