For parents who discover or strongly suspect that their child is using drugs or alcohol, feelings can range from anger, fright, sadness, shock, feeling betrayed, feeling like a failure as a parent, and more.
You can talk about your feelings with your spouse, a close friend or family member, religious mentor, an addiction counselor, or therapist.
But remember, you need to take action. And, you need to do so in a way that gets results, it is often best to set your feelings aside for the moment.
What action you take depends upon your relationship with your child, their age, the circumstances of the substance use, and other variables, but it’s safe to say that talking about what you suspect or have discovered calmly and rationally is the first best choice.
Where to begin? Tell your child that the reason you’re having this conversation is because you love them very, very much. Repeat this throughout the conversation and if possible, demonstrate this with a hug.
Listen to what your child’s response is. It can be seriously difficult for adolescents to articulate their feelings. They may express surprise that you love them, they may say they love you too, they may surprise you with an off-the wall answer. Whatever the answer is, remain firm in your expression of love.
When you confront them about the substance use, if a warm loving tone has set the stage, things might go better than expected. However, be prepared for complete and total denial, defensive anger, professed shock, verbal attacks against you, hysterics, cold shoulder, and other deflective or defensive tactics.
Now’s not the time to back down, it is the time to remain strong. Don’t take the bait. Continue to calmly talk about what you discovered. If your child escalates her response and screams, rages, and so on, and you can remain calm, then you can continue. If they are unable to calm down and talk within a few minutes, or if you feel your anger or other emotions getting out of control, end the conversation and resolve to talk about it later–let your child know that this is not the end of the conversation.
Talk your next step through with another adult–an addiction counselor can be helpful here. Learn some techniques to de-escalate conflicts, perhaps some techniques to remain calm as well.
If things appear to be going well (and yes, this can happen) you can have a deeper discussion about the dangers of drugs, why they can jeopardize health, academic success, relationships, risk legal problems–even probation or jail–and so on. Again, expressing love and concern will get your further than anger and accusations.
If you and your child have had a contentious relationship up until this point, or you feel that your relationship hasn’t been as close as you would like, remember: It’s not too late to repair the parent-child bond, but be prepared for a hard, emotional work ahead. Getting some kind of formal or informal counseling in this case is essential, whether it is with a clergy member, a therapist, a parenting group (often a great choice), or a fellow parent whose opinion you respect.
The actual specifics of what happens, whether it goes well or not, you must consider this an ongoing conversation. Boundaries, curfews, household rules and privileges based on behavior–the kind of parenting most parents today shun–can be eminently effective in keeping your child focused on the things that matter.
Finally, I want to say that if you know your child is using alcohol underage or drugs, and if they end up involved in an accident, fight or other serious issue, you will be held legally liable for their actions–so don’t put off addressing drug or alcohol use, because it may lead to legal problems, or a serious injury or worse.