My Teen Is on Drugs. What Can I Do?

Boundaries with Teens

By Dr. John Townsend

It's every parent's nightmare: having a teen on drugs. This is not life as God designed it. Substance abuse causes the breakdown of all that is good. Enslavement replaces freedom. Detachment replaces love. Chaos replaces order. Despair replaces hope.

Many young people abuse alcohol and drugs, and this problem is not likely to go away anytime soon. I can't overstate the danger of substance abuse. It can, and often does, lead to poverty, injury, disease, and death.

But despite the seriousness of this problem, parents of teens with this issue need to understand that the greatest single force to help a teen resolve a substance problem is an involved parent. What follows are some guidelines for the process.

Defining the Problem

Unfortunately, the teen years are a perfect fit, in a sick way, for substance abuse problems. By nature, adolescents challenge the authority and values of parents and are highly susceptible to peer approval.

They are interested in feelings and experiences, often to the neglect of good judgment, yet they can quickly become disconnected and can feel isolation deeply. Teens get easily bruised, discouraged, and hurt, and they gravitate toward quick ways to medicate the pain. No wonder the issue has become so far-reaching, particularly now that drugs are so accessible.

And they are accessible. Your teen likely knows how to get drugs if he wants them. He knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone. Be wise. Keep your head out of the sand and assume your teen has access.

If you accept this reality, it can assist you in helping your teen stay away from alcohol and drugs or in helping him recover from them.

Handling the Problem

You can't control whether your teen has access to drugs and alcohol, but you can support him and help him develop the internal restraints and strength he needs to resist using substances. Here are some ways to do just that.

Establish a Zero Tolerance Policy

Be clear with your teen that substances are not acceptable and that you will not tolerate them. Your adolescent may be hearing muddy messages from lots of other sources, including friends and some of their parents. This is a black-and-white issue, not a gray one, so be direct about your stance on alcohol and drugs. 

Not only should you be forthright about your stance, but also about the consequences. Let your adolescent know ahead of time that if she uses drugs or alcohol, she will lose many valued privileges and freedoms. Not only that, but if your teen continues to use, she will have to live somewhere else, because you have a value that substance abuse will not be tolerated in your home.

I know parents who have sent their teens to a different high school to get away from drug-using friends. I know some who have sent their kids to boarding schools. Others have sent their kids to residential treatment centers. And still others have done everything they could until the teen reached majority age, and then they made her move out of the house. Many times, this was absolutely the right move to make. Such consequences may sound harsh, but only to those who are not experienced in the power and severity of drug problems. Substances are stronger than many people think, and their hold gets worse over time.

Come down hard at the first offense. If it is your teen's first offense, resist the impulse to say, "Oh well, first time, just don't do it again." You will have only one first offense to deal with, and it is an opportunity to let your teen know that drugs and alcohol are not a casual deal. Otherwise, your teen may think it's acceptable for him to use now and then. Here are five suggestions for consequences:

  1. Grounding. Grounding is a natural consequence, as your teen has shown that she can't resist temptation with her friends, so she can't have social contact with them for a significant period of time.
  2. Supervised social contact. Allow your teen to go to social outings, including movies and parties, but only with an approved parent present. If he does not use substances during this period, he can then have more social freedom.
  3. Drug testing. Home drug tests are now readily available. You can tell your teen that for the next few months you will be testing her randomly. A side benefit is that this also gives your teen an excuse not to use with friends. She can say, "I can't smoke pot. My parents do random testing."
  4. Legal education. Some counties offer training for families in which they take teens through the court system as if they were going to jail, so that they can experience what the system would be like were they to be arrested and tried on a drug charge.
  5. Service. Have your teen help out at the local rescue mission or church, doing errands, stocking the warehouse, or cleaning up. Learning the value of service often helps adolescents become open to the needs of others and can help break the self-absorption of substance use.

Live in the Light

Our natural inclination as parents is to give our kids the information on the dangers of drugs and then hope they make good choices. But this is not enough. While your teen needs the information, she also needs you. She is not likely to say, "Would you ask me if I'm on drugs or not?" So be the parent and ask. Teens often hope on some level that their parents will ask, because they are scared and want to talk, but they are not about to ask a parent. Take the initiative to bring out drug matters into the light of relationship.

Listen when your teen talks. Try to get to the heart of what she understands, experiences, does, and feels. If you can't be shocked, you will be more likely to get more information. Your teen needs your viewpoint, but she also needs your ears.

Sometimes parents avoid talking about alcohol and drugs beyond the basic "don't do it" lecture. They think they might convey approval to the teen if they act interested in what is going on with friends and at school. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your teen is living in a drug-influenced world, whether or not she is using them. Don't leave her alone in that world. Enter it, be curious about it, and get to know it. Find out what kids are using and where, which parents are lax about substances, and where the parties are. Your involvement doesn't mean that you approve of drugs. It simply means you love your kid enough to get into her world.

Of course, being connected means more than talking about drugs. It involves being in an ongoing relationship with your teen about all aspects of her life. The more you connect on all levels, the more likely your teen will talk with you about any substance problem.

Know Your Teen

The better you know your adolescent, the better you will know how to respond to substance problems. Get to know what vulnerabilities are particular to your teen that drugs and alcohol might exploit, and get your teen the support, assistance, and structure he needs so that he is not so susceptible. Here are some common vulnerabilities and ways you can deal with them:

  1. She challenges your parenting and values. Find ways to have her safely question you that don't involve substances. Give her room and space to not be your clone.
  2. He surrenders judgment to feelings and experiences. Spend time talking with him about that. Validate his need for experience, but help him develop the ability to make sound decisions, to think about the effects of his actions, and to postpone gratification for a greater good.
  3. She is easily influenced by the approval of peers. Strengthen her individuality and character. Help her to say no to others, including you. Find healthy peers who will support her in this effort.
  4. He is vulnerable to others. Have him make you the bad guy until he is stronger. For example, your teen may not be able to say, "No, I don't do drugs," but he can say, "My parents are really strict, and they would come down so hard on me if I did that." Not only is this statement true, but it gives your kid an out until he is firmer in his own values.
  5. She disconnects and isolates quickly. Take initiative and draw her out. Be a bridge between your teen and her feelings, between herself and the world. Help her reconnect so that she doesn't need substances to feel alive.
  6. He is easily hurt and is vulnerable to attempts to cover up his pain. Comfort and support your teen so that he can connect his hurt feelings to you so that they are less intense. At the same time, help him learn to confront and be honest with others so that he is stronger inside and less vulnerable.

More than ever before, your teen needs you to know who he is. Find out what he needs, what hurts him, and what matters to him. He may resist you, but part of him wants his parent to break through at some level so that he is not alone with himself.

Remember the Druggies

In all likelihood, you were around drugs or at least had friends who were druggies when you were a teenager. Remember what potential they had? Some were smart, funny, creative, and gifted. Now think about where many of those people are today. Is that what you want for your teen's future? If your child's present is substance-influenced, it can easily become a substance-dominated future.

Seek Help

If your teen is using alcohol or drugs, seek help. This complex problem requires much expertise, skill, and training. Fortunately, there are good counselors and teen workers who are well trained in substance problems. A good adolescent therapist can evaluate the severity of the problem and determine what structures will help the teen, ranging from counseling to an intensive detox and rehab program.

If your teen's drug and alcohol usage has moved beyond experimentation and become a regular part of her life, she now has a dependency. She now uses substances compulsively, no matter how negative the life consequences have become. She cannot stop on her own and will need outside support and expertise.

Watch Out for Other Types of Dependency

Dependencies are not limited to drugs and alcohol. A teen can become a sex addict, for example, from viewing pornographic websites, and be trapped in compulsive behaviors that keep him returning to the sexual images.

These teens feel intense shame, guilt, and helplessness about their porn addictions. Youth pastors and counselors can do much to help kids deal with this issue.

In addition, some teens also have food dependencies known as eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and obesity. In such instances, eating habits and food intake become the focus of life, sometimes to the point of being life-threatening. Teens with these dependencies can make good progress in resolving them when they receive competent help.

You Can Do It!

Be proactive, informed, and involved. The sooner you deal with your teen's abuse of alcohol, drugs, sex, or food, the more likely your teen will get back on the road to a healthy life. Your involvement can save your child's life.


Read more about how to handle hot button topics effectively with a teen son or daughter in Boundaries with Teens.

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