When it comes to our kids and drugs, we tend to focus on prevention—and rightfully so. We think about how to be good role models when it comes to substance use; we talk to them early and often about the dangers of drugs, peer pressure and hanging out with the wrong crowd. But what about when we do all of that and still, they use?
Even if they have all the right information—even if they know better—teenagers sometimes make bad choices. And when parents find out, they are likely to feel shocked, scared, angry, or all of the above. Psychologist and educator Emma Maynard writes for The Conversation that this makes us lose our calm when we need it the most:
Experts in teenage drug use tell us it’s about informed choices. They advise us to accept that as parents we are unlikely to stop our teenage children doing what they choose, and so, our best approach is to ensure they have the right information, and that they can discuss issues with us openly. In this way, we can help to reduce harm by ensuring teenagers are aware of the risks, and what to do if they need help.
Though this is indeed excellent advice, it is difficult for many parents to follow. My ongoing research looks at the experiences of parents whose children are taking drugs. They value the way practitioners can talk to their teenagers, and understand the value of the advised harm reduction approach.
Despite this, most parents I’ve spoken to have said their gut reaction is to respond differently: more zero tolerance than harm reduction. They tend to ground their children and stop their pocket money. Stories are littered with accounts of rows and escalating sanctions in an endless cycle of panic and rebellion.
In other words, staying calm and rational when you think your child may be using drugs is a whole lot easier said than done. We want to lock them up to keep them safe. But protecting your relationship with them needs to be a top priority so that you can help in the most constructive way possible.
Of course, you’ll need to get the proper professionals in your corner to help you navigate all of this. But there are things you can start doing in your interactions with your child as soon as you discover the drug use to help maintain a strong connection and open communication as you go forward.
Don’t react right away
If you know (or suspect) that your teen is using drugs, the very first thing to do is take a deep breath. And then another one. If you have a partner, talk things through with them before you approach your child. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids organisation stresses the importance of parents getting on the same page and presenting a united front, even if you don’t completely agree on the position you’ll take.
Gather any evidence you can (there is a list of common hiding places here), set your goals and objectives, plan out your initial conversation, and prepare yourself for what is likely to be a very negative reaction.
Talk when you’re calm
Maynard says that expecting yourself to stay calm all the time is extra pressure you don’t need. “But choosing when to talk can help,” she writes. “The parents I spoke to all said the same thing: talk when you are calm, and they are calm. Then you can talk and listen well.”
If things start to escalate and become heated, press “pause” on the conversation and return to it once everyone has cooled off. Try to always come from a place of love. Or, as researcher Molly Bobek with the Centre on Addiction and Substance Abuse suggests, come from a place of “non-judgmental curiosity,” which emphasises asking questions while keeping an open mind:
The relationship with your teen is the most important thing to attend to and not lose sight of when you’re concerned about substance use. Effectively preventing or stopping teen substance use over the long-term cannot happen in the absence of a strong and caring family relationship.
If ever there is a time to talk less and listen more, this is it, no matter how tempting it may be to bombard your teenager with lectures full of information. In order to figure out the underlying reason for the drug use—and change the pattern—you have to listen for the “why.” They might be succumbing to social pressures, seeking to push boundaries or craving the physical sensation.
Once you pinpoint the motivation behind the use, you can begin to find solutions or alternatives.
Work on your connection
When something as big and scary as drug use enters your life, it’s hard to think about or talk about anything else. But it’s not a problem likely to be solved overnight, and Maynard says it’s ok—even encouraged—to take a break from it now and then to reconnect:
Have fun. If this means avoiding the topic for a little while, do it. Do something different and light-hearted. Talk about something other than the drugs and any fall-out, such as poor behaviour or school issues. Having fun together is one of the best things we can do to boost resilience, especially when relationships come under strain. It’s also one of the first things we neglect to prioritise.
Bobek also suggests parents consider what is working or going well in their lives by asking themselves this question: “If we weren’t here to talk about Jr.’s substance use, what would we be talking about?”
Meet the smartest parents on Earth! Join our parenting Facebook group.