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When you ask your child if they take drugs and they say ‘no’ – what do you do then?

Last week I posted a link to a newspaper article on my Facebook page that told the story of every parent’s worst nightmare – the drug-related death of a child. Jennifer and Cees Janson were brave enough to go public about the death of their 19 year-old son who was on a ‘gap year’ in Canada who suffered a suspected drug overdose after combining cocaine with sleeping pills in September last year. It needs to be made clear that the coroner’s
report has not been finalised as yet, but according to Mrs Janson the preliminary findings do suggest that drugs were a
contributing factor.

It appears that the parents agreed to the interview because they “wanted other parents to read their story and have an honest conversation with their children about drug use.” Mrs Janson’s words are very powerful and her words clearly show she has had some time since her son’s death to think through this incredibly difficult situation:

“Parents need to be able to have the conversation with their kids, but in a really non-threatening way so they feel like they don’t have to lie … Martin has died, Georgina Bartter has died [after a reaction to an ecstasy tablet at a Sydney music festival late last year] and yet kids still keep taking drugs … We can’t just lay down the law and say they can’t have them, we need to let them tell their side of the story, why they do it. At the end of the day, you want your kids to come home safe from a night out. Martin didn’t.”
It’s so easy to go down the ‘just say no’ and ‘get tougher’ lines – we hear it every time we have a drug-related death of a young person. ‘Throw them in jail’, increase penalties and put more police on the streets are usually suggestions for fixing the problem but you only have to look at the US where they have some of the toughest drug laws in the world and see that ‘getting tough’ really hasn’t made a dent into youth drug use. I love that this mother has included as part of a possible solution asking ‘why they do it’ – it’s something that so many people ignore but it is so important to acknowledge if you ever really want to make a difference in this area.
It is the following quote from the mother, however, that I feel every parent of a teenager should take a long-hard look at. 
“He was such a clean-cut kid … We had no concept of the drugs, we were in denial … He was such an honest kid and we had even asked him about drugs and he
denied it.”
That really raises an important question, once you have actually asked your child – “Are you taking drugs?” and they answer you and tell you that they’re not, what more can you really do?
There are no easy answers here, but if you’re ever going to ask the question, here’s how I suggest you handle it:
  • Before you ask, establish why you’re asking the question. Realistically, for a parent to ask their teen whether they’re using illegal drugs or not, there usually has to be a reason. This question doesn’t come from nowhere (and if it did, why?) – there are usually some clues from the teen’s behaviour, a particular incident, something is found in their room or pockets or the like to lead a parent to take the plunge and ask the question. Never ask the question on a whim – think through carefully why it’s being asked and remember that if they tell you they are or have taken drugs, you need to know what you are going to do with that information
  • When you ask, be as prepared as possible. If you have reason to believe that they are using drugs and you are concerned about that – when you ask the question, be prepared with all your evidence. They’ll most probably have an answer for everything, or respond by throwing a tantrum or accuse you of not trusting them, but laying out clearly why you have found it necessary to ask the question is vital
  • Make it clear to them why you are concerned about them taking drugs. Regardless of their answer, it is extremely important that you take the opportunity to clearly express why you are worried about drugs. What is it that you are really worried about? It staggers me sometimes when I meet a parent who has had no problem with their 15 year-old son or daughter going out every weekend drinking alcohol (because “that’s just what kids do!”), but when they find out they’ve gone to a dance festival and taken a pill they’re horrified and come down on them like a ton of bricks! All drug use entails a degree of risk – work out clearly what risk is it that you’re worried about. Make sure you think this though carefully and don’t just fall into quoting tabloid newspapers – get the facts and then establish an effective argument. “It’ll kill you” is not likely to cut it! Most young people who use drugs like ecstasy and cocaine don’t die – of course it’s a risk, but it’s not a line that works well with many teens and if they’re already using drugs, it’s not likely to be part of their experience so they will reject it. Without a doubt it is the illicit nature of drugs that cause the majority of young people and their families the greatest harm -i.e., if they get caught with drugs, their lives could change forever – teens simply can’t argue with that!
  • Be prepared for them to lie to you – one of the things that parents must always remember is that teens will lie through their teeth to get what they want, as I always say, ‘you can’t trust an adolescent’! Your child could be the most honest, up-standing young person on the planet but if lying means they will be able to go a party on Saturday night, or result in them not being grounded for the next fortnight, he or she is likely to do it! If you have reason to believe that your child could be taking drugs (whatever those reasons may be), simply accepting what your child tells you as ‘gospel’ is risky, no matter how honest you think they are
  • If you don’t believe them, don’t be frightened to ask again and again, and again and again! Now this could look as though I’m suggesting you nag your child to death but that’s not what this is about … it’s all really about how you ask the question. If it’s asked from a loving and caring place, not accusatory and you make it clear to them that you will love them no matter what they do, you just want to have an open and honest dialogue with them – you just may get to them and they could tell you all!
I’ll say it again, if you’re going to ask this question there usually has to be a good reason why. If they are able to address your concerns adequately and it is clear that they are not at risk, then all well and good, move on. If they’re not, blindly trusting them because they’re a good kid and you have a good relationship with them is risky and you will never forgive yourself should something go wrong down the track. Always remember though, if you’re going to ask this question, you’ve got to be prepared for one of two answers. All is fine if they say they haven’t taken drugs, but what if they turnaround and tell you they are? How should a parent best respond to that situation? That’ll be the next blog entry …

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