Advice to a parent with a teen struggling with drug addiction

I’ll never forget how my hands shook as I gripped my office phone that afternoon. My 16 year-old son called tell me he was a drug addict and that he needed help. Right now.
I must admit I did have suspicions he’d been involved in drugging. His behavior had changed. He was doing so poorly in school that he was on the verge of either failing or dropping out. He struggled with my newly blended family and the move to a new state. I thought everything would work its way out in his life, but the tenor of his voice told me this was something serious.
Even though I’m the parent or step-parent of seven boys, I was totally unprepared. I’d always wished for a book for the teen years to turn to when things go rough, much like my mom turned to her trusty Dr. Spock reference book. But, there isn’t anything like that to help parents navigate today’s minefields.
I flew out the door and was soon home, sitting in my living room, attempting to wrap my mind around the depth of his problems. The night before a drug dealer threatened him. This was serious. Turning to the Yellow Pages, I called several drug rehab facilities in my state, but found only one with an immediate opening. It was two hours away from home and my son sat quietly in the front seat. I felt I’d failed him. Who knows what he felt.
The intake counselor sat us down in a private office and began to do a drug inventory. As the list began to grow from marijuana use all the way down to cocaine and heroin, I shakily agreed to anything to help him get out of the death trap of drug addiction.
My situation wasn’t unusual.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, “about a third of high school seniors across the country report using an illicit drug sometime in the past year,” which means a LOT of parents have sat in a dining room or on a living room couch attempting to make sense of what their son or daughter just told them about their drug use.
The first line defenders in the fight against drug addiction are the drug counselors at local rehabilitation or recovery centers.
I recently took the time to sit down with one of them. Grant Voyles is a certified addiction counselor who works with the Ridgeview Institute, in Smyrna, outside Atlanta. He works in the adolescent addiction program and facilitates Ridgeview’s young adult aftercare group.
CHERIE: Grant, as a parent I’d love to have a list of things to look for to keep an eye out for drug addiction. Is there such a list?
GRANT: This is a hard list to create because not all teen drug users will have the exact same warning signs. I’m not a fan of these laundry lists of paraphernalia that might indicate drug use. To me, that seems like an excuse for lazy parents to feel like they’re making a difference by keeping an eye peeled for tie-dye or gangster rap. Accessories are not an indicator of the actual life being lived. But here are some warning signs I’d watch for:

  1. Loss of interest in hobbies, activities, sports, etc. If your child is suddenly not interested in activities that they used to love, something may be going on. It may not necessarily be drug use, as this is also a classic sign of depression, but be wary if their reason is something like, “I don’t have time for it.”
  2. A large shift to new friends. As drug use escalates users will tend to hang out with those that use like they do. Old friends who don’t get high may fall by the wayside. Take the time to know who your kids are hanging out with.
  3. Sketchy behavior is used to cover up sketchy activity. The simple fact is — if you’re lying about it, you’re not supposed to be doing it. Most teens will tell a lie or two during their adolescent years but repeated dishonesty usually means that something is going on.
  4. Things start turning up missing. Drugs cost money and most teens don’t earn enough to support a serious drug habit. Keep in mind that teens may be prone to sell their own stuff or steal from friends or classmates before they steal from mom and dad.
  5. Changes in mood. This is a tough one because teenagers are dealing with a wave of emotions on a pretty regular basis. Drugs can change a person’s mood very quickly and can intensify existing problems like anger, anxiety and depression

CHERIE: Some addicts come from addictive family backgrounds. How can parents, like me, educate their teens to avoid the same mistakes that thousands of others have made?
GRANT: You have to effectively educate them, which is something easier said than done. Some kids come from addictive backgrounds, some don’t. Some kids will experiment with any substance available just like some members of past generations did. Parents have to be careful that their message doesn’t share the ridiculousness of “Reefer Madness.” Kids need to be educated on the effects and consequences of drug use, as well as what addiction really is. Don’t go over the top with scare tactics. Keep in mind that many young people don’t believe that certain consequences will ever happen to them, or they simply don’t care. At this point, you can’t expect to scare them straight. The effect of drugs is very addictive and so is the lifestyle associate with drug use. Fear is not a source of lasting motivation. Young people need to see how beautiful a life free from the chains of addiction can be. They need to find a sense of belonging in their life that doesn’t revolve around getting high.
CHERIE: What are the best resources for a drug addicted son or daughter?
GRANT: For the young addict, help them find appropriate 12-step meetings in your area, also I recommend looking for an individual counselor. I also recommend getting them into inpatient treatment. Most young people — especially teens — may be very resistant to inpatient treatment and try to bargain with you for an outpatient program. While outpatient programs can very beneficial, I’ve seen most success come from inpatient programs.
For parents and other family members, I encourage Families Anonymous. Addiction is a family disease and just as the addict needs to work a program and build a support network, so do the parents. FA can help parents to detach and relieve them from guilt associated with having an addict in the family. Connecting with other people who are going through the same thing can make a world of difference.
CHERIE: What is your best advice to parents in this situation?
GRANT: Practice patience and consistency. Recovery is a long road — it’s a lifelong process for an addict. It will be frustrating at times and you both will make mistakes. Trust the process and support your child when they make positive decisions. Always remember to take time to work your own program and take care of yourself. Being consistent is just as important. Rules, boundaries and deadlines only matter if they are enforced. A teen in recovery needs the opportunity to earn privileges and build trust. Teens and their parents should talk about the rules at home so everyone is on the same page. If your teen breaks a rule he should suffer the consequence. Shielding teens from consequences only makes matters worse.
A teen is not an adult — the parent is. I’m tired of seeing some parents try to be their teenager’s best friend. They don’t need you to be a friend, they need a parent. I’ve always viewed parents who tried to “buddy up” with their adolescent or bought them beer thinking it was “safer” as detrimental to their child’s growing into adulthood. I’m not saying that you can’t get along with your kids. A firm hand doesn’t preclude love, affection, or admiration — I’d argue that it’s necessary. Your teenager is going to be mad at you at one point or another no matter how cool you are — try not to take it so personally.
CHERIE: Anything else you’d recommend?
GRANT: Whether you’re the addict or the parent, stay willing, practice patience and always remain teachable.
There is a happy ending to my son’s story. After a long and expensive inpatient treatment, I’m happy to report that my son has successfully turned his life around. He’s enrolled in college and has plans for a very bright future. This isn’t every parent’s experience and I feel very lucky to have gotten a second chance with this son.

The post above is reprinted with permission from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, supported by the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. 

Cherie K. Miller lives on a lake in Georgia with her husband, Steve, and a blended family of seven sons, two dogs, two leopard geckos and one freakishly grumpy 17-year-old cat, named Kitty. Steve & Cherie have a nonprofit organization that provides compelling character development curriculum for use by parents, in schools, or other community organizations.

Updated: February 08 2018