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Teen Substance Abuse: 6 Tips for Concerned Parents

I am the mother of two young adult sons who, for today, are no longer in the throes of active addiction.

I am a graduate of Georgetown University and live in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. I work in the non-profit sector, having started out my career as a commodities trader. I have been married to my husband, a commodities trader-turned-educator for 30 years.

Addiction in our then-teenage sons has greatly impacted our family. We missed many milestones as individuals and as a family. As parents, we spent many sleepless nights worrying, following, communicating with ‘attendance secretaries’, texting into the void of no replies. Our performance as employees suffered. And most painfully, as a sibling younger than her brothers by six and ten years, our daughter fights her own battles with the effects of others’ drinking/drugging in the form of anxiety and depression.
The journey our family has traveled I would wish on no one. As with all journeys, there are the challenges (some extreme) and the barely noticeable but oh so powerful gems of beauty and, in contrast with the chaos, the nearly sacred. For me, the single largest gift on this journey has been discovering the hope and healing to be found in Al-anon and the twelves steps. Al-anon has provided a roadmap for parents – I like to say: the chapter Dr. Spock did not write. It has also offered me as an individual a judgment-free, supportive community committed to positive coping and thriving (not just surviving). Lastly, twelve-step recovery has, to varying degrees, offered our family a common language of recovery, second chances, grace, personal accountability, and HOPE. For which I am and will be eternally grateful.
I share here today my top 6 hopes that someone hears (reads) something they need to hear. That some smallest of the smallest kernel resonates. That if nothing else, one reader realizes they are not alone and that there is indeed HOPE.


1. What do you wish parents knew in terms of prevention?

Start talking with your children about safety when they are younger – “I will do my best to keep you safe but I also need you to keep yourself safe. Avoiding addictive substances (drugs/alcohol) is part of keeping oneself safe.” This is the same way we (parents) talk with our children about personal safety, safety at home, in public, etc.
IF there is a history of addiction or substance misuse in your family, PLEASE be honest with your children. Substance misuse/dependency is genetic. It is already KNOWN that one will likely develop dependency. No one is too smart, too rich, too good-looking, or otherwise disqualified from developing a dependency.


2. What do you wish parents of teens who struggle with substances knew?

Please do not wait to get help. Teens who are showing signs of substance misuse in high school likely need help and support to turn things around. If you even suspect your child is having a substance use issue (changes in behavior/friends/attitudes), get help now. Allow some natural consequences to occur to help him/her see his problem(s). But an addictions counselor or an assessment by a local treatment program is likely in order. Think of it this way: if your son/daughter had a cavity you wouldn’t hesitate to see a dentist. Substance misuse is no different. If there is a problem it needs to be addressed. And a parent is rarely as impactful or effective as a professional. (Not even to teach our own children to drive!)

Many (tired) parents who suspect their teen has an alcohol/drug problem do everything they can to “just get my son/daughter through” high school. Then they exhale. Without getting help, often the troubles return/continue again in the next chapter (college or working). Once the adolescent reaches 18 years of age, the parent no longer has any legal say in getting their now “adult” child into therapy or treatment. Things get even more complicated.


3. How do you know if your teen is having a substance misuse issue?

You may notice behavior changes, lower grades at school, money issues, changes in friends, secrecy (or reduced transparency), irritability/anger, quick decisions/changes in plans. Of course, you may find evidence too (pills, marijuana buds, other paraphernalia). However, it is not a given that you must have evidence to have the sense that something is off. Trust your gut. Face the fear. Seek support. For yourself too.


4. What do you do if you need to get help for your child?

First, the earlier you get help the better. Science backs this up. A young person’s brain is still developing and substance use at a young age can really slow and impair brain development. Second, death by overdose or alcohol poisoning is a real danger. Third, the earlier you get help the more likely the use/habit is to be curbed before completely out of control. Fourth, please know there IS recovery/hope. Some of the greatest people I know are people in recovery. Dysfunction needs to be taken seriously; there are resources and a life in recovery is not only possible, it’s powerful. Al-anon is a group of very supportive people who care about a loved one who struggles with drugs or alcohol. Many parents attend because their son/daughter struggles. Meetings exist online and in person throughout the country. And meetings are free! From Al-anon I learned how to be in an authentic loving relationship with my loved one(s) who struggle with substance use disorder and yet NOT enable them. Without Al-anon I would have either remained entirely engulfed and enabling or have broken off the relationship completely. I’m so happy Al-anon offered a third way.

When seeking out a treatment program of any kind (inpatient, residential, outpatient), finding one that also offers a family component is very important. Relationships often are very stressed by the time the need for treatment is identified. Trust is broken. If there are siblings in the family please seek therapeutic support for them as well – while they may be “fine” in the moment, they have needs/disappointments/fears and broken trust too.


5. Does my son/daughter have to cooperate and/or want ‘the help?’

My personal belief for teens/young adults: it is much more important to seek out a reputable program and get him/her to attend whether you can get their buy-in or not. Of course, their buy-in is the first choice. But even without, get the help. The risks are too great otherwise. Once there and engaged with the professionals/others who struggle, they may come to realize they really do have a problem.
In our case, by the time one son left our hometown for treatment he was “looking forward to a break” from all the chaos that had accumulated/converged in his life. He was exhausted from lack of sleep and the highs/lows of using daily. We had no interest in clarifying for him that treatment was not a “break”. We were just thankful he went. And trusted the process from there.

Our other son, unfortunately, we had to have transported to a residential treatment program out of state. The spiral of suspected use was fast and furious and dangerous. There was no time to wait and this son was in no shape to cooperate. Thankfully, however, the process our education consultant recommended we followed ‘to a T’ and the night of transport, our son realized he needed help and went willingly.

Even if a teen/young adult gets treatment and relapses, any help/support and awareness gained stays with them into their future as a part of their toolbox for living a healthy, productive life. Nothing is wasted.


6. What do you think about recovery high schools or Collegiate Recovery programs?

Thankfully there are now recovery high schools emerging throughout the country. Many of these recovery high schools have the outcomes-based Alternative Peer Groups as part of the foundation of their community. If your son/daughter struggles and gets treatment during high school, a recovery high school offers a good alternative to going back to the high school where their initial habits/dependence developed. A positive change of social circles is imperative and supports recovery.
Collegiate Recovery Programs are also thriving around the country. There is a developing network and association of such programs throughout the country. AA and Nar-anon also offer meetings either on or near most college campuses. There are more options available to students who find early recovery or go back to college after taking time off.


About the Author
While I am willing to share my name, and in no way want to reinforce stigma but not doing so, I realize that in sharing my story, I am also by definition sharing the respective stories of my young adult children. For today, the privacy of each of my three young adult “children” wins out. I write/share anonymously. This too may at some point change. Because, after all, nothing stays the same, thankfully.