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The drug testing debate

Drug use among teenagers has been a parenting issue for decades. Today, with the availability of over-the-counter drug tests, parents have the option of testing their kids at home. But is it a good idea?

Drug Test Specimen Cup

Nancy Rappaport, M.D., an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Director of School Programs at Cambridge Health Alliance, offers advice for parents battling with this decision.

A tough decision

Parenting a teen in general can be a challenge, but when you add to it the suspicion of drug use, parenting can become a brutal job. If you have thought about utilizing a home drug test, you’re probably in a difficult spot grappling with a tough decision. “The decision to drug test is a tough one for parents because it speaks to an erosion of trust,” says Dr. Rappaport. Before you move forward with a decision, take inventory of your child’s situation. “Know your child’s friends and try to have an understanding of open policy for disclosure of concerns,” suggests Dr. Rappaport. “Also notice if there is a change in behavior with more erratic moods, trouble getting up in the morning, decline in grades, change in friends etc.” These signs are cause for concern.

Ask yourself…

Before you decide to drug test your teen, Dr. Rappaport suggests you ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why am I concerned?
  • Have I reviewed this with my pediatrician or a mental health counselor?
  • Could something else be causing these symptoms?
  • Is anyone else using drugs or alcohol excessively in the home?
  • Is my child at unsupervised homes or places where parents tacitly encourage drinking or smoking?
  • Am I nagging most of the time or do I have time when we are doing something fun together?

A plan of action

While the decision to test or not is difficult, perhaps the more difficult task is to figure out what you’ll do after the test. It’s best to be prepared with specific consequences if the test proves your suspicion correct. “Will you be able to go forward with any proposed plan of action if your child has a positive test?” asks Dr. Rappaport. “Many parents are very ambivalent about taking decisive action, and the test usually gives a clear, decisive answer.”


While many parents find drug testing helpful, some may have unrealistic expectations for the process. “While increasing supervision and knowing where your child is helps with limiting chances to drink or use drugs, drug testing at home can give a false sense of confidence that the underlying difficulties have been addressed,” warns Dr. Rappaport.


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