The Stories Drugs Tell

What do you do when you find your teen using drugs or alcohol?

One Friday afternoon, I had reached the end of a busy work week.  The weekend was tugging at my shirt sleeve, trying to get me out the door.  I stepped out of the office for a moment, and when I returned, my eye caught the familiar red blinking red light telling me I had a message waiting.  I picked up the receiver and punched in the familiar codes to retrieve my message.  

I was met with a mother's anxious voice, telling me she had just discovered her son's hidden stash of hard liquor, a bag of drug paraphernalia, and a pack of cigarettes.  Shocked by what she found, this concerned mother confronted her 16 year-old son, only to be met with half-hearted explanations and denials.  Feeling daunted and uncertain, one theme was clear: I don't know what to do.

In Texas, alcohol and tobacco remain the most commonly abused substances among adolescents.

Almost every teen will be exposed to conversations about drugs, or even illicit drug use by the time they finish high school.  Some teens end up using drugs.  For many parents, their kids' drug use comes as a shock.  It produces fear, anxiety, and a feeling of being completely out of control.  So what do you do when you discover that your child is using or abusing drugs.  First, it may be helpful to think about why kids use drugs in the first place.

Why do kids use drugs?

Kids use drugs because other kids use drugs. Kids use drugs because the risk-reducing parts of their brains can't keep up with the rapid pace of their pleasure-seeking subcortical regions. Kids also use drugs because they feel they can get away with it.  

Pervasive adolescent drug use is a combination of how available drugs are in our society, how they are romanticized in our culture, and how they stimulate the brain to induce intense pleasure.  Sometimes, I notice that parents scour their minds to understand why their child would be using drugs when the explanation is sometimes (not always) simple: 1.) Drug use is always a social ritual; and 2.) It feels good to be high. 

The difference between you and your child may be that you understand the risk of harming yourself for a temporary feeling of pleasure.  You understand that binge drinking can lead to death.  You understand that cigarettes could potentially be the single most dangerous human concoction outside the atomic bomb.  You understand these things, and your developed brain may make the obvious decision.  

But what about my teen?

The first step I take in therapy with families who bring me teenagers using drugs is discover the stories drugs are telling.  Drug use can be simple.  It can be a recreational habit that a teenager has developed as an attempt to feel attached to her or his peer group.  In this case, I work to create safer, more desirable attachments between family members to eliminate the need for drug use.  Other times, drug use may have started recreationally, but for whatever reason has developed into a full blown dependence.  In this case, I usually find that teens use drugs to meet what they perceive is an unmet emotional or relational need.  Either way, drugs always tell a story.  The trick is listening for the story while trying to help reduce risky behaviors.

So what do I do?

Although there is no one single way to respond to discovering your teen's substance abuse, these three principles tend to help guide parents down a solution-oriented path: 

  1. Calmly discuss your concern with your son or daughter.  Did you find drugs?  Did you smell something on them when they came home from a recent party?  Are you worried that their behavior has grown increasingly erratic?  You definitely want to avoid a screaming match.  Take a moment to scream into your pillow, then collect yourself and approach your teen.
  2. Set age-appropriate boundaries. Sometimes, teens need a little less freedom.  Sometimes they need a little more autonomy.  Parents' first reaction can sometimes be to pull the reigns tight, but this can often push your teen farther away.  Instead, choose to treat substance abuse as a rehabilitative opportunity rather than a punitive one. 
  3. Seek support for yourself.  Don't be afraid to reach out and talk to other parents. Learn from their experiences. 

Remember that safety is absolutely a first priority. If you are afraid that your child is in danger, do not hesitate to contact emergency personnel.

Reach out for help.

Behavioral and family therapy is just a phone call away and can help you and your loved ones navigate the torrent of emotions and uncertainty that threaten the stability that may have existed before you discovered that your teen was using drugs.  

Parenting requires courage and chaotic situations deserve courageous responses. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington