Is My Child on Drugs?

Jan Faull, MEd, on what parents can do if they suspect their child is using drugs.

Q. Lately my 16-year-old son has become increasingly withdrawn from my husband and me. He has broken his curfew on several Saturday nights over the past few months, and when we confront him about it he gets very angry. He no longer brings friends over to our house, instead choosing to hang out at their homes after school. His grades are slipping a little bit and he recently quit playing baseball. He now seems uninterested in college, though it's always been a goal of his. Because of his changes in behavior, I'm concerned he's getting into drugs. What are the signs of drug use, and how can I talk to my son about my concerns without alienating him further?

A. It's difficult to know if the changes you're seeing in your son are related to drug use or depression, or are part of the identification crisis that's typical of many adolescents.

You probably fear that if you confront your son with your concerns, he'll bolt out of the house and run away, and cut all ties to home. If you say nothing, taking on the "don't ask, don't tell" approach, you chance that he'll slip further from the goals and dreams you hold for him and the ones you thought he held for himself. By being patient and allowing him to move thorough this period, he could snap out of it. Do you want to leave it to chance?

Right now, your first approach should be to learn more information. While the changes in your son's behavior are of concern, they probably only put him at borderline risk. If, however, the answers to the following questions are "yes" he could be high risk.

  • Has your son ever been suspended, expelled, or truant from school?
  • Has he had problems with the law?
  • Are you worried that your son may not finish high school?
  • Is his appearance or personal hygiene slipping?
  • Does your son display violent behaviors?
  • Is he manipulative or deceitful?
  • Do you suspect that your son lies or is dishonest?
  • Have you had money or valuables missing?
  • Have you witnessed your son being high on drugs?

If you can answer yes to more than one of these, it's time to seek professional help. Start by talking to a professional drug counselor who works with teens and knows what to do about it. It's important to talk with your son's school counselors and teachers as well. They may see your son differently than you. Also, talk to the parents of your son's friends.

If all signs continue to the point in the direction of drug use and possible addiction, you may need to conduct a professional intervention. Your son might need to enter a rehabilitation program, a residential treatment center, or a specialty school.

You need to be brave and loving. In the short run, it will be tough. In the long run, you'll be doing what's best for your son. For now, however, you simply don't have enough information or the professional support you need.

Until you know for sure why your son is coming in late, why he quit baseball, why he doesn't bring friends to your house, why his grades are slipping at bit, why he is angry, why he's breaking curfew, or why he's lost interest in college, don't jump to any conclusions. There could be many reasons for these behavior changes. You need to find out for sure what's going on with him and his adolescent life before accusing him of drug use.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com, and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times newspaper. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

Originally published on HealthyKids.com, February 2005.

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