By Howard Reznick, LCSW-C
Many parents have a generalized worry that their adolescent may start drinking or using drugs. But how can you tell if your teenager really is using these substances? This is a challenge. Several adjustment and hormonal changes in adolescence mimic the changes that are on any “check list” for drug abuse. There’s a video with a comic take on this subject, showing Mom holding back a drug sniffing dog on a leash in the hallway leading to the family’s bedrooms. Another video has Mom hugging and “patting down” her kids as they come down the stairs in their house. Short of random, supervised drug tests over time (urine or blood), or catching a kid in the act, it’s pretty hard to tell for sure if a child is using drugs or alcohol. Hair sample testing is expensive, but can offer a reading of prior use.
The key is knowing our children well. It is vital to remember that there are sides of our adolescent children that are hidden from us. This is especially so as they begin to discover for themselves who they are and who they want to become. These are confusing times for parents, and more so for teens. What can parents do?
- Notice the changes your adolescents are going through.
- Remain curious, loving and supportive of them as they are in the process of changing.
- When the changes are abrupt, severe and highly emotional, seek more closeness with them, even though they may behave in ways that make it hard for you to do so. Our kids need privacy to explore these developmental tasks. However, secrecy can get them in trouble.
- If you notice intoxication, fogged and poor eye contact, lying, cheating, stealing, or not following through on promises made to themselves or others, there is cause for concern and you need to act.
When hidden alcohol or other drug use first becomes revealed to parents, we need to address it with both concern and caring. Some may wish to dismiss it as just “something that kids will do” or as an “experiment,” while others will fly into a rage. Probably the golden path lies in the middle. Parents first need to clarify with each other their values about their own use of alcohol and drugs, and about underage drinking and use of non-prescribed drugs by the children and teens in their house. The next step is to clarify these values with the kids. Parents should present appropriate healthy consequences to their children, who should be held accountable for their choices and behaviors.
If this issue comes up a second time, discussion and consequences are in order. Although you may be tempted to react immediately, it’s a good idea to wait until the next day when the child is not intoxicated. You can then use a conversation starter that states the facts about what you saw or heard. For example:
“Last night when you came home, you went straight to bed without saying hello. Later I heard you getting sick in the bathroom. When I asked if you were OK you got angry at me.”
“When I went to look for the sweater you borrowed from me in your room today, I came across…”
You can also seek the feedback of other people who are close to your child — teachers, coaches, your friends and theirs — telling them that you are concerned and want to know what they have noticed. Remember that there is a part of each child that, like the dark side of the moon, we can’t readily see, but others can see and can provide important information to round out a more complete picture.
It is up to you as the parent to follow through with the consequences you and your teen have previously discussed. But when your child’s response doesn’t adequately explain the situation, or there is a pattern over time, a reasonable next step is to contact a professional to help decide how to proceed.
Honest, loving and firm confrontation about a child’s use of substances is never fun, but it can be very helpful to him or her over the long haul. Our job as parents is to keep our children safe by encouraging them to make healthy decisions and having them take ownership of the good or bad consequences of their choices, as they continue to evolve and mature.
By Howard Reznick, LCSW-C, Senior Manager, Prevention Education, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
Questions about parenting? Send an email to email@example.com. To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles, visit www.jcsbaltimore.org or call 410-466-9200. Jewish Community Services is an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.