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What Can Parents Do
Who Suspect Drug Abuse in Their Teens?

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So What Exactly Should a Parent Do?

Your Home is not a Democracy

Obtaining Important Information
From Your Child's Siblings

Typical Short-Term
Adolescent Treatment Programs

My Child is 18 years old (or older) -
What Options do I Have?

HELP! My Child is diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder

Don't Ignore the Signs -
Parents on a Guilt Trip

Order FREE Literature
on Substance Abuse

Signs of Drug Abuse
In Your Teen

Four Stages of
Chemical Dependency

Is Marijuana
a Harmless Drug?

Autobiography of a Recovering Addict -
An allegory

Not Every Story Has a Happy Ending -
Drinking and driving
can kill your teen!


How can a parent tell when their child is abusing substances? Check out the drug abuse page on this site (Signs of Drug Abuse), if you have not already done so. If you have just come from that page, read on.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this serious dilemma that more and more of us parents are facing every day. Kids are very, very good at hiding their substance use from their parents. They become very adept at lying and can be stoned out of their minds yet still look you in the eye and deny that there is anything going on.

Careful monitoring of the activities of your child, reading notes and letters they have written to their friends, listening to what is being said when they are on the phone talking to their friends, and getting caller ID so you can keep tabs on who is calling, are some of the ways to help stay informed on what your kids are up to. Write down the phone numbers you find on Caller ID that were for your child. If your child decides to disappear for a night, you may very well be able to locate him/her by having a list of the numbers that have been calling your home over the last several months.

Some very technical parents have gone so far as to install small hidden recorder devices to their phones so that their child's phone conversations can be taped. One young man that we know of had his entire conversation regarding a pending drug deal he was arranging recorded by his father. As this young man was hanging up the phone, his father came into the room and asked his son to go with him to give him some help. Once they were out in the car, the father popped the tape in the tape deck, and this boy had to sit there with his father and listen to himself making his drug plans. Confronted with the evidence, he entered a drug treatment program and is doing quite well today.

You may be aghast at the idea of going into your child's room, looking through his drawers and pockets, and reading his letters, but if you suspect that your child is abusing substances, your vigilance may well save your child's life.

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Another important note is that much as you would like to give your kids freedom to say what goes on in your home, it is your home...you are paying for it....you have the final word. You are first and foremost their parent, and much as you want to be friends with them, sometimes being a parent and being a best friend to your child is a huge conflict. So don't try to be your child's best friend, particularly if your child is severely acting out. Your child has friends...he needs a parent! You should always be in charge of your own home and the last word on any situation should be YOUR last word. However, in too many households, the kids are running the show, leaving their parents in the dust while they pursue their illicit activities. Your household should NOT be a democracy. Just because you are a parent does not mean you have to be a doormat. You have rights too, and your child should know that you intend to look out for your own rights!

However, keep in mind that your responsibility as a parent, first and foremost, is to keep your child SAFE! Therefore, if you need to conduct periodic investigations by snooping around their rooms, then do it with a clean conscience. I used to tell my kids, when they were angry at me for something I had done such as searching their room, "You may hate me for this, but you'll be alive and hating me and not dead in a gutter somewhere." My older kids who are in their twenties still laugh about that one, but agree that what I said was true. And you know what? They don't hate me anymore. They have actually thanked me for some of the things I did to try to help them! However, it took about ten years between the actual events and the time I got the first thank you, so don't hold your breath on that one.

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Obtaining Important Information About Your Child From His Siblings
If all of the above methods have failed and your child is becoming worse, you can attempt to get information from your child's siblings, if there are any, but this is not the best course of action and should be used only when you have exhausted all other methods. Remember what Bill Cosby said in his video called Bill Cosby, Himself, namely that every big family always has one child that can be called "The Informer", and for him, that is the child his wife would always send to accompany him on his trips to the store and such. I always thought that was a very funny statement, but how true it is sometimes! Many times, you can get very valuable information from a sibling.

However, involving brothers and sisters can create many problems within the family structure, so it's best to leave them out of it if at all possible. Brothers and sisters are not always a lot of help in getting to the truth anyhow because they sometimes are also using and are fearful of you uncovering their own drug involvement. Instead of helping you, they will help their brother or sister along in his lie to you. I can't count how many families I know of where the drug use is a cooperative effort involving teen brothers and sisters, so when you go snooping to find out about one child, prepare yourself to find out some things that you probably didn't really want to know but need to know about the others. In the case of younger or smaller siblings, they may be fearful of retribution for tattling on their older and stronger brother or sister and will be very reluctant to tell you anything for fear of their brother or sister coming after them when you aren't around.

Other times, siblings may feel very resentful and disgusted about the amount of time you are spending trying to help their wayward brother or sister. These kids are following the rules and doing what they are supposed to be doing, but may feel very ignored by you and would just as soon see the offending sibling committed somewhere. This happened in our family. When I finally got my son into residential treatment, I was angrily confronted by the rest of the kids about how much they resented all the attention this one son had gotten and how I "ignored" them. I pointed out that they now had me all to themselves because their brother was away in treatment, but that didn't make any difference at all. Talk about wanting to take a very long vacation to Alaska or something!

However, there are times when siblings can be a very good source of information. When a teen gets into extreme behaviors, it can be very frightening to their younger brothers and sisters, and by taking the younger sibling alone for a drive, buying them a soft drink and having a nonthreatening conversation with them, it is sometimes amazing what you will find out. They generally are anxious to tell you but want to be reassured that you won't let their brother or sister know how you found out. It is vitally important that any information that you receive from a sibling be kept confidential, if only for the reason that you need to make sure the information is correct before confronting the wayward teen.

If a sibling tells you something very important, attempt to verify the information to make sure the sibling isn't just trying to get even with your other child. If you are able to corroborate the sibling's story with other things that have been going on, then you have to decide what you are going to do with the information. It is not a good idea for your teen to know that another sibling "narked" on him. Therefore, when confronting your teen about what you have found out, it is best to present the teen with any other evidence you have discovered and keep your tattling sibling completely out of the picture.

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If you have discovered that your child is doing something very dangerous to himself, then your best course of action is to immediately find a counselor to consult with. Be prepared, if you are in an HMO, to have a very long wait to get your first counseling appointment. If you feel your child is in an emergency situation, do not hesitate to bring him/her to an urgent care center or an emergency room. If the child's problems are deemed an emergency, he/she may be admitted directly to an inpatient adolescent unit for stabilization. If not, the emergency room will make a referral to a psychiatrist, and this can sometimes help to put a teen on the fast track to getting an appointment with somebody who can help them, particularly if the teen is threatening suicide or is totally out of it from drug use (as my son was).

Once in the counselor's office, if the child's behavior is considered life-threatening, a counselor will most likely recommend an adolescent treatment program, either inpatient or outpatient. Many local hospitals offer these types of options. Keep in mind that most inpatient adolescent treatment programs are generally only three to five days long, after which time the child will be coming home but will be transitioned back to his regular school via an IOP (intensive outpatient) or day treatment program. IOP can be a half day or all day long. Usually the child will attend for an entire school day, and then, after a week or two, the child will be transitioned to half days, attending school the other half of the day. This half day program can last up to two more weeks, depending on the program and the insurance coverage or ability to pay.

Some kids respond beautifully to these programs, and most show some improvement the first time they attend one of these types of programs. Sustaining that improvement in behavior and building upon it, however, is really the big challenge. If a child returns to his same friends with whom he was abusing substances before his treatment program, chances are he will not stay clean for very long. And if he has to return to one of these programs due to decompensating behavior, you may not see as much improvement the second time around. Occasionally two or three hospitalizations will click on that light bulb in a child's brain and he will figure out that this is not a very good way to live his life. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to happen all that often. Intensive support from family, counselors, youth ministers at church, and other concerned adults can sometimes help to keep a child busy and away from the friends with whom he was getting into trouble before the hospitalization. Helping a child develop an interest, such as music lessons, taking up a sport, and encouraging him to get involved in wholesome extracurricular activities are self-esteem builders. Helping your child use his time in a constructive manner as well as enhancing his self-esteem can be of great help in keeping a child on track.

Once into counseling, many kids get good at throwing psychological jargon at you to use as an excuse for their behavior. My child told me that he had trouble with his "impulse control" after walking out of the school building in the middle of the day and smoking a cigarette on the football field. Yeah, right! I have now pretty much figured out that my son was high on Coricidin when he pulled that stunt. No wonder he had no impulse control!

Your insurance may cover a more intensive stay in a psychiatric facility or drug treatment center, but it is doubtful. Most insurance companies do not see the value of paying for too much substance abuse treatment, so a parent with a child who has not responded to the above measures sometimes has to get very creative in finding ways to pay for more intensive programs. If your doctor is recommending residential treatment for your child (as our doctor did), you may be faced with some very difficult financial decisions, with the choice ultimately boiling down to whether you should keep your financial picture solvent or save your child's life, with no guarantee that the money you spend to save your child will actually do any good and result in a child who is clean. It's a very tough spot to be in as a parent, particularly if there are other kids in the family!

One last thing...keep in mind that if your child has developed an addiction to drugs, a counseling appointment every 2 or 3 weeks will do very little to help him break his addiction and stay clean. Intensive counseling, drug rehabilitation or even residential treatment may be necessary (see WWASP Treatment Program Information), in order to remove your teen from the bad influences of his/her friends. Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings along with working a 12-step program can be very effective if your teen follows the 90/90 plan (90 meetings in 90 days). The 90/90 plan helps kids create new relationships and gives them constant support as they go through the very difficult process of changing their lives. The NA program, in particular, was extremely effective for one of my kids, who got clean at age 17 and is still clean after more than 15 years. I vouch very highly for the overall good this program does to help and support people as they break out of their addictions. Remember, no matter what treatment your child is getting, if he/she continues to hang out with the same drug-using friends as before, his/her chances for success at getting clean and staying clean are practically zero.

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MY CHILD IS 18 OR OVER - What Options Do I Have?

When you have an acting out teen who has reached the age of 18, (which I will refer to as a young adult) all the rules now change for parents. Once a teen reaches the age of 18, they are legally an adult, with the right to vote, the right to join the military and the right to enter into contracts. They also have the right to refuse any treatment program a parent might feel is in their best interests. All residential treatment programs that I am aware of require a young adult to sign themselves in, and they may leave at any time. One good treatment program for men and women who are age 18 and over is Camas Ranch, which is geared for young adults ages 18 and older. This program teaches life skills, provides 12-step programs, and helps young adults complete high school. However, as with any of the other WWASP programs, your teen will have to be willing to sign himself in.

One way a parent can get help for a severely acting out young adult is to get legal jurisdiction over them, thereby maintaining the legal right to sign them into a treatment program. This can be done by getting a lawyer and going to court. It is your responsibility to prove beyond a doubt that your child is a threat to himself due to his behavior and to have a very specific plan of action for that child.

If a child enters a residential treatment program at age 17 and is still in the program on his 18th birthday, he can sign himself out and leave at any time. It is the policy of the WWASP Programs to help set up an exit plan for the child, which includes a home contract agreed to by both parents and child. Again, I know of parents who have gone to court to keep their kids in the program after the age of 18. This is not always necessary, however, and WWASP has many 18-year-old students who have decided to complete the program and graduate high school without the coercion of their parents.

Once your child turns 18, he can legally be out on his own. Therefore, if you are providing a roof over his head, food on the table, and other amenities, this is a big privilege for your young adult. It is not his right to receive these things anymore, and it is the smart parent that lets their young adult know in no uncertain terms that there are some rules to follow to continue on in this manner. Young adults should be going to school or working a job. They should not be sitting around the house doing nothing. Young adults who are not in school should be paying some room and board, even if it is only a small amount, such as $25 or less a week. Young adults should be accountable to their parents, even though they are legally an adult. If they are not planning on coming home for the evening, it is their responsibility to let you know so you don't sit up half the night worrying about them when they don't show up. If you suspect drug use is going on, it is also your right in your house to set a curfew, perhaps 2:00 a.m. If your young adult does not seem to understand these rules, they can be written out in a home contract. If he/she does not want to follow these rules, he/she can be told to go live elsewhere. This may sound very harsh, but parents must consider tough love in order to give their kids the tools for living the rest of their lives. For the record, I would NEVER endorse kicking out a child before he turns 18. In most states, you are responsible for your child up to his 18th birthday, and you need to use whatever means possible to help your child until that 18th birthday comes.

If a young adult is allowed to lie around, making all sorts of excuses about not being able to find a job, using drugs, hanging around with bad people, you are enabling that life-style by not putting your foot down in a firm manner. It's not easy to watch a young adult go storming out the door looking for another place to live, but believe me, I've been through it and in my experience, it was the best thing I could have done. My 18-year-old son stormed out of my house but since has negotiated a good living arrangement for himself, found a way to buy himself a car, got a charge card, and is about to be promoted in his job to an assistant manager. He spends a good portion of his time working and does not have the time to do the things he had been doing before our blow-up. He is cordial and friendly to me these days. It was very, very difficult watching him go, but it turned out okay and I have no regrets anymore. I learned the very important lesson that not allowing our kids to be irresponsible, even though it hurts to let them go, is a great gift we can give to them.


I will add one caveat here. If your child/young adult has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder I or II (AND you are convinced this diagnosis is correct), your situation is a LOT different than the parent who simply has a rebellious teen. Bipolar disorder is a serious, life-long illness that interferes with basic functioning. To give you an example, try to imagine being the happiest, excited or most elated you have ever been in your life....now try to imagine feeling like that and at the same time trying to do your job efficiently. Now, try to imagine the worst news you have ever had in your life and how you felt....and once again, imagine trying to do your job when it feels like your world is falling apart. It would be impossible for all but the most extremely self-controlled person to function efficiently (or at all) in these states of minds, but this is how a bipolar person often feels, especially when they are not on medication. To further add to the dilemma, Bipolar I individuals will often hallucinate while in their most manic states, which generally requires hospitalization and medication stabilization. These hallucinations can occur in a bipolar person who is not using drugs; it is part of the illness. So you can see why these ranges of moods can create a situation for a bipolar young adult that makes it impossible for him or her to hold a job or to function normally. Many of these young adults finally end up on Social Security Disability because bipolar disorder is a real, permanent disability that prevents a person from functioning. Medications can be very helpful, such as lithium, but most have many side effects, some of them severe, and the tendency of the bipolar person is to stop taking the medications when they start feeling more normal because of all the side effects. However, once they stop taking the medications, they once again end up either totally manic or suicidally depressed. One study I recently read estimated that over 50% of the people in homeless shelters have bipolar I or bipolar II disorder. So if your young adult (18 and over) has this disorder, you can kick him out when his behavior becomes intolerable to the rest of the family, but don't be surprised if they end up back on your doorstep a week or two later looking skinny, emaciated and sick. Residential treatment facilities can go far to stabilize an under 18 child who is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, helping them to stay on their medications and giving them coping strategies. Since many bipolar individuals engage in extremely risky behavior, a residential facility can ensure that an under-18 child is kept SAFE and ALIVE as well as giving parents and other siblings a breather from the utter chaos caused by a child with this disorder. I emphasize utter chaos, because a person who has not dealt with a child with this disorder really has no clue how extremely difficult the situation can be for parents and other family members, nor do many therapists who have not had to live 24-7 with a bipolar person.

I have asked two of my sons to leave because of bad behavior. (I emphasize again that I do not ever endorse tossing out an under-18 child from your home.) One son, who is not bipolar, totally got his act together and is doing really well now, being clean of all drugs, even quitting smoking, almost has his associate's degree in business, which he is paying for himself, and rising rapidly in his job. But most importantly, he has become a caring, empathetic, decent young man whom I am extremely proud to call my son!!

The other son who I asked to leave (who has bipolar I, which is the more severe form of the disease) got so bad that his psychiatrist called us and told us we should let him back into our home because he was so manic that the psychiatrist was fearful for my son's life. We, therefore, did reluctantly let him back in. He had refused to go to the homeless shelter (at that point, he was EXTREMELY paranoid) and he was sneaking into people's garages at night so that he would have shelter for sleeping. None of his so-called friends would help him because he had pretty much alienated them as well with his strange behavior.

If the situation in your home has become so severe that you can no longer tolerate the crazy, insane behavior of your bipolar young adult, or especially if that over-18 child is also doing dangerous or illegal things that put your family at risk (such as dealing drugs or hanging out with gang members, etc), then you need to get him or her out of your home, even if it means letting your young adult go to the homeless shelter. If your young adult is put on Social Security Disability, you might be able to get some information on state-supported living facilities. However, remember that once your child is on Disability, they are legally disabled and that is their future. It is very scary for a parent to have to make the decision to get help for their child by declaring them disabled, and it is not a decision made lightly. I know of many parents who have preferred to wait a few years before taking this step, at least until their child is in his 20's, before taking the step of having them declared disabled and put on Social Security Disability in the hopes that their child might come around and be able to do something with his or her life. If not, you might try to find a structured living facility for him or her, but good luck. I can tell you from experience that other than the homeless shelters, there's really not much out there to help young adults in this situation, which is one reason that I have resolved to donate regularly to our local shelter. They are doing a job that nobody else wants to mess with!

An excellent book on the subject is The Bipolar Child by Demetri and Janice Papolos.

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DON'T IGNORE THE SIGNS - Parents on a Guilt Trip

If you have also read My Son's Story, which is included in this web site, then you know that he is in residential treatment for multiple problems, one of them being drug abuse. I ignored a lot of the signs that my son was using because...

  1. I didn't want to believe it was that bad... 
  2. I had no clue about a lot of the things he was doing, including huffing and abusing cold pills...
  3. When I would question him, he always was able to give what seemed like a logical explanation about his condition, such as the chemical smell always present in his room, which was easier to just believe than to keep questioning him.

It is amazing how many parents I have talked to (and I was one of them) who have kids that are severely acting out and are even in residential treatment, who deny that their child was using drugs. These parents will categorically deny that drugs had anothing to do with the problems their child was experiencing. This may be the case in a few instances, but I would be willing to bet that more often than not, the kids have done a very good job of lying to the parents and convincing them that drugs are not a problem. I can testify to the fact that it is much easier to slap a psychiatric label on a child, such as bipolar illness, ADD, or depression, than to admit that the child is abusing drugs. None of us wants to be labeled "a bad parent", and we seem to feel that people are going to be pointing the accusing finger at our parenting skills because of the bad behavior of our child. However, if our child has a label, then we can blame the illness for the problems and keep our own self-esteem as a parent intact, and not have to live with the guilt that we did something to cause this awful problem. Many parents secretly feel that the responsibility for the problem is entirely their fault because they did something wrong, they failed to respond to the child, they were too busy with their jobs and ignored the child, and the list for guilt trips goes on and on. However, the big problem with relying on a label to explain our situation to the world does nothing to help the situation with our child, and may actually enable the child to escalate his bad behavior by also giving the child an excuse. (I couldn't help myself...remember, I have ADD or bipolar illness or depression or conduct disorder, etc. etc.)

If you, as a parent, fall into this category, please don't buy into this guilt trip. I am a recovered alcoholic, and I remember that I blamed my parents for a long time for all my problems. However, the bottom line is that my parents did not force me to drink...I did that all by myself. If your kids are abusing drugs, they are making that choice on their own, without your consent or approval.

Since I have come out of the closet on our family's drug problems, I have found that most people are very receptive to what I have to say and many approach me later stating they are having the same problems. I discovered that most of the people I come in contact with do not think I am a bad parent, but admire me for trying to do something to help my son as well as to help other people, so my biggest fears of people thinking I was a bad parent and a bad person actually have never materialized. And for the occasional person who does think I am a bad parent because of what my kids have done, I say to them, "Phooey on you!"

Kids all over the country are becoming addicted to multiple different substances from every kind of background imaginable, from the poorest of the poor to the very wealthy. And unfortunately, even inner city drugs like heroin have been making a huge showing in suburbia, with many relatively affluent teens now battling heroin addictions. 

Don't ever underestimate the role that peer pressure plays in a child's drug use and get off the guilt trip fast because your child will not be helped by a parent who is feeling guilty and thus too immobilized to do anything. 

If you suspect drug abuse is taking place, however, it is your responsibility as a parent to try to get help for your child. Drug abuse ruins lives, tears families apart, and sometimes kills. It is nothing to be ignored!!!

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