Teens and Drugs. What Parents Can Do – The Signs. The Conversation. The Response.

Teens and Drugs. What Parents Can Do - The Signs. The Conversation. The Response.

Drug use can happen in any family, to great kids with great parents. To think that it ‘won’t happen to us’ is spectacularly ignorant, and incredibly dangerous. The happiest, strongest, most connected and loving families can find themselves one day having to deal with teenage drug use.

If your teen is using drugs, you need to know that this is not a reflection on your parenting or your teen. The same brain that can lead to experimentation with drugs is likely to be creative, curious, intelligent, and beautifully open to the possibilities that exist outside the box. The world will always need these types of people. They are our innovators, our explorers, and our entrepreneurs. They are our inventors, our creators, and our discoverers.

As with anything though, the difference between flourishing and falling can come down to one moment, or one bad decision. Falling is part of growing up. It’s how our children learn and find what they are capable of. Sometimes the falls can be frightening, but awareness is key – awareness of the signs that a fall is happening, has happened, or is about to happen, and awareness of how to break it.

But first – about this post.

So – this post is a bit of a lengthy one, but it has been organised to make it easy to jump to the parts that are relevant for you. The information is something that all parents should be aware of. Whether or not you have a teen who is using, it is very likely that your child will be directly or indirectly exposed to drugs at some point throughout their adolescence. There are a few ways this could happen. They could be offered by a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger, they might experiment themselves, know someone who is experimenting, or become aware of  drug use happening in their immediate or not so immediate circles.

When it comes to drugs, parents and children become giant slayers. The best armour is the right information. This post contains the information you need to be a step ahead.

Why ALL teens are vulnerable to addiction.

Teens are particularly vulnerable to addiction for a few reasons. The first is that their brains are wired to encourage risk-taking, courage, discovery, exploration, and a greater reach into the world. Some teens will be more wired towards this than others, but the potential will be there in all of them. This is a great thing and it’s what they are meant to do, but it’s easy to see how those same strengths can land them in trouble.

The second reason all teens are vulnerable is because their brains are at a critical point of development. Think of it like a bridge that is in the middle of construction. If that bridge is exposed to traffic before it is completed, it will break, sometimes irreparably. If that same bridge is exposed to traffic when it is completed, it will withstand most of the stresses and strains that it’s exposed to. Teen brains are in the process of forming billions of new connections – bridges – between brain cells and between parts of the brain. If these are stressed at critical times, the damage can be devastating and will make it more difficult for a healthy adult brain to form. The critical period will last until they are about 24 years old.

All teens have brains that are wired to encourage them to take risks, to be curious and brave, and to stretch beyond what is familiar. This is a hugely important part of them growing up to be healthy, strong adults. If they didn’t do this, they would be adult bodies with the capabilities, resilience and skills of 12-year-olds.

Teens are also wired to focus more on the potential positives of a situation and less on the negatives. This is normal, and in the right situations, will support their courage and flourishing and expansion into the world as they make their way to adulthood. It is through taking risks that they learn new capabilities and new strengths, but of course, the line between healthy exploration and risky behaviour can be fine enough to fit through the eye of a need no trouble at all.

How many adolescents are using drugs?

Know that if you have discovered your teen is using drugs, you are NOT alone. According to the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over 9% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 were currently using illicit drugs. This jumps up to 22% for 18 to 25-year-olds.

Drugs and the teenage brain. What all teens need to know.

Addiction happens over time. In the history of humans, there would not be a single one who started using drugs expecting that it would become an addiction. In fact, the more that addiction sets in, the more a person will protect themselves from that realisation with a hefty dose of denial. To accept that they are addicted will make it difficult for them to continue doing what feels so good. Their brains will work harder to convince them that they can give it up at any time. Brains are clever and cunning like that. One of the best ways to empower and protect your teen is to give them the information they need.

Here is what your teen needs to know. It’s never to early to start to talking to your child about this:

Addiction is something that happens in the brain. It’s not about character or personality or the type of person you are. It can happen to anyone. The brain mechanism underlying addiction is in all of us. Some people will be more vulnerable to addiction than others, but we are all vulnerable. Here’s how experimenting can slide into addiction before you know it:

♦  When we do something that feels good – exercise, shopping, eating, falling in love, taking a risk that works out, achieving a challenge, sex, use drugs or alcohol – the reward centres of the brain (the part that lets you feel pleasure) are activated and dopamine is released in the brain. 

♦  Dopamine is one of the chemicals that we all have in our brain and it’s the reason for the feel-good rush we get when we get or something we want. The role of dopamine is complicated and it isn’t just about causing us to feel pleasure. Dopamine is the switch for ‘wanting’ more. It’s the ‘I’ve got to have it’ chemical in the brain and it’s there to ensure our survival by driving us to do more of the things that are good for us. But – like so many things that are meant to work for us, sometimes things don’t go to plan.

♦  Whether or not something becomes addictive depends on the speed at which it causes dopamine to be released, the intensity of that release, and how reliably that release happens in response to a particular activity or substance.

♦  Drugs work more heavily on the pleasure centres of the brain than other feel-good things do. They trigger a more intense, quicker, and more reliable feeling of pleasure. Addictive drugs can release two to ten times the amount of dopamine that natural rewards, like food or being with friends do. Because of this, over time, the drug become more sought after and more important than other things that used to feel good. 

♦  Usually, people have to work hard for a reward. The feel-good only comes with time and effort that is directed towards obtaining the reward. Drugs shortcut this. Drugs flood the brain with dopamine and other neurochemicals, but without the effort.

♦  The feel-good rush is intense and it’s fast.

♦  The brain struggles to deal with surge and becomes overwhelmed.

♦  It responds by producing less dopamine, or by getting rid of dopamine receptors. Think of it like turning down the volume when a stereo is blasting.

♦  With less dopamine, there is less capacity to influence the brain’s reward centre. The lows still feel as low, but the highs don’t come as easily. The person develops a tolerance to the ‘high’ but they don’t develop a tolerance to the ‘low’ that comes as the effects of the drugs wear off. 

♦  When the effects of the drug start to wear off, such a when a high starts to fade or when the person stops using the drug for a while, the person goes into withdrawal . Withdrawal feels awful. It comes with anxiety, agitation, a general uneasiness, and emotions that can change around quickly. When this happens, people are driven to seek the ‘high’ they remember and crave, but what they actually experience is a deeper and deeper low. The need for the drug becomes even more desperate, to stop the emotional and physiological symptoms of withdrawal.

♦  To relieve the lows and to get the high they are craving, people have to take more of the drug to get the dopamine high they are seeking.

Wait. But marijuana isn’t addictive, right?

Just to clear something up. Marijuana is one of the most commonly used illicit substances and there is hot debate over whether or not it is addictive. According to the Harvard Medical School, researchers are now realising that many regular marijuana experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using marijuana, such as craving, reduced appetite, sleep problems, weight loss, and sometimes anger, aggression, irritability and restlessness. Because of this, they fit the criteria for addiction.

Whether or not a substance is addictive is irrelevant. A substance or activity doesn’t have to be ‘addictive’ to cause breakage in people’s lives. Extensive research has left no doubt that regular marijuana use can damage an adolescent brain. As well as the known behavioural, psychological, physical and lifestyle changes that come with regular drug use or addiction, regular weekly use of marijuana has been found to contribute to cognitive decline, poor attention and memory, diminished IQ and symptoms of depression and anxiety, and risk for schizophrenia and psychosis. Other than that, fine.

‘It needs to be emphasised that regular cannabis use, which we consider once a week, is not safe and may result in addiction and neurocognitive damage, especially in youth.’ Dr Krista Lisdahl, a director of the brain imaging and neuropsychology lab at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Think about it this way. Social media isn’t addictive. Food isn’t addictive. Video games aren’t addictive. Relationships aren’t addictive. But people can and do become addicted. Now that we can see inside the brain, we know that all sorts of substances and activities can change the circuitry of the brain and become addictive.

There are so many factors involved in the flourishing of an addiction. People don’t get addicted to the substance or the activity, they get addicted to the feeling they have when they use it. Anything that adds to that feeling will increase the chances of a substance becoming addictive. The Harvard Medical School notes that the social and environmental context in which someone uses a drug will have an influence on the way someone experiences the drug. Different settings will cause different hormones or neurochemicals to be released in the brain, changing a person’s physiology depending on where they are and who they are with. The release of hormones or neurochemicals that make an experience more pleasurable, will add to the potential of that substance or activity becoming an addictive one.

Drugs are highly addictive, and more likely to cause addiction because they have direct access to the reward centres of the brain and can very quickly cause changes that lead to addiction.

Teens and Drugs. Know the Signs.

If you suspect your teen might be using drugs, it’s important to respond straight away. Occasional use or experimenting can quickly spiral into drug abuse or addiction. Your intuition is powerful and if your gut is telling you that something isn’t right, then something probably isn’t.

Here are some of the signs to watch out for. Many of these will just be a normal part of being a teenager and each of them separately can be explained by something other than drugs. They might also be a sign of a bigger problem. The main things to be wary of are changes from what you have come to know as normal for your teen, or when you see more of these signs starting to emerge.

Change in relationships.
  • change in friendships (it’s normal for teens to want to spend much more time with their friends, but watch out for a change in the friends they are hanging out with and the time they spend with them.)
  • change in the way they relate to you or other people in the family;
  • more silent and reluctant to communicate with you.
  • change in study habits or grades;
  • problems with school attendance (consistently late or away);
  • loss of interest in hobbies, sports, friends or other activities;
  • decreased motivation (failure to meet responsibilities, showing up late to school or work etc);
  • less money or more money than usual (this could be a sign that your teen might be dealing or spending money on drugs);
  •  increased time away from home.
  • quick to flare, fluctuations in mood;
  • depressive, moody, withdrawn;
  • hostile, angry, aggressive;
  • elation that seems unusual or without reason;
  • increased sensitivity to stress.
  • lying, deception, secretive behaviour;
  • more withdrawal into room and locking door;
  • less inhibited than usual;
  • uncharacteristically loud or obnoxious;
  • laughing at nothing in particular, or at things that wouldn’t ordinarily be funny;
  • clumsy, stumbling, falling over, uncoordinated;
  • tired and lethargic (teens tend to be tired anyway because their bodies don’t release melatonin, the ‘go to sleep’ hormone, until much later than in adults, but because teens need also to be early up for school, they often fall short of the required 9 hours. If your teen is unusually exhausted, it could be from drug use and the hangover effects of this.)
  • slurred speech or pressured speech;
  • poor focus;
  • hyperactive;
  • periods of sleeplessness, followed by long catch up sleeps.
  • poor hygiene (with themselves and their space);
  • clenching teeth (meth and ecstasy both involve involuntary teeth clenching);
  •  ‘munchies’ or sudden increase in appetite;
  • change in personal appearance (messy and more careless with their appearance than usual);
  • sudden weight change (amphetamines and prescription stimulants cause suppression of appetite which can lead to weight loss);
  • red, flushed cheeks or face which is out of the ordinary for them;
  • dark brown circles under their eyes;
  • red eyes.
  • runny nose (not because of allergies or illness);
  • wetting lips or excessively thirsty (this is known as ‘cotton mouth’ and could be a sign that they may be taking marijuana or Ecstasy);
  • sore spots around the mouth (cold sores are very common with teens and nothing at all to worry about, but sores around the mouth that are different to usual could be a sign of marijuana use);
  • sores on body or face (picking at skin is a side effect of meth);
  • bruises, scratches or injuries that your teen can’t or won’t explain (may be a sign that your teen had an accident while under the influence and can’t remember what happened or doesn’t want to explain);
  • frequent nose bleeds (could be a sign that they are snorting drugs).

The chilling advice from recovering addicts that can save your teen.

Don’t vilify them.

It is understandable that you might want to take a tough love approach, but the potential for this to drive your teen further into a drug culture is enormous. I have asked addicts the question, ‘What did your parents do that made it worse?’ The typical response to this is something along the lines of, ‘they made me feel like I was a criminal’. The more you criticise or judge your teen, the more they will move away from you and towards the people who really understand them – their drug buddies. Once that crowd gets a grip on your teen, they won’t let go without a fight.

It always starts out as a one-off.

It always starts out as a one-off. One moment. One decision. One inhale. One drag. One pill. One go. Nobody starts out intending for it to be the beginning of something bigger. And nobody expects to lose control.

Your child’s dealer. And yes – if your child is a regular user, he or she will have a dealer.

If your teen is a regular user, he or she is an important money maker for someone. If they are an occasional user, they represent great potential to that someone. Your teen will be getting his or her supply from someone – a dealer – and it is in the interests of that dealer to make sure your teen keeps coming back for more. It is not uncommon for dealers to have something on offer for your teen to ‘have a try – for free’. Whatever it is, it will be a step up from your teen’s current drug of choice and something that will make sure they keep coming back for more. If you suspect your teen is using regularly, name the possibility that the dealer might entice them to try something harder. Your teen needs to know you’re onto this. It will also put them on notice, so they will be (hopefully) aware of the intention behind the ‘generosity’ when a dealer offers them a rush for free.

They never wanted to disappoint you.

They never intended for you to find out, not to be deceptive, but because they never wanted to disappoint you. Let them know that you believe in them and that you understand how easily this can happen. They need to know you’re on their side. They need to know that they are safe with you and that you won’t make things messier if they let you in.

They have a good reason to lie, and they will. Make it safe to tell the truth.

It’s likely that your teen will lie about what they are using, how much, or how long they’ve been using it. Initially, there will be more reasons for them to lie than there will be for them to tell the truth. They’ve found something that feels good and they don’t want you to take it away – but you need to know what you’re dealing with. For them to give up the information you need, they need to trust that you can deal with it. If your teen feels judged or criticised by you, there is no way they will open up to you and every chance they’ll move deeper into the drug culture. Let them know that there is nothing they can say or do that will get them into trouble. This is about responding to the situation and guiding them, not punishing them for it.

The powerful matrix – it’s never just about the drugs.

There is a complicated matrix that comes with drug use. The experience is never just about the drug. Use of a drug often comes with a whole sub-culture of its own – new relationships, new feelings of pleasure and power, relief from uncomfortable feelings or pain. Every addict I have ever spoken to has said that it would be so much easier to give up the drug if they didn’t have to give up everything that went with it – the lifestyle, the relationships, the belonging, the pleasure, the power, the freedom from emotional pain.

I suspect my teen is using. What now?

1.  Don’t take it personally.

Drug use can happen in any family. No family is immune and it is ignorant and arrogant to think otherwise. The most loving, connected, healthiest families can find themselves in this situation. It will be tempting to take things personally – it’s one of the very normal side-effects of parenting, but don’t. You don’t deserve it and there’s nothing useful in shame for you anyway.

2.  Prepare for the conversation.

‘The conversation’ will actually be a series of conversations, but every time you talk you will be making a difference. Some of these conversations will go as planned and some will spin wildly out of control. That’s to be expected. What you’re doing is hard. Keep moving forward and don’t be discouraged if things don’t always go as you imagined they would. Have an idea of what you would like to achieve from your conversation, but keep it realistic. The first conversation is about letting your teen know that you’re alive to what’s happening. This is the opportunity to let them know that it’s safe enough to let you in and to tell you what you need to know.

3.  Pick your moment.

There is no point having the conversation when your child is under the influence. The part of his or her brain that will be receptive to the information and able to engage with you on that level will have been sent temporarily offline. It will just be frustrating for both of you, with huge potential for things to get heated. Similarly, if you are angry wait until you’re calm. When you’re angry your capacity to think and respond clearly diminishes significantly. Your brain will be running on impulse and instinct, overwhelming the part that is able to bring clarity and sensibility to the table.

4.  Predict their response.

•  If they tell you they aren’t using.

Have your evidence ready. This doesn’t have to be anything concrete – it can be any changes or unusual behaviour you’ve noticed  in them. Ask them to talk to you about it – not to squeeze them on it but because you want to understand what’s happening. Let them know that nothing they say can get them into trouble as long as they tell the truth.

•  If they tell you it’s none of your business.

Drug use affects everyone who knows or loves the user. As the adult who loves them, this will affect you whether they like it or not. Drug use never affects one person, but only one person has the power to stop it doing damage. As long as they are using, you will be living with the fear and the unknowns of what it is doing to them. The decisions they are making won’t just affect their lives, but the lives connected to them. It’s just the way it is. You wish it wasn’t, but it is.

•  ‘What! You went through my stuff?’

They have a right to their privacy, and you have a right to the truth. When it comes to possible drug use, truth will always trump privacy because of the safety concerns that come with it. Let them know that moving forward, you will respect their privacy as long as you can feel sure that they are telling the truth, and giving you the information you need to keep them safe.

•  ‘You can’t control me.’

That’s right. You can’t control them, nor do you want to. This is about keeping them safe. Acknowledge that they are responsible for their own decisions, but for now, they need to show you that they are able to make decisions that won’t break them. Acknowledge and respect their need for freedom, but in return they need to acknowledge your need to know they are handling that freedom safely and responsibly.

When they say it’s not a problem …

It’s very likely that your teen will tell you that there is no problem, that they aren’t addicted, that they’ve only tried it once or twice, or that they could stop whenever they want to. This is completely understandable – at this stage, denial will meet more of their needs than an admission. Acknowledge that it might not be a problem, but that you just want to explore things with them. Let them know that you want to ask them a few questions, and that a ‘yes’ to any of them might suggest that the problem is bigger than they want to acknowledge. Here are the questions.

•  Have you noticed any changes in your relationships, your mood, the day to day things about your life? What have you noticed? (If they say ‘nope – nothing up there’, mention the changes you’ve seen.)

•  Is life better when you use? (Mood, friends, behaviour, physical, activities etc). If it’s not better when you use, what keeps you using?

•  Are you able to peel back your use? What happens if you don’t use? (You’re looking for withdrawal symptoms.)

•  Have you ever lied about your use of the drug, how long you’ve used it, or anything related to your use of the drug, such as what you have done to get it?

Don’t make it about whether or not their drug use a problem, make it about the differences you want to see.

If your teen doesn’t want to acknowledge there is a problem, go with that and make it about the behaviours you’re seeing, rather than the drug use. Acknowledge for now that there may not be an addiction or a problem, but that you would like to see certain behaviours increased (e.g. time with the family, other friends, activities, schoolwork) and others decreased (drug use, time away from home, sleeping to recover from effects of use, violence, lying.)

Work out a plan.

Work out a plan that includes boundaries and consequences for crossing the boundaries. Do this with your teen so they feel more empowered and less like you’re trying to control them. Acknowledge that they are old enough now to make their own decisions and that you can’t control their behaviour, but that as with any relationship, there are certain things you expect. They expect freedom and independence, you expect them to be responsible with that independence and freedom. Work out a contract. What do you want? (Information? Accountability? The truth?) What do they want? What has to stop? (Drug use? Lies? Violence? Aggression? Be really specific here – when you say ‘aggression’, exactly what do you mean?) What are the consequences for using? For violence? For breaking the rules that you both agree to? (Here is an example of a contract for you and your teen (go to the section ‘Worksheets and Quizzes), so everyone can be clear on what’s expected from everyone.)

9.  There are three things that make it easy for them to use. You’ll have control of one of them.

There are three things that make it possible for teens to use – money, opportunity (sleepovers, time with friends, time alone at home), and their phone/computer (to buy, to organise the opportunity). Depending on the age of your teen, you will have control of at least one of these, possibly all of them. When you work out your plan, make sure these are involved. Your teen will say you have no right to take any of them away. There’s no point arguing that – your teen won’t buy it anyway. The key here is to make it clear to your teen that ultimately, he or she is in control of whether or not these privileges – and they are privileges get taken hinges on  the decisions they make.

If your teen gives you what you are asking for (no drug use, honesty, respect etc – you decide), let them have some of what they want (their phone, time with friends). You might decide to put an end to certain things, such as sleepovers, until you are confident there is no risk to your teen. The idea is to use these three things – money, phone, opportunity as currency to get what you want, because up to now, they have certainly been using these things to get what they want. The message to your teen is that it’s up to them how hard things get. However hard they push, you have it in you to push harder – and you will, but ultimately the size of the push will be up to them.

10.  Be ready. Things might get worse before they get better.

When you step between your teen and their habit, they might amp things up to get some control back. They might become more abusive, more resistant and more difficult. This is normal and it doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t working. What it means is that your teen is feeling the edges of your boundaries. That’s a good thing, as awful as it is for all of you to be in the thick of. Think of a 3-year-old who wants the toy you’ve put away. They will scream louder and louder until they realise their screaming is useless. Your teen is the same. Actually we all are, it’s just that hopefully by adulthood we can keep it together, at least until nobody is watching. This is why the contract is important, as is having your teen on side as much as you can. When things turn ugly, which they will from time to time, you’ll have something to fall back on to keep the direction.

11.  Explore with them their decisions and the impact of those decisions.

As much as you can, avoid the tough love approach. This can increase shame and push your teen away from you and towards their peers who will be infinitely more accepting of them and their drug use behaviours. This will be especially strong in your teen, who is already wired to find their independence from you. You will need to work with this, not push against it.

Listen to your teen and ask questions that will encourage them to look at their behaviour. whatever you do, keep the conversation free of judgement towards them about their drug use. The more you push against them, the more you run the risk of alienating them on the basis that ‘you just don’t get it’. Let them know that you aren’t trying to change their mind, but that you want to understand and you want to know that they’ve thought about the issues. The idea here is to get them thinking about some of the issues that they might be avoiding thinking about. Go gently:

•  How do they feel about their drug use?

•  How do they feel about the decisions they are making?

•  How do they feel about where their life is at?

•  Do they see any distance between what they are doing and their goals?

•  How has their life changed since using the drug?

•  How much more are they using it now than when they started? What seems to drive them to use it more?

•  What do they get from the drug that is missing without it?

•  What are their goals?

•  Does their drug use get in the way at all? How?

•  Where do they see themselves in six months or a year if they keep down this path?

•  What are the downsides they see to doing what they are doing?

•  What are the upsides?

•  Are there things that make them want to use more? (Arguments? Stress? Boredom? Extra cash?).

Put the focus on their choices and their responsibility for their actions and the consequences that come from that. This will also support the idea that if they are capable of making the choices they are making around their drug use, they are very capable and strong enough to make choices around stopping it.

The idea is to get them to realise themselves what their drug use is doing. The more they can own it for themselves, the greater their motivation to change and the more likely they’ll stick to the plan.

12.  Help your teen find something to replace the drug.

Your teen is using drugs to fulfil a need, probably several. The needs will be valid ones, but using drugs will always be a disastrous way to meet them. Help your teen find other activities that are challenging, engaging, maybe a little risky, and that give them a sense of meaning or belonging. It will be much easier for them to give up the drug when there is an alternative way to meet their important needs.

13.  Get them moving.

Exercise is a natural stress-reliever and anti-depressant, and has been proven to ease the symptoms of anxiety. It also releases endorphins in the body, which are the body’s own chemicals that trigger the brain’s reward pathways and bring on a feel-good. It won’t replace the highs that your child might be craving, but the endorphins will help.

14.  Remove from their environment anything that is associated with their drug use from their environment.

Your teen needs understand how important the memory systems in the brain are for triggering a craving and the drive to use. Here is the explanation for them:

Over time your brain becomes used to a drug and the drug stops producing the same feelings of pleasure. The ‘feel-goods’ ease off but the memory stays as strong as ever. This memory feeds the craving. 

When drugs flood the brain with dopamine (a part called the nucleus accumbens), the part of the brain involved in memories (the hippocampus) stores memories of the drug and everything associated with it. It has really strong memories of how quickly and intensely that combination of things brought pleasure.

The memories help to create a powerful craving whenever the person comes across the things that remind them of how good the drug felt. This might be the people, the instruments, the place or anything else associated with the times they take the drug. 

In time, anything that reminds a person of taking the drug can be enough to activate the same craving as the actual substance. This is why addictions are so hard to change, and why one of the first steps to quitting drugs is letting go of as many things as you can that remind you of the drug or how good it felt when you took it.

Anything that has been associated with your teen’s use of the drug has the potential to trigger a craving. If your teen takes the same backpack when he or she uses the drug, for example, encourage them to get rid of it. Same for anything else the made your teen’s drug use possible. The hardest of these will be the people, but don’t push your teen too hard on this. Baby steps.

15.  Seek professional help.

Neither you nor your teen have to do this alone. What you’re doing is hard and what your teen is doing is harder. Along the way you or your teen might need a hand to stay on track, and that’s completely understandable and very normal. Don’t underestimate the important difference you will be making by the way you respond, and be open to seeking professional if you see the need. Here are some organisations that can guide you towards help:

United States: SAMHSA 24/7 National Helpline 

Canada: Drug & Alcohol Helpline

Australia: Australian Drug Foundation

United Kingdom: Adfam

It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

The first 3 to 6 months will be the hardest and it’s important to remind your teen of this, and to remember yourself. If your teen is using drugs, it doesn’t mean they are addicted, but an early response is the best way to stop the spiral. If they are addicted, it will be a case of two steps forward and one step back some days – and that’s okay. There is no quick fix for addiction.

Because the reasons for drug use and the nature of the drug use is different for all teens, what works for one person might be useless for another. Don’t give up if the first thing you try doesn’t work. Keep going and don’t be discouraged. As traumatic as it can be to discover that your teen is using drugs, know that your teen can recover from this and set themselves on a healthier path.

Above all else, if your teen is using, don’t take this as anything negative about your teen or your parenting. This is something that you and your teen can grow through. Your love, understanding and patience will be vital. A normal part of parenting is sometimes fighting with your teen but always fighting for them. Let them know that nobody will fight harder for them than you.



Hi Karen – this is a fabulous article – thank you!

Although the link about the contact actually takes you to a site on addictions, there doesn’t seem to be a sample contract or a section called “Worksheets and Quizes” – any suggestions?

Tricia D

Just want to thank you for this fantastic information. We are in the middle of chaos with my 18 year old who’s meant to be starting Univertsity in September. Its not easy, but this has made me more determined to stay strong in supporting him through this awful time.


I have been through all these steps. Done and said all the right things. The drug use will not stop even though he has seen severe mental consequences that have greatly affected him and our family. He is only using marijuana so he believes that it is not a problem. Mu husband and I can’t do it anymore. He doesn’t care and doesn’t plan on stopping. I need to find somewhere for him to live other than in my home.


In the same boat. We have tried so much but he wants to be this person rather than attend school and have a safe loving home. He is now choosing to couch surf at 14 instead of living in a home with reasonable rules. There is no mandatory detox or rehab for kids unless they commit enough crime to be in jail here in Australia and it breaks my heart watching my beloved son throw away his future to be friends with dealers and other low lives when he was raised better.


I really like your approach to this subject and am glad to see this kind of advice out there. This is a huge turning point for parents and the relationships they can try to foster with their teens, who often feel like young-adult “roomates”. Your facts and opinions are spot on and offer a much more realistic approach to this dreaded phase of parenting. However, I have a question that I cant seem to find an answer/opinion on. How honest should I be about my past? How much is too much honesty? As a teenager, I was pretty straight-laced. Sports, decent enough grades, middle-of-the-road social life. After graduation, while working to save money for school, I ended up getting very serious playing in a band and it influenced me to work really hard at music, instead of college/military etc. You meet a lot of creative and amazing people, and drug use among this culture is a norm, and often part of the process, not always for the good. It becomes as much of an albatross as it can be as a tool, and often spoils creative relationships when depended on too much for inspiration. I myself, never became enamored with any of the drugs we experimented with, and eventually became uninspired by the lifestyle and the grind of trying to make a living at it. I now live a normal-as-can-be, middle-class, family-centered life. However, I still enjoy jamming occasionally and dabbling in recording my own music…and I also enjoy a joint here and there when I delve into that space. I know, its prob silly at my age, etc, but it’s just a short get-away from normal concerns and dramas, enough for me to focus on what I’m into at that very moment. An older in-law gives it to me for free, a couple times a year, as it is legal to grow a small amount and “gift”it to a friend, in her state. I haven’t paid for it in 20 years and dont seek it out when it’s gone. My use defines “recreational”, and its harmless at best, even if a little immature.

My older daughter, 16, is an amazing athlete, straight-A’s student, popular among her peers and a genuinely good person. We have always been close, and even as her father, she still talks freely with me and confides in me for advice frequently about many things adults are usually excluded from. She has recently confided that she had tried smoking pot in a pipe a “couple times” with friends. We had a great talk about it and had a few laughs, as well as the serious parts of the conversation. We felt good that she wasn’t afraid to keep us in the loop, despite the possibility of discipline. More recently, when I was installing a wall mounted tv in her room, a screwdriver fell and rolled under her bed. When I reached under blindly to grab it, my hand came up with an empty vape pen, instead. Hours later she approached me away from her mom and sister to ask if I’d found it. I said I had, and we’d have to wait to talk about because mom wouldn’t handle it calmly, simply because smoking it “a couple times” at a sleepover is a much different story than having a spent vape pen under your bed, as the latter describes possible habitual use, which is obviously more concerning,, and also theres a ton of negative publicity right now concerning vaping and the dangers of it as opposed to smoking. We haven’t had a chance to continue this conversation, it’s been about a week. The timing hasn’t been right, and I’m struggling with 2 things: At some point during the discussion, I almost feel that I should eventually be honest about my occasional use? Would/could this be a show of honesty that buys me more trust in the long run? My wife is dead-set against me on this, and I have not told her about the vape pen yet, which could send her into “tough-love” mode with both of us. How honest is too honest? I dont want her to view me as a conspiring peer, but I also dont believe in freaking out and shaming her, for the use of it, or the deviation in the truth concerning the frequency and method of her use. Although it does make me uneasy….She knows about my past and I’ve been very honest about it, as my parents were very open with me from a young age. She may even have suspicions/conclusions about my present. I dont know. I am discreet but kids are too damn perceptive…I expected when this situation came up, that the truth to be a little altered, and im not so much worried about pot, but my uneasiness comes when I think about situations that may come up among her peers with harder, more addictive drugs. I know she will somehow randomly end up in that situation, at some point, no matter how much we talk about it and how well she seems to absorb our conversation. Will she strong enough to “not be cool” in those moments? This what keeps me awake at night.
Sorry for the novel…apparently I needed to vent. If anyone reads this, I apologize and thank you at the same time.


Thank you for that comment …. I wonder the same thing ? Is honesty the best policy? I only experimented for a very short time and didn’t find it addictive it just phased out of my life. I’m scared crazy of my teens trying anything (I’ve just learnt that both my 17year old and my 15 year old have both tried the vape pens).
How did you go with your daughter? Did you decide on total honesty?
P.S I really appreciate this article I wasn’t sure where to start …


I’m still a teen myself, but I’ve been trying to do some parenting research very early in advance (I really love children, and I hope to try and foster troubled teenagers later on who really need the help and support) so that I don’t walk into anything ill-prepared. I’m a bit of a “goody two shoes” myself, in that I’ve never really involved myself in drugs, or anything like that, but I believe a lot of the advice here is universal in other aspects of raising children or even talking to anyone. It really reminds you that teenagers really are just people too, and deserve the same respect and benefit of the doubt as anyone else. I really appreciate this article and wish more parents could be as understanding with their teenagers rather than derisive or cold!

Mari Ellis

Wow! I wish I had access to information such as this when my kids were teens. My son is 33 and is still struggling to stay sober. Every one told us they couldn’t believe it could happen in a “family like ours”. I tried to be vocal about what was happening and so many people didn’t want to see or hear the proof that their kids were involved as well.

Now we are raising our granddaughter who is now 8yo. Her mom, our daughter and her dad signed over guardianship to us when she was a year old. Our daughter is now nearing the end of her PRISON sentence for drug distribution. (Yes, just like you see on television or in the movies.)

Our daughter didn’t ever get in trouble or use drugs, smoke or drink until she was over 18 and out of the house. She was our “angel”.

My point is you just never know.

I have been using Hey Sigmund to help my granddaughter with her anxiety. She has been in and out of therapy and is doing great at the moment, but it is a work in progress for all of us. We realize now that my son began his journey with drugs and alcohol to try to get a handle on his anxiety which he wasn’t talking about.

Sorry this is so long, but I hope it is helpful for someone to know they are not alone.


My daughter was using marijuana without us knowing. When she finally admitted to it, it was only because she had developed severe anxiety and had consumed too much on one occasion. But when she admitted to the use, she lied about when she began.
I have only recently learned that the drug use started at least a year earlier. How much, I don’t know. The matter of finding out the truth is very complicated as my child is now at college away from home.
Unfortunately have found that even in our family, where our kids were raised with values not to do drugs, nor engage in sexual activity before one is mature (i.e., 20s), our values were not respected.
It’s rough, I wish in some ways I had homeschooled, given the influences at both private and public schools my kids attended.

Today parents walk a tightrope between being too intrusive and helicoptering, and not being vigilant enough with their kids. No easy answers, at least for me.


Good article or for some good suggestions I’m going to give it a shot but you know it’s ultimately going to be up to him. Organize and realize or spelled with Z by the way not an s.

Karen Young

Hi Mike. I’m glad the article was helpful. I’m from Australia, and here (and in many other countries) we spell organise and realise with an s, not a z. Neither are wrong.

Christine J

Hello Karen , Congratulations on the most comprehensive and informative article I have ever read on the subject .
I live in Western Australia and am currently dealing with my fourteen year old Grandson’s drug taking .


Hi Karen, great article about teens and drugs. The link to the suggested contract doesn’t seem to be working, I wondered if you can help me with this

Hey Sigmund

Thanks Cath! We can never be too prepared as parents can we.

As with so many things, the magic comes in lots of incidental conversations, rather than one ‘big’ conversation. There will be plenty of people ready to tell our kids how good drugs can make them feel, and how harmless they are, which is why it’s so important for us to fill their heads with the facts about the dangers of drugs and what they can do to their brains and bodies.

It’s also what parents do outside of talking about drugs – as you mention, the things that build self-esteem, resilience,their ability to say no. Kids will first experiment with saying no with their parents, so how we react to that is really important. Of course, it doesn’t mean we buckle to every no that comes from them – boundaries will always be important – but we can still have boundaries and show them that we respect their opinion and their right to voice it.

Also, kids are more likely to follow a parent’s rules (as in ‘don’t take drugs) if they can see that that parent respects their right to make their own decisions in other areas (what to wear, what music to listen to, what to do with their friends, how to have their room, how to spend their money etc).

It’s about being available with them, open to them, and being the people whose opinions they can trust. That’s not always easy though! The neuroscientists say we just have to ‘keep them alive ’til 25′ – after that, (hopefully) their adult brains will help them to make better decisions. I’m saving my exhale until then!

Cath Hakanson

A great article Karen!

Okay, as the mother of a 7 and 10 year old, what should I be doing?I am a big believer in being prepared, when it comes to parenting!

Is it just about talking about the fact that drugs are around, that they aren’t good for you, that they feel good which is why people take them, etc?

And then all that other parenting stuff in regards to self esteem, resilience, saying no, etc?



So many of these articles are about parenting younger kids. It’s good to see articles on teenagers. Parenting doesn’t stop in junior or middle school. There’s also new challenges facing kids as years go by. When Ben was younger MySpace was the new fad, then MSN etc. I used to worry about Ben and alcohol at parties, now I worry just as much about exposure to drugs as alcohol. New challenges for kids are also new challenges for parents and we can do with all the information we can get to try to guide our kid on the right paths. Parenting a teenage boy in the single figure 2000’s to now has evolved. Social media has exploded and drugs being seen as just popping a pill or passing around a pipe to smoke and normalised as semi harmless is something not to be ignored but to be prepared for. I think educating our kids on actually how to respond when offered drugs is important. Just saying don’t take them isn’t equipping kids with the skills to negotiate a situation. Sending our kids out with skills to avoid drugs and peer group pressure is something we all need to know. How do I say no when everyone else seems to be trying it or feeling they have to??

Hey Sigmund

Thanks Cherise. You’re absolutely right – the loving watch and guidance of parents is as important during adolescence as it is at any other stage. There are so many more temptations that teens are faced with now, particularly with the easy availability synthetic drugs. Then on top of that is social media. Our teens are being put in situations in which they have to be braver and stronger than ever, with even clearer no’s. They all have it in them to do this, especially with a loving parent by their side, but sometimes the path will have plenty of curves.


Do you have any research/evidence references that align with this article? It feels like a great article.


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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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