Suddenly, your teenager is having trouble in school. Relationships with teachers, friends, siblings—and you—are falling apart. Your child has a new set of friends and no longer seems interested in favorite activities.
A frightening question weighs on your mind: "Is my child experimenting with drugs?"
If the answer is yes, you need to act quickly to help your child. But first you need to know for sure.
Besides having trouble with school and relationships, teenagers taking drugs may display emotional extremes with irritability, anger and changes in sleep patterns.
"Look for a significant change in behavior. A change in grades, a change in how they dress, or a sudden change in friends—those kinds of changes should raise a red flag," says Jay Ronald Heller, M.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia. "Parents should also listen to teachers and the teenager's friends."
A screening test
If you're convinced your child has a problem, says Dr. Heller, insist upon a drug screen. A refusal often is an implied admission of drug abuse, he says.
Parents can use several strategies to help their teenagers kick a drug habit or avoid experimenting in the first place:
"Parents need to confront the situation head on and not make excuses or enable the drug use," says Dr. Heller. "They need to make it very clear that this behavior is not acceptable, and to provide consequences for it."
Seek professional intervention immediately. Remember that this is a health problem, and that you can quickly begin family counseling to determine if there are any underlying problems. If you are considering counseling, talk to your doctor first.
If your teenager isn't experimenting with drugs, provide encouragement and positive reinforcement. "Show your kids that you respect their good judgment," says Dr. Heller, "by rewarding them with more privileges and increased responsibilities."
It is important not to panic at the first sign of alcohol and drug use, as this may increase the divide between parent and teen. It is better to engage them in a mature dialogue, treating them as if they were adults with their own opinions, while reinforcing that with adulthood comes the responsibility of health, safety, and appropriate behavior.
Look for changes
How can a parent know if a teenager is drifting into substance abuse? "Be alert for any decrease in functioning," says Dr. Heller. "If you spot behavioral changes that are interfering with school work, social activities or behavior at home, substance abuse could be the cause."
Warning signs may include:
A sudden plunge in grades or loss of interest in school activities.
A rapid, unexplained change of friends.
Sudden or unusual mood changes, especially depression, anger, and aggression.
Physical signs of drug or alcohol dependence: intoxication or hangovers.
What should parents do if they suspect the worst?
First, they should remain calm and in firm control of their own feelings, says Dr. Heller.
If you do find out that they're drinking or abusing drugs, let the teenager know that this behavior is illegal and unsafe—and that it must stop immediately. If the abuse doesn't stop, then it's time to consider seeking professional counseling, he says.