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What Can I Do if My Teen Is Using Drugs?

It is never too late to be a positive influence in the life of your child.

by Glenn Williams

You can be the best parent in the world and there is still no guarantee that your teenager won’t experiment with drugs, be tempted to smoke tobacco, abuse prescription medication, or go on a drinking binge with friends.

It is difficult for parents when they discover that their child is using drugs. Before jumping headfirst into addressing your concern with your teen, though, there are a few simple things you can do to prepare for the conversation that will need to take place. The key is to think before acting. You’ll save yourself woe if you do.

Prepare yourself. Get yourself in hand before trying to deal with the problem you’ve uncovered in your teen. This has several aspects.

First, don’t panic and don’t overreact. The worst thing you can do right now is get angry at your child and lose control. You need to be as calm as you can be and try to understand why your child is taking drugs and how much of a problem it is.

Also, don’t blame yourself. It is normal to feel that you have failed your child or begin telling yourself that you have been a lousy parent. But this is not a healthy time to focus your energy and emotions in a destructive way on your parenting.

And then, I advise that before you talk to your teen, you talk to others about a possible course of action. If you know of other parents who have shared a similar experience, learn from them. Certainly, don’t be afraid of seeking professional help. It’s also important to know what substance your child is taking and its effects so that you can be prepared in an emergency.

Finally, think about how the rest of the family is going to react. It’s not unusual to neglect the needs of other family members when so much energy is focused on the child using drugs. Talk to the others honestly about what’s happening. Affirm them and reassure them, because they are going to need you more than ever, and you are going to need them.

Create the right environment for talking to your child. Picking when, where, and how you will bring up the issue of drug or alcohol abuse with your teen is critical. It can make the difference between a conversation that leads to a turnaround in your teen’s life and one that makes matters worse. Here is some helpful advice:

  • Pick a place for the conversation where your child feels safe and comfortable.
  • Decide on a time that would be best for you to get your teen’s attention and cooperation.
  • Seek to understand rather than jump down your child’s throat. Plan to ask open-ended questions like, “If you were me, how do you think you would feel about this?” and “How can I help you?”
  • Don’t fall for the trap of labeling your child because she has made a mistake or fallen short of your expectations. Saying “You’re a failure … good-for-nothing” will hurt rather than help.
  • Figure out how to give feedback and empathize with your child. Whether your child admits it or not, he needs to hear that you will not abandon him and that you love him.
  • Look for ways to stimulate change. You will want to ask your teen about the changes he would like to make and how he would like you to help. Remember, you’re a coach!


Develop a game plan. 
No football coach goes into a game without a game plan or a set of plays to counter the other team’s strengths and weaknesses. Similarly, it is important to try to anticipate how your child might respond. If things don’t go as you hope, what is your backup plan?

Although your child might be responsive to your sitting down with her and wanting to help her, there is no guarantee of that. Your child could get angry, defensive, not want to talk, and even walk out without telling you where she is going. However, by taking steps to prepare yourself first, creating the right environment to talk to your child, and having a game plan and backup plan, you are miles ahead of the parent who chooses not to deal with the situation.

So, what does a game plan look like?

Again, there is no particular science or order of events that will work every time. However, here are some things that are more helpful than others, and the list below provides you with some things to consider as you prepare a discussion with your teen about drugs or drinking.

  • Assess the situation. Understand why your child is using drugs or alcohol.
  • Consider what boundaries might need to be put in place to protect and support the family.
  • Ask a mentor, coach, teacher, or counselor whom your teen respects to talk to your child.
  • Know what professional help is available to you and your child in your local area.
  • Consider treatment options if your child has been using drugs for a substantial period of time.

One important thing to remember here is that until your teen has taken full responsibility for his actions, you must look at every day as an opportunity for intervention, no matter how small.

Whatever specific challenge may come up in your family related to drugs or drinking, you have to be prepared. You have to be practical. You have to act. Have faith in yourself—you can do it.

Never too late

But I’m worried about something: Maybe I’ve depressed you. Maybe you know you have neglected to talk to your child for too long. Maybe your relationship with him has deteriorated to the point where you’re not sure he’ll listen to you if you try.

Is it too late for you to do any good?

I can still vividly recall a late-night conversation I had with Terry, a 54-year-old man who was lamenting the fact that he had made a mess of parenting his two sons and one daughter. All three had grown up, left home, and moved into different careers, but still the father blamed himself for having neglected them for much of their childhood as he traveled on business.

With tears welling up in his eyes, Terry whispered, “I failed them.”

I shared with him that, while he could not change the past, it wasn’t too late for him to repair his relationship with his kids and make things better for the future. He didn’t believe me at first, but he said he would try.

Months later I talked to Terry again. This time he told me how he had sought and received the forgiveness of his children. He said he now was relishing his relationships with his children and loving being a grandfather.

I share this story in case you are questioning if it is too late for you. Your children are probably not grown up and out of the house, as were Terry’s. But they may be getting older and perhaps are growing emotionally distant from you. You might have said the wrong thing, or said the right thing at the wrong time, only to see your child run in the opposite direction.

If this is your situation, I know that you may be feeling guilt, shame, or regret. You may be angry with yourself for not doing better and blaming yourself each time your children make a poor decision—about drugs and alcohol or anything else. You may be feeling helpless and resigned to your children slipping away from your influence and judgment.

Please do not lose hope. And never give up! It is never too late to be a positive influence in the life of your child.

As parents, we naturally wish we could go back in time and erase those occasions in our children’s lives when they have been hurt, including experiencing the consequences of a poor decision. Of course we can’t do that. But although it might be too late to prevent your child from getting hurt from a bad decision, that doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective parent from this moment forward.

You can be like Terry and start over, regardless of where you relationship with your children is at. You can start being a positive influence in their lives in regard to drugs and alcohol and other choices.


Adapted excerpt from Talking Smack by Glenn Williams, © 2010. Published by Authentic Publishing. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Glenn Williams is the Chief Operating Officer of Focus on the Family and has an extensive background in counseling youth and families. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Natalie, and their three children. 

You can hear more from Glenn on talking to your kids about drugs and alcohol on a recent FamilyLife Today broadcast.



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