Marilyn Parker of St. Louis, Mo., waited for her son to return home. It was his first evening out since being grounded for smoking cigarettes. When he walked through the door, Parker knew something was wrong. She searched his clothing and uncovered a bag of marijuana in his pocket.
It's every parent's worst nightmare: Your kid is using drugs. Maybe you found marijuana in his backpack or alcohol hidden in her room. Regardless of how you know, the question now is: What are you going to do about it?
"The first and most important thing is to get help for the child and get over the guilty feelings," says Sue Rusche, executive director of National Families in Action, a drug prevention agency in Atlanta, Ga. If feelings of parental failure are interfering with your ability to address the situation, Rusche suggests enlisting the help of a parent support group. These groups, situated throughout the country, will guide you through the early stages. Once you've found the support you need, it's time to help your child.
Healing the Teen
Most parents want to believe their teen when he swears it was "just the first time," when she promises that it was "just a little weed." To be sure, Rusche recommends a visit to the certified drug counselor, a highly skilled and trained individual who can accurately assess your teen's level of involvement with drugs. Certified drug counselors can be found through your state alcohol and drug agency, local drug treatment centers and the United Way.
The counselor will give recommendations for what types of treatment or counseling are best suited to your teen's individual level of drug use. The treatment might include inpatient rehabilitation or outpatient counseling. Keep in mind that an initial assessment by the drug counselor will save time and money.
If you find that your teen resists your efforts to see a counselor, Rusche says withdrawal of privileges such as driving and allowances just might be your ticket to a scheduled meeting. In this situation, parents need to focus on the goal of ending drug use; this is not the place for reasonable negotiations, but a time to take control. "The parent has to be a parent, has to step in and say, 'We are no longer going to put up with this. It is time for us to get some advice and help,'" Rusche says.
Karen Hawkins of Bridgton, Maine, knows a little something about taking control, even in the face of resistance. When her teenage son began to use drugs, Hawkins issued an ultimatum. "I gave my son the option of going to a drug rehab facility or leaving our home," Hawkins says. "He chose the rehab, but not happily."
Another means of helping a teen drug user is an intervention. An intervention is particularly useful when alcohol is the substance of choice. These group meetings can take place with or without the presence of the teen. By assembling family and friends, without your teen present, you can first compare notes. Oftentimes, the bits and pieces that you gather from each individual will help you get a better perspective on the actual scope and frequency of the drug or alcohol use. If the thought of an intervention seems a bit daunting, a counselor can coach you through the details and even be present for the group meeting.
Regardless of the scope of drug use, the goal is to get the teen to be drug-free. Even if you determine that the drug use was minimal, it is important to get help and follow through with swift action. "All of the research tells us that the longer we can delay the onset of use of any illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco – the better chances we have of producing a healthy adult, one who will almost always never become addicted to anything," Rusche says.
Healing the Family
Once you've begun the process, it's time to turn your attentions inward and begin to heal the family. "No child is an island," says Dr. Gail Gross, host of the talk radio show "Let's Talk." When drugs become a part of your child's life, it is not just his or her problem; the entire family is affected.
"Sometimes it's a chemical issue, but sometimes it's an acceptance issue that has children reaching for drugs," Dr. Gross says. "Many times when a child reaches for a group [of friends], what they are really reaching for is a family. So it is important for the family structure to take over and for the parent to say, 'You're valuable. You count. We care about you.'"
Seek out family counseling with a skilled therapist who has certification, degrees and experience in the addiction area. Check with your local mental health association, medical schools and even your family doctor for referrals. Then interview each professional, so that you might find the perfect fit for your family.
"[Addiction] is a terrible burden for a child," Dr. Gross says. "They feel a terrible sense of self. It is a great relief for these kids to realize that it's not all their problem, that 'we' are a family and it's all of our problem. And therefore, we're going to value you, and we're going to put this family back together."