Here’s the thing: Many teens dabble with alcohol and marijuana these days. And tons of kids vape or JUUL. That may make you uncomfortable as a parent. Actually that should make you uncomfortable as a parent. But that does not mean that your child is an addict or alcoholic. When should you be worried about your teen and drugs?
How can parents tell the difference, though? Are there signs to look for or traits in your child that may put them at increased risk?
Lucky for us, I knew just the people to ask this question. My sister and brother-in-law, Ally and Lance Lang, are the founders of Hope is Alive (https://hopeisalive.net), a ministry of Christian sober living homes treating recovering addicts. They have TONS of experience dealing with addiction and allowed me to pick their brains on a topic that hits close to home with 2 teens in my house.
Here are their biggest questions when investigating your child’s questionable substance use:
1. How much is your child using?
Have the conversation even if it is uncomfortable. You must first get real with your teen. How much are they drinking? How often are they drinking? Are they using illegal substances? And try not to ask like this: “You would never do drugs would you? You know I would be so disappointed.” You will get the answer you want but it won’t be anywhere near the truth.
Equally unlikely to get the answer you want would be posing the question like this: “I had the best trip with your Dad when I was your age. Have you had those experiences?” You have just given permission for major experimentation. Keep it short and nonjudgmental.
If you are wondering, there is a reason. Your child may not be honest but you may be shocked to find that they do open up. And the more times you try the more likely you are to succeed.
Substance abuse is a symptom of an underlying problem. Curiosity is not. Opening the door is not going to hurt anything. And they may just be waiting for someone to take the time to ask. Why not give it a shot?
2. Does you child have that “addictive” personality?
You know your child better than anyone. At least I hope you do. And if you are reading this, I bet you do. Does your child have those “all-or-nothing” infatuations? Are they completely obsessed with something only to drop it and move on to the next obsession?
Lance is a recovering addict. His Mom says, looking back, she saw those tendencies in him for years. He obsessed over baseball cards as a child. And the obsessions continued over the years. Ally says they see a high number of addicts who exhibit those addictive behaviors from childhood on. If your child has these characteristics, it doesn’t mean they are a drug addict. It just means you will want to watch closely if you have the conversation and they are starting to experiment.
3. Has your child experienced trauma in his or her life?
Trauma is a huge trigger for addiction. Drugs and alcohol work as a “numbing” agent from the negative emotions that come from trauma. And escaping the negative is exactly what addicts are trying to do.
The difficult part for parents, though, is quantifying trauma. Everyone thinks of sexual abuse and physical abuse. But, the trauma in teens that elicits addictive behavior could be something as simple as someone calling your child stupid or bring bullied.
4. Is your child keeping secrets?
Secret-keepers are a scary thing for parents in general. There is nothing worse than when your talkative child just goes quiet. I have definitely been there.
Do you know who your child is? Can they tell you openly what they want for life? How about what they want for next week? I have 3 teenage step-sons and a daughter and have seen more than once the parental pain that comes when your chatter-box of an adolescent becomes a stone wall. Getting them to talk about anything can be torture. But it doesn’t mean you should stop trying.
I have found conversations in the car can help. Or simply taking one child out to a special dinner. Boys tend to bond over activity – maybe a game of basketball or a day fishing at the lake can get the conversation started.
5. Has your child had negative consequences from dabbling in alcohol or drugs?
Ally says that continuing to use DESPITE negative life consequences is perhaps the biggest indicator of addiction. If your child has had disagreements with friends, been in trouble at home, or struggled in school and continues to use substances, it is definitely time to seek help.
Kids may experiment out of curiosity or fun but the fun ends with trouble. If your child is continuing these habits, the use is coming from something deeper. They are using substances to escape or “numb” and that can last for life. As my favorite researcher Brene Brown says, “Everyone numbs and takes the edge off. Addiction is about engaging in these behaviors compulsively and chronically.” And these habits early in life are likely to become compulsive and chronic.
6. Have you considered a LADC counselor to help?
If you are concerned, seek expert help. You likely don’t need to send your child right to rehab for using a vape. BUT a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselor or LADC can provide expert judgment and the experience to know what your next steps should be. Selecting an expert in Alcohol and Drug Counseling will ensure that you are with the right person.
For more information on Hope is Alive, you can find them at https://hopeisalive.net. If you are a parent seeking support, Finding Home Support Group is available in 4 locations.
For more Blog Posts on Substance Abuse: