Worried Your Son or Daughter Might Have a Problem with Drugs or Alcohol?
Because you’re reading this, you’ve probably noticed one or more signs that your child might be drinking too much or using dangerous drugs. Before we go any further, I’d like to say that I’m deeply sorry you find yourself in this position.
Hopefully, your child’s alcohol or drug use is not a big problem. However, if you’re worried that your child may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, there’s a good chance your suspicions are correct. While there are undoubtedly parents who worry unnecessarily, far more parents are clueless about how much and how often their kids are getting drunk or high. In fact, it took every one of the parents I interviewed for this eBook at least two years to recognize that drugs or alcohol were behind his or her child’s troubling behavior.
Perhaps your son really is only experimenting or your daughter told you the truth when she said the drugs in her bedroom were someone else’s. For your sake, I sincerely hope this is true. But you should be aware that being a good kid from a loving family is no protection against your child falling hard and fast into the agony of addiction, and there are far too many heartbreaking stories of parents who ignored the signs of a child in trouble until it was too late.
We came close to losing our beloved daughter many times during six hellish years as her addiction led her to repeatedly guzzle lethal levels of alcohol. We are exceedingly blessed that she was finally able to stop drinking 2½ years ago and has completely turned her life around. But what I remember so clearly about those years is the overwhelming fear I felt and the horrible realization that I had no idea how to help her. I created this eBook to share some of the things I and other parents have learned as we battled this awful disease.
No matter how bad things seem today, don’t lose hope -- it is possible for your child to overcome even the most serious addiction. Hopefully you will find this information as well as Conquer Addiction’s database of the best treatment centers and our online support group helpful in winning this fight.
Joanna Conti, mother of 4 & CEO of Conquer Addiction, Inc.
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- Warning signs
- Starting the conversation
- Watchful support
- If your child needs treatment
- Helping your child remain sober
- Taking care of yourself
- Final thoughts
© 2015 Conquer Addiction, Inc. All rights reserved
The information contained in this eBook is provided for informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified professional about any concerns or questions regarding your medical conditions or treatments, including substance abuse and addiction treatment. No recipient of this eBook should act, or refrain from acting, on the basis of what you have read in this eBook without first seeking the appropriate professional medical or other professional advice. The content of this eBook contains general information and may not reflect current medical developments. Conquer Addition, Inc. expressly disclaims all liability in respect to actions taken or not taken based on the content of this eBook. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.
One of the most challenging things for many parents is recognizing that your child may be abusing drugs or alcohol. Sometimes the warning signs are fairly obvious – your child comes home drunk or high, or you’ve found drug paraphernalia in his room.
For many parents, however, the signs that your child may be in trouble aren’t as clear. My husband and I spent several years concerned that our daughter was drinking too much, but in denial as to how serious the problem was. Partly this was because we had no idea how much she was drinking and drugging, but another factor was that we had no idea what we could do about it.
Many parents explain away the early signs of drug or alcohol problems by thinking it is just typical teenage behavior. And, yes, if your son or daughter is being argumentative and distancing themselves from you, it could mean nothing. However, major changes in interests, behavior, friends and appearance are likely to be a symptom of a deeper problem. Here are some of the most common indicators of alcohol or drug abuse:
- Changes in appetite, sleep patterns or general health: Both sudden weight loss and weight gain can accompany heavy drug or alcohol use, as can a new and unexplained chronic cough. Frequent nosebleeds could be related to snorting meth or cocaine. Nodding off is a common side effect of prescription opioid or heroin use.
- Changes in interests and friends: Has your child stopped playing a sport she loved or lost interest in a hobby or activity that used to engross her? Have the friends she’s hanging around with changed dramatically? Has she withdrawn from family relationships she used to value? Any of these can indicate escalating drug or alcohol use.
- Major drop in academic performance: If your child’s grades have suddenly plummeted, this can be a sign that he is skipping class or has lost his ability to focus on his school work.
- Changes in appearance: A sharp decline in personal grooming, bloodshot or glassy eyes, or pupils that are smaller or larger than normal should all be cause for alarm.
- Acting strange: Sudden personality or mood changes, extreme emotional highs and lows, hyperactive or lethargic behavior, incoherent or slurred speech, sudden coordination issues, and shakes, tremors or seizures are strong indicators that something is wrong.
- Suspicious behavior: Is your daughter engaging in secretive or suspicious behavior, such as locking doors and avoiding eye contact? Is she staying out much later than normal or sneaking out of the house?
- Unusual smells: Do you sometimes notice strange smells on your child, his clothes, or in his room? Is he using incense, perfume or air freshener to hide the smell of smoke or drugs?
- Missing money, valuables or prescription drugs: Most teenagers start using opiates by raiding their parent’s or a friend’s parent’s medicine cabinet. Once their drug or alcohol use expands beyond what they can get for free, some kids start stealing to support their habit.
If more than one of these indicators applies to your son or daughter, please don’t ignore the problem. Drug and alcohol abuse kills. In the United States, 368 people die from alcohol or drug abuse every day.
You know your child better than anyone. Please trust your instincts about whether he or she is in trouble.
There are several common factors that may be holding you back from talking to your child about your concerns:
- You may already be tense and exhausted from dealing with a teenager or young adult who’s breaking a lot of rules; the last thing you want to do is to initiate another confrontation.
- While you have suspicions, you don’t have proof that they’re drinking or using drugs in a dangerous fashion.
- You’re overwhelmed with fear and have no idea what to do if your suspicions are confirmed.
- It’s easier not to know.
Don’t let any of these excuses stop you from holding a frank conversation with your child. You need to know what’s going on and they need to know you care.
Prepare for your conversation by doing the following:
- Put together a list of things you’ve observed that concern you. The more specific you can be (for example, by saying “your eyes were bloodshot when you came home Friday night and you weren’t making any sense”), the harder it will be for your child to simply blow you off.
- Talk to your spouse and any other parents or stepparents about your concerns. Do your best to present a united front.
- Consider talking to some of the parents of your child’s close friends to compare notes and see if they share your concerns. If nothing else, raising the topic could lead to a higher level of oversight of what the kids are doing.
- Educate yourself about the signs of drug and alcohol abuse and what kids in your community are doing for kicks, perhaps by talking to a school guidance counselor, sports coach or youth group leader.
- Think through the best way to approach the conversation and what you’d like its outcome to be.
Find a good time to hold a calm, loving conversation with your child. Think carefully about where and when you want to start it, but don’t put it off for more than a few days. Don’t attempt to talk to your child when she is drunk or high or when you’re angry. If you think your child might just stomp off when she realizes you want to talk about her drinking or drug use, you might choose to have the conversation someplace she can’t easily leave, such as while driving somewhere in the car or in her room.
This first conversation may not be a long one, but it’s important you do the following:
- Openly and honestly share your concerns.
- Listen carefully to your child’s responses.
- Let them know how dangerous drinking and drugs can be and that you’re here to help.
- Be open about any history of addiction in the family. Let them know if they’re likely to have a genetic predisposition for addiction.
- React calmly and lovingly, even if they confirm your worst fears.
- Do your best to agree on some next steps.
The most likely outcome is that your child will turn himself inside out trying to convince you there’s nothing to worry about. Listen carefully and take this with a grain of salt.
Assuming that this first conversation does not raise any major red flags, you could use this time to agree on some action steps designed to help keep your child safe, such as:
- Car accidents are the #1 cause of death for teenagers, and many fatal accidents are alcohol-or drug-related. Ask your child to call you if he’s considering driving after drinking or using drugs or if he realizes that whoever is driving him somewhere is not completely sober. Assure him you’ll reward his maturity by not getting mad or using it against him in any way.
- Agree on a code word that means “Come get me. Don’t break my cover, but I’m in a dangerous situation and I need your help”. Agree that your child will not get in trouble for calling you regardless of where or with whom she’s with and that your child can pretend to be as mad as she wants in front of her friends.
- Tell your child that you will be confirming all late nights and overnights with the adult in charge.
- Create a contract between you and your child where you each write out what you expect from each other and, possibly, consequences for breaking the contract.
Unless it is already clear that your child is struggling with serious addiction issues, the likelihood is that these early conversations will be followed by a period of watching and waiting. Don’t dwell on the problem, but don’t let your guard down either.
Some other important things to do include:
- Set and enforce rules: If you haven’t already, it’s important to set appropriate rules (e.g., you’ll be home by midnight or I’ll come get you) and hold your child to them. Make sure to carry through on the consequences you’ve set when a rule is broken.
- Wait up for your child to return home: Knowing that her parents will notice if she comes home drunk or high may be incentive enough to keep your daughter from binge drinking or taking drugs at a party.
- Don’t enable your child’s drinking or drug use: If you’re convinced that your child is drinking or using drugs, think about any ways you could be inadvertently helping him do so. Do you give him a large weekly allowance that he could be using to buy drugs? Could he be using the car you’re providing to hook up with his dealer or sell drugs himself?
- Lock up the liquor cabinet and get rid of old prescription pills: Many kids start experimenting with prescription pills like OxyContin by raiding the family’s medicine cabinet.
- Keep a sharp eye out for signs that your child’s drinking or drug use is getting worse: Use your common sense, and don’t accept cockamamie stories your child tells you.
In addition to these noncontroversial actions, some parents are comfortable more aggressively monitoring their child’s whereabouts or searching for evidence of their child’s drug use. Actions you can consider include:
- Drug testing: If you’re willing to pay for it yourself, many testing labs will allow you to bring in your son or daughter for a urine drug screen. If the lab will not do the testing without a doctor’s prescription, consider sharing your concerns with your family doctor. While not as accurate, you can also purchase drug testing cups or breathalyzers and do the testing yourself. Beware, though, that the Internet is full of information about how to fool drug tests by sneaking in clean or synthetic urine or by adding chemicals to the sample.
- Snooping: If you are comfortable searching your child’s things for drugs or alcohol, good places to look include backpacks, dresser drawers, the glove compartment of the car, make-up cases, under the bed or mattress, in the bottom compartment of push-up deodorant, or the closet.
- Tracking your child’s phone: Apps exist that allow you to track where your child is, who they’re calling and what they’re texting.
If it appears that your child’s problems with drugs or alcohol are getting worse, you should start building a small team of advisors whose advice you trust. Unfortunately, you may find this surprisingly difficult to do. Places you might start include:
- Your child’s doctor: While he or she may know your child fairly well, the sad truth is that very few general practitioners or family physicians have received even cursory training in addiction.
- Counselors & therapists: Just because someone is a licensed clinical social worker or therapist does not mean he is an expert in addiction. In fact, he may have received surprisingly little training in the field; beware of advice that doesn’t feel right.
- Parents Groups: Talking to other parents whose kids are also struggling with drugs or alcohol can be extremely helpful. Because they know what you’re going through, they can provide a sounding board as well as recommend advisors and treatment programs they’ve found helpful. Visit www.conquer-addiction.org/parent-support-groups for a list of parent support groups that other parents have recommended.
- Substance abuse counselors & specialists: In the absence of a recommendation from someone you trust, you can search for a substance abuse counselor or specialist through Healthgrades.com (enter “substance abuse counseling” as the specialty), the directory of the Association for Addiction Professionals (NAADAC), or by Googling “addiction counselor” along with the name of your city. However, don’t start working with someone without investigating their background. Almost anyone can call herself an addiction counselor; 14 states don’t require any sort of license or certification, and 6 states don’t even require counselors to have a high school diploma! Most people in this field have the experience that comes from being in recovery themselves, but may have little formal training.
- Physicians and Psychiatrists Specially-Trained in Addiction: Especially if you believe your child may have underlying physical or mental issues that could be contributing to his drug or alcohol use, you should reach out to a medical professional who has extensive training in addiction. To find a nearby doctor who has been Board certified as an addiction expert, select “Find a Doctor/Specialist” on the websites of ABAM (American Board of Addiction Medicine) or AAAP (American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry).
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