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Help! My child is into drugs!

Nobody plans for their child to make poor choices, but it does happen. And it happens to “good” children who come from “good” families. So what should you do if you suspect your child is heading down a bad path?

It might be a sudden lack of interest in sport, a decline in grades, a rapid drop in weight or a bong sticking out of your kid’s backpack that sets alarm bells off. Understandably, you may feel out of control, confused and — possibly — a little angry. How you react is important. According to psychotherapist and addictions counsellor June Lake, your response is critical. Here is what you should, and shouldn’t, do.

1. Speak with your child

Communication is everything. Ideally, you already have a loving and trusting relationship with your child, which means that you should be able to openly discuss your fears and concerns with them. The key in broaching the subject is to keep calm and come from a place of love.

“If you fly into a rage and throw out the evidence, what you’re doing is blaming and shaming your child and they might retreat totally from you,” June explains, “so it is so important to remain calm, remain focused and speak to your child in a very loving manner.”

In the event that your child turns confrontational or even aggressive, stay calm and do not engage them.

“Explain that you do not feel safe or comfortable with the way they are acting. You need to let them know that you’ll draw a line but no drama.”

2. Don’t play investigator

You’re not Sherlock Holmes, so leave the detective work to someone else and don’t invade your child’s space, no matter how sure you are that they have drug paraphernalia under every cushion and in every drawer.

“Please do not go snooping unless it’s a matter of life and death,” says June. “This is an invasion of boundaries and will break any trust that might have been established.”

Moreover, discovering drugs in this manner won’t actually do anything to make your child stop. On the contrary, it’s likely to make them sneakier and more secretive.

3. Teach consequences

It is important for children to understand that actions have consequences and to broaden their minds to what those might be. However, your approach should draw a distinction between consequences and punishment.

“What we’re trying to teach our children is consequences for their actions versus punishment for their actions, and in order to speak to them about consequences, you need to stay in relationship with them,” says June.

So while dealing out some punishment — such as grounding younger children — is perfectly fine, be aware that it will be the trust and relationship that you have with your child that will ultimately enable you to get through to them.

4. Don’t change schools or friends

Uprooting your child from their friendship network will not make them quit drugs. It’s simple: Geography is not a barrier for a determined child.

“Today there are drugs available around all schools and kids know where and how to purchase them,” June says, adding that by transferring kids to another school, you’re just dragging them away from an environment where they have established relationships.

Likewise, you cannot prevent your child from spending time with undesirable friends — your child will still call, text, email or use social media to stay in touch. A better approach, though one June admits is a point of debate, is to acquaint yourself with your child’s group of friends.

“This cuts down on dualities and you’re able to shine more light on the behaviour of their friends, which will give you far more information about the circle they’re mixing in,” she says. “Young teenagers’ peers are very, very, very important so it’s far better to include friends than shun them.”

5. Speak to other parents

Chances are that if you’re worried about drugs, so are the parents of the other kids. This offers a tremendous and multifaceted opportunity. By reaching out to the parents of your child’s friends, you can potentially discuss concerns, find a support network, share ideas and come up with a group strategy to overcome the problem.

“Invite the parents onto neutral territory somewhere for a meeting of concern about the children, their drug use or drugs at school,” June advises, “and then develop some strategies as a group.”

6. Don’t treat it as a phase

“This line of thinking is dangerous,” says June, “very dangerous.”

She explains that while kids — and teenagers, in particular — are drawn to experimentation and thrill-seeking, you can never be certain which way it’s going to go.

“You have to look at the development of drug use,” she says. “Experimentation happens across many areas. It will eventually either lead to heavy social use, which leads to abuse, which leads to addiction and dependency, or the kids will step back from the experimentation and get on with their lives. However, if you have a trusting, open, transparent relationship with your children, you’ll be talking to them about these things.”

In short, any and all drug use should be treated as a problem and something to be addressed.

7. Seek education and professional help

Drug abuse and addiction is a disease and should be treated as such. If you were concerned that your child had a physical ailment — such as diabetes or cancer, for example — you would research and seek medical help. This should be no different.

“There is so much information available today that there’s no excuse for parents not to be knowledgeable about drugs. There are also local community health centres that sometimes run classes educating parents on drug use,” says June. “[Parents] really and truly need to treat it as if it were cancer because it is a disease that is fatal if it’s not checked.”

She advises parents to use web material, family, drug and alcohol counsellors, youth centres, NGOs and narcotics and alcoholics anonymous groups.

“You have to accept a certain level of powerlessness [with drugs]. So if you think that your child has crossed that line, seek out professional help,” she says.

8. Don’t dispose of drugs or paraphernalia in secret

Throwing away a bong or flushing crystal meth while your child is not present will not stop them, but it will, in all likelihood, cause conflict. Instead be direct and transparent.

“You can ask the child to bring the paraphernalia to you because you’re going to destroy it or you can ask them to destroy it,” says June. “If they refuse, then you have a decision to make.”

Think carefully about your approach. While you’re likely to have a sphere of influence over your child, the underlying message that you want to send is that they can talk to you about anything.

9. Encourage alternative activities

While it isn’t always a successful strategy, trying to direct your child’s attention towards a more productive pastime, such as a sporting activity or a theatre group, is always worth a try.

“Foster whatever that young person shows interest in,” says June, “and look for ways to strengthen family relationships by doing things like camping.”

Strong family ties, she adds, foster confidence and self-esteem in children and position parents as powerful role models.

10. Don’t be afraid to involve law enforcement

Although this is a drastic last resort, sadly sometimes it is necessary.

“If you think your kid’s got problems and you’ve got evidence, you may need to resort to consultation with law enforcement officers,” June says, “particularly if you know who the dealer is.”

As always, discuss this with your child first and keep calm, logical and transparent. But if you’re concerned for their safety, don’t be afraid to act.

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