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What to do if your teen takes drugs

Abbi Perets lives in Houston, TX, with her husband and five children.






Keeping kids off drugs

You suspect your child is taking drugs -- and it's one of your worst parenting nightmares. The bad grades, the crazy clothes -- you could handle that. But now, you're taking a closer look at the situation, and you think that your child, the one whose diapers you used to change, might be taking drugs. What's your next move?

Mother and Teen Son

The thought of our children taking drugs is enough to make many a mother's heart skip a beat. And yet, the world continues to turn on its axis in the moments after the realization hits you, and you do actually have to do...something. But what?

"Be very upfront and honest with [your teen] if you suspect something," says Vanessa Van Petten, youthologist and teen author of the parenting book, You're Grounded. "It's important to be very upfront about your concerns," she says.

Your first instinct is probably to look for proof. Van Petten cautions against this. "Never go through your child's stuff without [him or her] knowing," she says, explaining that such an act can destroy the trust between parents and kids.

You may be muttering to yourself that the issue of trust is no longer relevant, but that's not really true. If you really believed that, you wouldn't be feeling the way you are at this moment. You want to have a trusting relationship with your teen, and how you handle this incident can set the tone for a long time to come.

Keep confrontation out of the picture

You've been waiting for your teen to return, so when you hear the front door's telltale slam, you're out of your seat like a rocket. Slow down. Take a deep breath. You can turn this into a battle of wills and potentially permanently damage your relationship with your child, or you can actually make a difference in his life. Remember that many teens who try drugs don't have good problem-solving skills, and they often suffer from poor self esteem.

Tell your child, "We need to talk right now." Sit down in a neutral spot -- the dining room table works well -- and make sure you won't be interrupted. Hire a sitter to handle your other kids, if necessary, and whatever you do, do not answer the phone during this conversation. Let your actions demonstrate that at this moment, your focus is entirely on your teen.

No matter what you're feeling at this moment, and no matter how your teen responds, your job is to stay calm. Do not raise your voice, do not yell, do not accuse. Talk. Ask questions and insist on answers, but make every possible effort to keep the tone civil and the atmosphere calm. Tell your teen, in no uncertain terms, "This is your chance to come clean. I will find out exactly what's going on. If you tell me the truth now, I will be upset at the situation, but I will be much, much angrier if you lie to me and I find out the truth later."

If your teen denies drug use, you are perfectly within your rights as a responsible parent to insist on a drug test. You can purchase tests over the counter at most drug stores -- have one on hand before you sit down with your teen. Have them take it immediately.

Moving forward

If your fears are realized and your child is taking drugs, get professional help immediately. Find someone specifically trained to work with teens with substance abuse problems. Your child's school, your family doctor, or close friends may be able to refer you to someone.

Tell your child, "I love you too much to help you destroy your life. So until I know I can trust you, we have new rules." A child who uses drugs needs the same level of supervision as a toddler. You cannot allow him to go off with friends alone; you cannot leave him in the house without a babysitter, and you certainly cannot trust him with car keys or a cell phone. All of these are privileges that must be earned, and it will be a long time before your teen earns them back. But with hard work, outside help, and time, you can move past this hurdle.

This is one of the hardest tests of parenting you will ever face. It's one of those experiences that makes you who you are, that defines you as a parent -- and as a person. Know your limits, and know when to bring in help. You and your child can survive this experience and come out stronger on the other side.

For more tips on keeping kids drug-free:

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