What to Do if You Suspect Your Teen Has an Issue with Substance Abuse
The adolescent years tend to be tumultuous ones for kids and parents. There are hormones changing, mood swings, and an abundance of frustration during this time while everyone learns how to adapt. Kids learn how to deal with their changing social expectations around their peers, a new awareness of self, and an independence that they didn’t have before. Parents are learning to be patient with their moody children, balancing freedom and structure, and spending a lot of time worrying. In a time when children are learning, developing, and adapting to a new normal, they can be more susceptible to the pressures of their peers in a time when fitting in can feel vital to survival. Their sense of self isn’t as concrete as it is for an adult, so the pressures of substance use can be overwhelming. Utilizing drugs and alcohol can be seen as a tool to fit in, a tool for coping, or a way to rebel and have fun.
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Obviously, not every child who drinks or uses drugs is an addict; many of us have had experiences as adolescents with substance use and realize that the phenomenon is relatively common. However, it’s important to remember that your child’s brain is not yet developed and therefore is more vulnerable to drug use (Resource); also any substance use is illegal at their age. So regardless of the substance use and the nature behind it, it’s a conversation you need to be having with your children.
Some warning signs to look out for include a change in their friend group, a decline in academic performance, and a loss of interest in hobbies and recreational activities that they enjoy. They may have changes in their grooming, eating habits, or sleep schedule. They might begin to lie or become reclusive. It can be difficult to tell which behavioral changes could be linked to substance use when this time in a child’s life is rampant with behavioral changes anyway, but it’s important to note those changes and be proactive in your concerns.
Confronting your child with your concerns about addiction can be extremely difficult to do. Chances are they will become combative and defensive in your accusation whether or not your concerns are correct. However, confronting the issue directly is a necessary part of the process if your child is struggling with substance abuse. (Resource) Be open about your concerns and why you have them, sit them down in a safe environment alone or with your spouse, and talk openly about your concern for them. Make sure they understand that your concern doesn’t stem from anger, but from worry.
If you have proof about their substance abuse, come out and tell them that you know about it. If you discovered the information by means of looking through their things or reading text messages, be ready for a fight, but it’s best that they know what you know in order to ensure them that you are on their side. Your child might not come out and admit they are using once you confront them, but it’s a good starting point in their recovery. At the very least they will know that they aren’t hiding their substance use very well and that you aren’t necessarily mad at them for it, but more concerned for them. This will allow them to feel safe confiding in you if they need help with it.
Keeping the channels of communication open will do great things for your connection to your child during this time. (Resource) Ask them how they are doing, ask them if they are feeling depressed, if they need help with school work, or if they have used that day. Don’t allow any topic to be taboo and encourage honesty in their responses. Ask them why they are using, to explain the appeal to you, and tell them about your experiences with substance use whether or not you have any. Tell them you love them, hug them, and let them know you are there.
This is all easier said than done as adolescents are commonly more difficult to have these conversations with especially if they are dealing with substance use. Their mood swings and combative nature will become more extreme than usual so it will be more difficult than usual to keep your composure and not become too frustrated. But if you’re feeling upset and frustrated, tell them that. If you expect open communication from them you have to be open too.
If you find out that your child is using and is not interested or able to quit then it is time to seek out more help than you can offer them. One great option for your child to get help is to seek out a counselor in your area with experience dealing with substance abuse. A professional will be better at gauging the issues behind your child’s substance use and if further treatment is needed. Utilizing a professional might be just what your child needs to open up and really understand the reasons behind their substance use. Your counselor will be able to suggest treatment, a group program like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, or a school related substance abuse program to help them.
It’s important to make sure you are getting help as well in dealing with this issue. You might try to seek out counseling for yourself in order to be the most supportive and helpful parent you can be to your child during this time. This will help you to understand how family dynamics can change while your child deals with addiction (resource), how to tell the difference between being sympathetic and enabling, and how to manage any guilt you may feel for the issues your child is facing. Consider joining a support group or seeking out a forum to talk to parents going through the same thing. It can be an extremely difficult thing to see your child deal with a substance abuse issue and feel powerless to help them, so making sure you are getting support and help is important as well.
Teens are at a very mentally vulnerable state at this point in their lives. Their brains are still developing which can be a dangerous thing when it comes to drug use and the probably of addiction issues stemming from their substance use. It’s best to keep an eye out for any warning signs, confront your teen with your worries, keep your channels of communication open at all times, and know when to find help for them. Keep your own mental health in mind too and both you and your teen can learn from this experience, support one another, and come out stronger on the other side.
Chelsy is a writer from Montana who is now living in Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in 2012. She is passionate about addiction recovery advocacy, talk radio, and iced coffee. Follow her on Twitter!