A Substance Abuse Guide for Parents

Learn About Teen Drug Abuse

Parents should stay informed about what their children do and what is going in their lives. In order to prevent kids from abusing drugs or help them recover from addiction, parents should understand drug addiction and the effects it has on teens.

Types of Drugs

Alcohol and marijuana have been two of the most-widely abused drugs by teens for the last century, but other drugs have grown and diminished in popularity throughout the years. Today, teens are exposed to synthetic drugs such as prescription painkillers and synthetic marijuana and hard drugs like ecstasy and cocaine.

The number of teens who consumed marijuana and believed there was no great risk involved has climbed in recent years, but smoking cigarettes and binge drinking are slowly decreasing in popularity, according to national surveys. Overall, illicit drug use is also on the decline.

Commonly Abused Drugs

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Ritalin
  • Adderall
  • Xanax
Locker on a High School Hall

Where Teens Encounter Drugs

High school parties might stand out in parents’ minds as the hub of risky behavior. Indeed, many teens will take their first drink of a beer or be offered their first joint at a weekend get-together. What some parents don’t realize, though, is that kids may encounter drugs in their school’s hallways or in a parking lot after class.

In the 21st Century, teens can access drugs just about anywhere. Some convenience stores and gas stations sell dangerous drugs such as synthetic marijuana and bath salts over the counter. These drugs have become popular in recent years.

Your own home may be the most alarming source of drugs, though. Curious kids often explore the liquor and medicine cabinets in their house, and they may experiment with the drugs they find.

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Preventing Substance Abuse

A teen’s relationship with his or her parents has a profound impact on their decision making. There is a delicate balance between being a positive role model for your child and being smothering or overprotective.

Eventually, teens have to make choices for themselves, and some of those might be poor. However, parents can take certain actions to reduce the likelihood that their children will experiment with drugs. More than one in five parents believes they have little influence on their child’s decision to take substances. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Know Their Friends

Your child’s groups of friends play a massive role in their attitudes on drugs. As they move through school and meet new people, they’re likely to bounce around different circles and be introduced to different hobbies. Some of these people may convince them to experiment with alcohol and other drugs.

Parents should get to know their children’s friends. Invite them over to visit. It’s important to know who your child hangs out with be alert for harmful influences. If you notice a negative change in your teen, identify the friends they are spending time with. Encourage your child to hang around the people you consider to be positive influences.

Friends Laughing
More than one in five parents believe they have little influence on their child’s decision to take substances. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Model Good Behavior

From the day your child is born, you are the biggest influence on his or her life. An unfortunate number of parents squander this responsibility with reckless personal habits. Something as seemingly innocuous as smoking cigarettes or drinking cocktails can set a precedent for your child’s future behavior.

Be cognizant of your influence, and do your best to model good behaviors while in the presence of your children. Research shows that adolescents tend to imitate their parents’ behavior, including alcohol or other drug use.

Create a Positive Environment

It’s not enough to simply model good behavior. Children need a positive environment. In teenage years, children need a home that reinforces their good behavior and builds their self-esteem. Teens who doubt themselves or feel disregarded by their parents are often the ones who seek alcohol or other drugs.

Be as involved in your child’s life as you can. Motivate them to strive for excellence and ensure that they know they are capable of it. Diminish stress and practice stress-relief strategies with your children to teach them healthy ways to relax.

Talk to Teens Early

A 2013 report showed that nine percent of parents don’t teach their children about the dangers of drug abuse. Overwhelming evidence shows that a parent’s lessons and involvement reduce the risk of substance abuse habits, particularly when started at an early age.

Talk to your children early and often about the drugs they may encounter. Let them know the dangers of getting involved with drugs and that you find it unacceptable. In a 2014 survey, eight percent of teens whose parents were against drinking admitted to drinking alcohol. Comparatively, 42 percent of teens whose parents took a more neutral stance admitting to drinking.

Father giving his son some fatherly advice
9% of parents don’t teach their children about the dangers of drug abuse.

Warn About Peer Pressure

Whether from new friends or strangers, teens will encounter peer pressure during their middle or high school years. When you discuss drug abuse with your kids, be sure to warn them about peer pressure and how to handle it. The famous slogan “Just Say No” is a basic template for how to deal with peer pressure.

It’s not always that simple, though. Pressure can take many forms, and sometimes the friends your teen trusts the most end up being the ones who encourage them to experiment with drugs.

Teach your children how to identify these situations, and how to be above the influence of their peers. They may tend to think that saying no makes them look uncool. It’s important to let them know that resisting peer pressure, and not following the crowd, may be the coolest thing they can do.

Enforce Consequences for Drug Use

Establish clear rules on the unacceptable use of alcohol and other drugs early in a child’s life. If they violate the rules of the house, make sure there are consequences. A lack of repercussions can lead to repeated experimentation and drug abuse.

Parents can foster good behavior by suspending a teen’s privileges or enforcing some other consequences for abusing drugs. For many parents, the idea of punishing their children causes a lot of stress and anxiety. It’s important to remember that reasonable consequences at home are often less severe than those enforced by school officials or police officers.

Monitor Their Activities

Without invading their privacy, do your best to keep tabs on your teen’s schedule and whereabouts throughout the week. If they mention any parties or sleepovers, make sure you know and trust the parents or chaperones who are supervising.

Your children should have no problem sharing this information with you. If they don’t want to tell you, that might indicate a problem. Don’t let your children stay out too late or attend any gatherings that seem suspicious. While monitoring their activities this closely may seem invasive, a study revealed that high levels of parental monitoring are associated with low frequencies of substance use.

Mother Concerned About Her Teen Using Drugs
High levels of parental monitoring are associated with low frequencies of substance use.

Warning Signs and Symptoms

Some children experiment with drugs despite their parent’s best efforts. Thousands of adolescents consume alcohol or other drugs every day. While many are capable of trying drugs once and walking away, others succumb to addiction.

As a parent, you need to be aware of the signs or symptoms of drug abuse. If you recognize warning signs, it may be time to stage an intervention and look into treatment options.

Physical Signs

  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Flushed skin
  • Track marks or abscesses
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Impaired speech or coordination
  • Unusual smells on breath or clothing
  • Inability to sleep

Behavioral Signs

  • Inability to focus
  • Problems in school or with authority
  • Lying and deceiving
  • Mood swings and instability
  • Hyperactivity or lethargy
  • Loss of inhibitions
  • Indifference to family or obligations
Teenager depressed on the floor

Depression and Co-Occurring Disorders

Drug abuse and mental health disorders commonly coincide. An estimated two-thirds of adolescents who abuse drugs also suffer from at least one mental health problem.

Co-occurring disorders include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Schizophrenia

Like adults, teens who suffer from mental health problems are more likely turn to alcohol or other drugs to treat their symptoms. Parents can help prevent drug abuse by maximizing their involvement in their child’s life and by looking out for any signs of mental health problems.

Other Health Problems

Drug abuse and addiction can lead to a laundry list of health problems: some big and some small. Teens who use drugs may display a number of symptoms. Health problems caused by drug abuse include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headaches
  • Seizures
  • Nose bleeds
  • Elevated heart rate and blood pressure
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Digestive problems

Finding Help

There are several steps parents can take if they suspect their child is using drugs. They should address the issue as soon as possible to deter continued drug use. If parents can intervene early, they may be able to help their child quit on their own.

Repeated drug use can dramatically alter a teen’s brain. In many cases, parents should consult a health care professional for advice on addiction treatment options and referral to a drug rehabilitation center.

Father and Daughter talking


Often, people who suffer from addiction — including teens — only seek help when they are forced to. If necessary, parents should force their children to attend treatment before the justice system does.

Interventions do not have to be dramatic or confrontational like the ones seen on TV. Overly dramatic interventions may be more likely to lead to resistance or violence. Interventions should be calm, carefully planned conversations. The goal is to get the teenager to agree to visit a doctor or addiction specialist.

Teens may fear treatment because of the withdrawal effects they’ve experienced. You should ease those concerns by explaining that reputable treatment centers are safe environments, and recovery professionals go to great lengths to make detox as comfortable as possible.

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Treatment Options

Parents should research what to look for in an alcohol and drug treatment center and what type of treatment options work best for teens. Specialists at treatment centers can screen for signs of drug abuse and assess a teen’s health status. The assessment will include several questions and may include a blood or urine test.

A specialist can help parents determine the type of treatment that is best for their child. In some situations, a teenager may be able to continue to attend school and receive treatment on an outpatient basis. Depending on the type of addiction, outpatient treatment may include a combination of medication to ease the symptoms of withdrawal and therapy appointments.

In more severe situations, an inpatient or residential facility may be the best option. Certain facilities specialize in treating teens and see only patients under the age of 20.

Father and Daughter talking

Parent’s Role During Treatment

A parent’s first job is to get help for their child. Once the child has started treatment, you should support the recovery process. That might mean driving them to appointments or picking up and keeping track of medications. It also means helping them emotionally during difficult times.

If a doctor recommends family therapy, parents and other family members should participate with an open mind. During other therapy appointments, it may be best to give your teenager privacy with his or her counselor. You should encourage your child to be completely honest with their counselor or therapist at all times.

Supporting Recovery

Parents should continue to support their child’s recovery even after a treatment plan comes to an end. They should try to maintain a low-stress environment at home, discontinue their own alcohol or drug use in front of their children and continue to enforce rules at home.

Aftercare Support icon

Aftercare Support

Encourage your teen to continue to receive aftercare support. You can ask for a referral to local support groups or other aftercare services from a health care provider. Support groups include 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous and teen groups such as Alateen.

If there is a recovery high school in your area, it may be the best option for your teen’s return to school. Only children in recovery from addiction can attend recovery schools, and the faculty and staff members at the schools are trained to work with recovering teens.

Handling Relapse

Recovery isn’t easy, and many people relapse multiple times. Relapse doesn’t mean failure, though. Parents should enforce rules for a drug-free home, but they should also be understanding if relapse occurs.

You should talk to your teen’s treatment provider to determine the appropriate steps to take after relapse. Steps may include a return to an inpatient facility or outpatient therapy. It’s important for parents to recognize the warning signs of relapse, which are similar to the warning signs for drug abuse, to prevent it from continuing.

Handling Multiple Relapses in Teens

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