“Maybe he’s going through a phase?”

“She’ll get mad if I pry, surely she will figure this out on her own.”

“Maybe we’re being overly protective and analytical of him?”

“She’s just expressing her independence, right?”

These are just a few of the utterances we might whisper to ourselves amidst the heart-pounding terror we feel when we first realize our child is using substances. We feel overwhelmed, shocked, afraid, angry, and embarrassed. And we’re not sure how to help.

My goal with this article is to show you what to look for, and what you can do to help your child. To do this, I’m going to walk through the following three things:

Warning Signs: Whether your child is in junior high, or well into high school, there are some key warning signs to look out for that indicate substance use.

How You Can Help: Once you know what to look for, there are some practical steps you can take to help your child before the substance use progresses into a full-blown addiction.

Substance Use Warning Signs

It’s a nightmare to even think about your child using substances, but like Sir Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power.” So rather than bury our heads in the sand and ignore the uncomfortable truth, let’s equip ourselves to walk into these conversations with the knowledge and confidence necessary to help protect our families—our children will thank us for it later!

Five of the most common signs of substance misuse include the following:

1) Change in Attitude

A change in your child’s attitude is one of the first recognizable signs of substance use. This may begin with abnormal negative outbursts, increasing argumentative behavior, and a combative attitude about their privacy.

2) Loss of Interest

Substance use will begin to replace the hobbies and pursuits your child used to love. Depending on the severity of the problem, the loss of interest may be gradual, or you may see a stark discontinuation—as if a light was switched off inside.

3) New Social Groups

You will see your child’s social groups change. Whether your child is a social butterfly or prefers to have a handful close friends, your child’s circle of influence will change. Be mindful when hearing your child mention new friends.

4) Health and Appearance

Substance use can have a severe effect on your child’s overall health and appearance. Look for lesions on the skin and face and listen for complaining of sores in their mouth. Substance use can also lead to a general uncleanliness and an apathy towards outward appearance.

5) Isolation and Academic Struggles

The key here is to look for distinct changes. If your child used to spend time talking with you and hanging out with friends and is now insistent on spending hours alone in their room, there might be a problem. If your child used to be an “A” student and now they’re coming home with D’s and F’s on their report card, you should look for the cause of these academic struggles.

Why Take These Warning Signs Seriously?

The years of a young person are the core formative moments of life. During adolescence, you form opinions, habits, passions, and seek out role models. Because these years are so formative, young people are far more vulnerable to addiction and mental health struggles than adults. Consider these statistics:

  • 25% of teens who used an addictive substance by age 18 developed an addiction.
  • Only 4% of those who start using addictive substances at 21 or older became addicted.
  • 90% of Americans with an addiction, began smoking, drinking, or using drugs as teens.
  • Teenagers whose parents talk to them regularly about the dangers of drug use are 42% less likely to use drugs.

These statistics alone should be enough to make you careful to take drug and alcohol use seriously.

How to Respond to Your Child’s Struggles

I understand that approaching your child about his or her struggles can be daunting. And before you do anything, you should have a plan and appropriate expectations. Here are some practical steps I would suggest as you approach your child.

1) Validate Your Child’s Feelings

Even though you do not support their behavior, begin by validating their feelings (NOT validating the behavior). Share that it is normal to be curious and to experiment, and that many kids including their friends (probably who your child got it from to begin with) try these substances for a variety of reasons.

Once you’ve validated your child’s feelings, do NOT follow up with a “but …”—this will negate all the validating you just attempted to do and your child will not engage. Instead, what to say next is, “So what are your reason(s) for trying these substances?”

Do your best to ask these questions with no emotions. Kids are fairly intuitive. They can read your motive behind the tone of your words, so be careful to remain neutral so you don’t cut off or shut down the conversation before it has even begun.

2) Let Them Know You’ve Heard Them

Once you’ve listened to your child share their feelings and rationale behind their behavior, you need to let them know you understand. A simple way to do this is to repeat back to them what you’ve heard. This will show that you care and have heard their struggle.

3) Creatively Problem Solve

Once you’ve shown your son or daughter that you’ve heard them and care about what they’re going through, it’s time to take the next step. There are a couple approaches here:

You could go with the, “I understand why you tried these things; however, while you live under my roof, you will abide by my rules …” approach.

You could challenge them to write an essay: “15 reasons why their drug of choice is good and 15 reasons why it’s bad” (they have to come up with benefits that are exclusive just to their drug and would otherwise be impossible to experience). You may want to join them and write your own essay and then compare your findings—you may find that you child presents a more compelling argument against drugs than you do!

The goal here is to tap into your creative self and find a way to teach your child to make good choices.

If Your Child Continues to Struggle

Many times, following the above steps will be a good start, but will not be enough to see real change in your child. If you find yourself in this boat, you may need to have a third party present as you work with your child, or you may need to reach out for professional help.

To get started, fill out the form below, and we’ll work with you to get the help you need.