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Your teen has admitted using drugs and isn’t going to stop: What do you do?

blog entry discussing the issues around asking your child if they have taken drugs and they say ‘no’ – what do you do then? It was based around a story of a mother who had recently lost her son (apparently due to a drug overdose) and the fact that she had asked all the right questions around whether he was experimenting with drugs or not but he simply hadn’t been honest. She called on other parents to keep having this difficult conversation “in a really non-threatening way so they feel like they don’t have to lie.”

As I said before, if you’re going to ask questions about possible drug use there is usually a reason. If that’s the case, 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, particularly if they make it very clear that they’re not going to stop?

Since then I have had a number of parents contact me saying that they had sat down with their son or daughter after reading my blog and had the conversation. Unfortunately they were not prepared for the answer. All had discovered that their teens were regularly using illicit drugs and, at the same time, had made it very clear to them that they had no intention of ceasing their use. None of these parents wanted me to use their stories in this entry per se, but they did agree to me taking key elements and putting them together to create a couple of examples that illustrated the problems they were facing. They are as follows:

Carol’s daughter is 17 years old and has always been a bit of a handful. Rebelling since the age of 13, Joanne has always gone out with older boys and starting going to parties around that time. Although she was aware that her daughter was drinking alcohol, Carol hadn’t even contemplated that Joanne could be using drugs and only asked to make herself feel better, convinced the answer would be ‘no’! When she told her mother that she had been using ecstasy regularly for the past 12 months and had no intention of stopping, Carol was devastated. The media coverage of recent ecstasy deaths has not helped and Carol is frightened that her daughter just doesn’t realize the danger she is putting herself into most weekends.

When 15 year-old Zach admitted to his mother that he was smoking cannabis regularly she was floored! Hilary had asked her son whether he had used drugs because she was becoming worried about some of the people he was hanging around with. He didn’t just stop with tales of his pot use though, he then told her that he used LSD occasionally and was considering using other drugs like ecstasy in the future. Zach told his mum that he wanted to be honest and she needed to respect that. He also told her that he had done his research and knew what he was doing. He knew there were harms (although he believed that most were exaggerated) and he and his friends did everything to keep as safe as possible when they did use. 

In almost all cases there were a few common elements that need to be highlighted:

  • young people used the fact that they were being honest with their parents as a ‘weapon’, i.e., “I’ve been honest with you, now you have to accept what I’m telling you!”
  • teens told their parents that they had done their research and they knew what they were doing
  • parents were told that the risks around the drug or drugs that they were taken were exaggerated
  • most young people said that they (and their friends) did what they could to reduce the harm associated with their drug use, i.e., they took precautions to make their drug use ‘safer’
  • parents knew little, if any, facts about the drug their child was taking and were extremely fearful about the health impacts (particularly the prospect of death) of use
  • parents of cannabis users were also much more likely to be pressured into allowing cannabis use in the home, thus providing a ‘safe space’ for them to use their drug of choice

Let’s start this discussion by making it very clear that there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to stop someone taking drugs if that’s what they want to do … unless a person actually wants to stop doing something, no matter what we do, nothing is likely to work particularly effectively. This is why most treatment centres won’t take anybody who doesn’t initiate the treatment themselves – trying to force someone to do something they don’t want to do is likely to be a huge waste of time. That said, teenagers living at home with parents who love and support them are in a slightly different situation and I believe there are a few things that you can do to ensure that your values and views in this area are respected and adhered to by making a few boundaries and rules very clear …

  • you’ve been asked to respect their honesty – it goes both ways – they need to respect yours! Tell them your concerns and make it clear that you don’t support their decision. You are glad that they have decided to be honest and tell you what is happening and you hope that honesty continues but at the same time, they need to understand that you are going to be honest in how you respond to what they say and they must not dismiss your concerns in any way
  • most importantly, illicit drugs are illegal – if you can’t stop them using drugs (which you can’t – if they want to, they’re going to find a way!), you can insist that no drugs ever come into your house. Make it clear that if you find drugs they will be flushed down the toilet – drugs are expensive and they certainly won’t like that idea at all
  • your home cannot be a ‘safe house’ – this is particularly true if you have other children, particularly younger ones. Once again, drug use is illegal – if police come to your home for any reason and find juveniles smoking cannabis or the like, this is not just a police matter but also a community services issue
  • drugs cost money – make it very clear to them that you will not finance their drug use. Cutting off their access to cash is not going to be something they like but can be effective – if they want to buy drugs, they’re going to have to find another way to do it. This is not about punishment but rather being true to yourself and the fact that you cannot support the choices they are currently making – you can continue to pay for other things they need but providing cash will be limited
  • if they believe that the drugs they are taking are not as risky as you think they are – ask to be educated. Get them to spend some time showing you the research they have found and why you shouldn’t be as worried as you are. If you’ve got evidence that contradicts this, all well and good, but make sure it’s from a reliable source – teens can smell a piece of government propaganda from a mile away!

The moment you find out that your child is using drugs, your relationship with that child changes. No matter what your views on drug use are there will be an elevated level of concern to some degree about the choices your teen is making. If it’s not around physical or psychological health concerns, then it will be to do with the legal consequences of such activity. The most important thing a parent needs to do in this situation is to stay true to themselves – rolling over and being thankful that they were honest with you and then letting them do what they want in your home may work for some people, but all of the parents who contacted me were not comfortable with their child’s drug use and were being bullied into being okay with it … It is vital that you make it clear that you are not happy and then set some rules and boundaries about what will happen in the family home. You can’t control what they do when they leave but you certainly don’t have to support the choices they make that you don’t agree with …

Much of the fear for parents around illicit drugs is usually based on what they see, read and hear in the media. Young people are right when they say that many of the harms often reported are exaggerated. That’s not to say that there aren’t harms – it’s just that sometimes we need to be a little more realistic about them and not rely on the media (that provides information in ‘grabs’ and deals in ‘black and white’ rather than shades of grey) when it comes to the ‘facts’. 

Finally, let’s not forget that most illicit drug use is experimental. Many teens dabble for a while and then move out of that phase of their life with few, if any, problems as a result. The reason that parents are so terrified is that this is not always the case – some young people don’t make it through the other end and that is what makes this so very scary.

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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