image description

If You Think Your Teen is Using

First, Breathe. Then Let's Get Started.

If you've just discovered that your child is drinking or doing drugs, the first thing you need to do is sit down, relax, and take time to breathe.

I know it's a scary time, but you're in the right place. I can help you plan and determine what to do — how to gather information, have productive conversations, set tighter limits, and bring in outside help.

Take a deep breath, relax, and when you're ready, start with step one below.

Here's a checklist with information and tips to help you get focused.


Reach an agreement with your spouse beforehand.

We're all familiar with the kid's trick of going to the other parent when one says no. There are similar issues with drug and alcohol use-you will certainly hear about it if your spouse has different attitudes. It's best for you and your spouse to sit down to come to a common stance on drug and alcohol use before you talk about the issue with your teen.

  • Talk it over with your spouse/partner or significant other beforehand.
  • Remind each other that nobody is to blame.

  • Come to an agreement on the position you'll take.

  • Even if you disagree, commit to presenting a united front.
  • Pledge not to undermine or bad talk each other.
  • Expect denial and possibly anger
from your teen.
  • Remind each other to come from a place of love when talking to your teen.

Prepare To Be Called A Hypocrite

The important thing is you don't want YOUR TEEN doing drugs or drinking.

One of the questions you'll be sure to be asked is whether or not you have done drugs yourself. There are many responses if you experimented in the past. Today's drugs are much stronger than they were when you were young. You can say that you're sorry, and wish you had never tried drugs. Just don't let your teen manipulate you into a position where your response becomes a justification for them to use.

  • Focus on the issue at hand-you don't want YOUR TEEN doing drugs or drinking
  • Be honest-but be sure they know you don't want them using
  • If you use tobacco and your child calls you on this, mention that you are an adult, and yes, you can do this since it's legal - but you understand that you shouldn't and it's not healthy. Underscore how hard it is to stop as an adult and that you want to help your child to avoid making the same mistakes.
  • If you're in recovery, think of your past experiences as a gift you can use to impact your child. Tell your teen, "I did these things but I made wrong choices and I want you to learn the lessons from my mistakes."

Gather Any Evidence

Evidence or no, it's good to talk to your teen about doing drugs and drinking.

You may have found evidence that your teenager is using. But what will happen if your teen says it belongs to someone else? It's good to anticipate all the different ways your teenager might try to deny usage. But in any case, you should bring the subject up.

  • Anticipate the different ways your teen might try to deny it.

  • Even if she says it belongs to someone else-it's a good time to talk about doing drugs and drinking.
  • It's important to bring the topic up, even if you don't have an airtight case.

Expect Denial And Possible Anger

Resolve beforehand to remain calm.

If you think this conversation will be uncomfortable for you, imagine how uncomfortable it will make your teenager. Be prepared for your teen to say things to shock you, to flat-out deny even the most convincing evidence, accuse you of distrust, and more. It's a good idea to think about how you're going to handle these responses

  • The most important thing is to keep the conversation going.

  • Resolve to remain calm, no matter what your teen says.

  • Try not to be baited to respond with anger of your own.

  • If the conversation gets too heated, end it and bring it up later.

  • If you find the discussion is too emotional and heated and not productive, figure out what you need to do for you or your child to calm down. For some people it may be walking away temporarily or putting the conversation on hold; for some it may be counting to ten or deep breathing to calm yourself. Figure out what's going to work best for you and your child before you start the conversation. If you're struggling, talk to a therapist to help you find de-escalation techniques that are effective and work naturally for you.
  • Don't forget to tell your teen that you love them, and this is why you are concerned.

Set An Expected Outcome

Work toward a desirable - and realistic - outcome.

While it's good to open up the conversation with your teen in any capacity, your conversation will probably go more smoothly if you have a desirable outcome in mind. It's a good idea to keep your expectations low - it's probably not realistic to expect your teen to admit to use immediately and pledge to stop. But a more reasonable objective, like simply expressing that you don't want them to use, can be a small triumph.

  • Try not to have unrealistic expectations.

  • Your teen will probably not admit to use.

  • Set a small goal and move toward it.

  • Simply expressing to them that you don't want them using is a good goal.

Spell Out Rules And Consequences

Formulate an idea of what you'd like your rules to be.

It's a good idea to think through the rules you would like to set-and what the consequences of breaking them will be-before you sit down to have a talk with your teenager. That way you'll be able to clearly define what you would like the goal of your conversation to be, and you can set a clear next step. Have an idea of the rules and consequences you'd like to set going in

  • Listen to your teen's feedback and let him help negotiate rules and consequences.
  • Be sure your spouse/partner knows about and is prepared to enforce these rules

  • Don't set rules you will have no way of enforcing.

Recognize The Significance Of Addiction In The Family

Drug and alcohol dependence can happen to anyone. But if there is a history of addiction - cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, etc. - in your family, then your child has a much greater risk of developing an addiction. As a parent you need to be aware of this elevated risk and discuss it with your child regularly, as you would with any disease.

  • Explain to your teen that while he may be tempted to try drugs, the odds are really against him. His genes make him more vulnerable and he could easily develop a dependence or addiction.

  • Don't deny addiction in your family. Use it as a way to talk to your child and regularly remind them of their elevated risk.

Remind Your Teen of Your Support

It's very important that you teen feels supported at all times by their parent (s). Be sure to let your child know that he or she can always count on you and come to you for support. Remind your child that you are always there to offer guidance.

  • Reassure your child that she can confide in or seek advice from you when they are stressed or dealing with a personal issue - this can help diminish your teens desire to use.

  • As angry or frustrated as you feel, try to speak from a place of love, caring and concern - and express these feelings to your teen.
  • Explain to your child that the reason you're talking with her and asking questions is because you love her and care about them and want them to be healthy and successful.

What do You Know About Your Child’s Drug or Alcohol Use?

A big question parents must ask themselves is their feelings on snooping in their child's room. Whatever you decide, be prepared to defend yourself. If you have a reason for concern, say so. And remember, it's your house, and your primary responsibility is to the well–being of your child.

Keep Track

There is much information to keep track of, even if you have definitive proof that your teen is doing drugs. Use checklists to record everything that concerns you during this period–the date, time, where it occurred, what was found, and changes over time. You'll need it, because your child will work hard to convince you that things didn't happen the way you remember, or that the things you found are not what you think they are. In addition, all of this information will be invaluable when you seek outside help for your teen's problem.

Information to Track:

  • When did your teen start using?

  • How did it start?
  • How did they get it?

  • Did it progress to harder drugs?

  • Who are your child's friends?
  • And their parents?

  • Who has your teen been chatting with online or texting?

  • Who is in their cell phone address book?
  • If you cannot look on his/her phone, look at the monthly bill and note numbers that are not familiar to you.

Helpful Things to Note:

  • When your teen comes home late

  • Who your teen is hanging out with

  • The amount of prescription pills you have – best to keep them locked away.

  • The amount of time your teen spends alone in her room and online

  • Anything suspicious found in his room or belongings

  • Drug–related terms or slang in text messages or IMs ("Vitamin R" for Ritalin , or "OCs" for Oxycontin)

Start Your Monitoring

Now is an especially important time to use the rules and consequences you've developed as tools to keep a close eye on your teen, their friends, activities, communications, coming and going, and much more. It's a lot of work – and it's ongoing – but you'll find that it pays big rewards.

Good places to look:

  • Dresser drawers, beneath or between clothes
  • Desk drawers

  • CD/DVD/Tape/Video cases

  • Small boxes – jewelry, pencil, etc.
  • Backpacks/duffel bags
  • Under a bed
  • In a plant, buried in the dirt

  • Between books on a bookshelf

  • In books with pages cut out

  • Makeup cases – inside fake lipstick tubes or compacts

  • Under a loose plank in floor boards

  • In fake soda bottles with false bottoms

  • Inside over–the–counter medicine containers (Tylenol, Advil, etc)
  • Inside empty candy bags such as M&Ms or Skittles

Get Outside Help and Support

"Outside help" is not rehab.

Don't be put off by the term "get help." Outside help includes school counselors, your family doctor, therapists who specialize working with teens and substance abuse and even your child's sports team coach. All of them can be great resources and sources of support for you and your teen during this time. There are many actions and approaches you can take that have nothing to do with rehab.

You don't have to do this alone.

Telling others about teenager's drug use can be scary. You may feel guilty or ashamed, fear you're going to embarrass your child or believe that you can "deal with it" on your own. But you can't handle this problem by yourself — and you shouldn't have to. It's important to get outside help.

Here are important tips to keep in mind when you seek outside help.

Find out the Extent of the Problem. Why does my child need help?
Who can help my teen?
Getting Help for the Rest of the Family.

Your child's drug use can be an act of teenage rebellion, a sign of full–fledged addiction, or anything in between. What you need help with first is identifying the actual problem. Professionals can use these methods help you pinpoint the issue you're dealing with. These methods will also help you decide the best course of action for your child:

Drug and Alcohol Assessment

This is a phone interview or face–to–face meeting between the user and a Therapist who Specializes in Addiction.

Evaluation or Screening

This is an extensive assessment in which your teen spends several sessions with the specialist.

Drug Test

Home drug tests can be unreliable. Also be aware that teens find all sorts of ways to beat these home tests therefore having your therapist perform a drug test can be a helpful tool.

Whether your child is addicted to drugs, uses them infrequently, or was just "experimenting" one time with friends, a problem exists. It is far more dangerous for an adolescent to use drugs or alcohol than an adult — because his brain and body are still growing, drinking or using can take a permanent, irreversible toll on a kid. And because their brains are not fully – developed, teens do not always make the best decisions; when you add alcohol or drugs to the mix, the consequences can be deadly. That's why you need to step in now and make sure that your child speaks and listens to all the various people who can help him quit using.

Kids — especially teenagers — often think of their parents as "overbearing" or "nagging." If your child hears the same information you're trying to give him from someone of authority, he may be more inclined to listen.


Many kids who use drugs have other problems in their lives. Some are stressed about school. Some feel very alone or have been deeply affected by family issues, such as divorce. And more than half of adolescent drug abusers also suffer from a (usually undiagnosed) psychological disorder, like depression, anxiety or bi–polar disorder. A therapist can help your child pinpoint and discuss the underlying issues behind his/her drug or alcohol use.

If your child's alcohol and/or drug use has started causing serious and recurring problems, their therapist will talk to your family and help you to consider looking into intensive treatment programs. Both in– and outpatient programs provide the stability, education, discipline, and counseling adolescents need to get better. Your child’s therapist should be able to provide you with a wide range of options for you to discuss. However, be aware that if your teen does not want to stop using drugs and or alcohol, treatment can be an expensive and often disappointing experience. Studies have indicated that relapse is very high in teens, with many teens returning to use within a month of leaving treatment. This does not mean it should not be considered.

Getting Help for You and Your Spouse/Partner

In order to help your child tackle her drug problem, you (and your partner) must be healthy and in a clear state of mind. However, many parents lose the ability to think and act rationally when they have a child in danger. Some parents become so obsessed with their child and her problem that they neglect the other important aspects of their own lives: their jobs, physical health, and other kids. It is therefore as vital that you seek help for your own emotional well-being as it is for your drug-using child.

Support Groups such as Al-Anon offer support to families.

Drug addiction affects more people than just the addict. Even if your non–drug–using children seem okay, chances are they're harboring some resentment towards their sibling and you for his destructive behavior or all the attention he's receiving, or may live in fear of the drug user's unknown future. These negative feelings are detrimental to both the user and the other family members. By getting help to make sure that your other children are emotionally stable and fully comprehend their brother or sister's situation, you're aiding in everyone's recovery and healing process. It also helps the non–using sibling to have his feelings of resentment and anger validated. They have a right to be angry, frustrated and hurt about the situation.

I'm too embarrassed to tell others about my child's drug use because of the stigma

It is unfortunate and understandable that you may feel a little embarrassed by telling others of your child's drug use, but the reality is that you must put your child's health first.

Substance use and abuse does not have the same negative stigma it once did. If you treat your child's drug or alcohol problem like a health issue and not a behavioral one, most others will follow suit. There will always be people who believe drug users are "bad people," but it's not up to you to worry about their views. It is up to you to keep your child healthy and out of harm's way.

Remember: As a parent, you are your child's biggest advocate! If you are too embarrassed to talk about his drug problem and get him help, no one else is going to do it. You are the person who can make a world of difference in this situation.

If you would like more information please contact Thom Kessler, LMFT, RAS. I am Licensed Psychotherapist and Registered Addiction Specialist



Thom Kessler, LMFT, RAS