A Parent’s Guide to Prevention (Part 6): What To Do If You Think Your Child Might Be Using Drugs

A Parent’s Guide to Prevention (Part 6): What To Do If You Think Your Child Might Be Using Drugs

Warning Signs – Since mood swings and unpredictable behavior are frequent occurrences for preteens and teenagers, parents may find it difficult to spot signs of alcohol and drug abuse. But if your child starts to exhibit one or more of these signs (which apply equally to sons and daughters), drug abuse may be at the heart of the problem:

  • She’s withdrawn, depressed, tired, and careless about personal grooming.
  • He’s hostile and uncooperative; he frequently breaks curfews.
  • Her relationships with family members have deteriorated.
  • He’s hanging around with a new group of friends.
  • Her grades have slipped, and her school attendance is irregular.
  • He’s lost interest in hobbies, sports, and other favorite activities.
  • Her eating or sleeping patterns have changed; she’s up at night and sleeps during the day.
  • He has a hard time concentrating.
  • Her eyes are red-rimmed and/or her nose is runny in the absence of a cold.
  • Household money has been disappearing.

The presence of pipes, rolling papers, small medicine bottles, eye drops, or butane lighters in your home signal that your child may be using drugs. Other clues include homemade pipes and bongs (pipes that use water as a filter) made from soda cans or plastic beverage containers. If any of these indicators show up, parents should start discussing what steps to take so they can present a united front. They may also want to seek other family members’ impressions.

Acting On Your Suspicions

If you suspect that your child is using drugs, you should voice your suspicions openly — avoiding direct accusations — when he or she is sober or straight and you’re calm.

This may mean waiting until the next day if he comes home drunk from a party, or if her room reeks of marijuana. Ask about what’s been going on — in school and out — and discuss how to avoid using drugs and alcohol in the future. If you encounter reluctance to talk, enlist the aid of your child’s school guidance counselor, family physician, or a local drug treatment referral and assessment center — they may get a better response. Also explore what could be going on in your child’s emotional or social life that might prompt drug use.

Taking the time to discuss the problem openly without turning away is an important first step on the road to recovery. It shows that your child’s well-being is crucial to you and that you still love him, although you hate what he’s doing to himself. But you should also show your love by being firm and enforcing whatever discipline your family has agreed upon for violating house rules. You should go over ways to regain the family’s trust such as calling in, spending evenings at home, and improving grades.

Even in the face of mounting evidence, parents often have a hard time acknowledging that their child has an alcohol, tobacco, or drug problem. Anger, resentment, guilt, and a sense of failure are all common reactions, but it is important to avoid self-blame. Drug abuse occurs in families of all economic and social backgrounds, in happy and unhappy homes alike. Most important is that the faster you act, the sooner your child can start to become well again.


No one who begins to use drugs thinks he or she will become addicted. Addiction is a disease characterized by compulsive drug-seeking behavior regardless of the consequences. Research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse clearly shows that virtually all drugs that are abused have a profound effect on the brain. Prolonged use of many drugs including cocaine, heroin, marijuana and amphetamines can change the brain in fundamental and long-lasting ways, resulting in drug craving and addiction.

If and when a drug abuser becomes addicted depends on the individual. Research shows that children who use alcohol and tobacco are more likely to use marijuana than children who do not use these substances. Children who use marijuana are more likely to use other addictive drugs. Certain genetic, social, and environmental risk factors make it more likely that certain individuals will become addicted to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. These include:

  • children of alcoholics who, according to several studies, may have inherited genes that make them more prone to addiction, and who may have had more stressful upbringings;
  • sensation-seekers who may like the novelty of feeling drunk or high;
  • children with psychological problems, such as conduct disorders, who self-medicate to feel better;
  • children with learning disabilities, and others who find it difficult to fit in or become frustrated learning;
  • children of poverty who lack access to opportunities to succeed and to resources when they’re in trouble.

The more risk factors children have, the greater their vulnerability. And everyone has a different ability to tolerate drugs and alcohol — what if your child’s tolerance is very low?

Regardless of how “cool” drugs may look, there is nothing glamorous about the reality of addiction, a miserable experience for the addict and everyone around him. Addiction causes an all-consuming craving for drugs, leading an otherwise responsible, caring person to destroy relationships, work, and family life.

Finding the Right Treatment

Certified drug and alcohol counselors work with families to find the program best suited to a child’s needs. To find a good certified counselor you can consult your child’s doctor, other parents whose children have been treated for drug abuse, the local hospital, a school social worker, the school district’s substance abuse coordinator, or the county mental health society. If you are located in the Bay Area, the Adolescent Substance Abuse Treatment Program at Adolescent Counseling Services may also be an option. Feel free to visit our website or call (650) 424-0852 for more information.

You can also call the U. S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (800) 662-HELP for referrals. Counselors will discuss treatment options such as individual or group out-patient programs, prescription medication, and residential programs. Counselors may also have information on whether a particular treatment center will accept third-party, partial or no payment for services. (Some residential centers reserve a number of government-financed beds for patients who are unable to afford treatment.) Counselors may also be able to suggest support groups that can steer families to sources of funding such as local church programs.

Addiction is a Treatable Disease

The success of any treatment approach depends on a variety of factors such as the child’s temperament and willingness to change, and the extent and frequency of use. Drug addiction is now understood to be a chronic, relapsing disease. It is not surprising, then, that parents may have to make a number of attempts at intervention before their child can remain drug-free, and they should not despair if their first try does not produce long-lasting results. Even if it is not apparent at the time, each step brings the child closer to being healthy.

Resource: “Growing Up Drug-Free: A Parent’s Guide to Prevention,” released by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, an extention of the U.S Department of Education.