7 steps for when you think your kid is using substances
Every good kid makes poor choices. Let’s just throw that out there. Frankly, it’s inevitable and the cause of much anxiety amongst parents and educators. It’s how life and growing up work. Kids test their limits and (hopefully) learn from the consequences.
Unfortunately, some good kids make worse, more harmful choices than others. That includes experimenting with substances like drugs and alcohol. Naive as they might be, the implications can be devastating.
That’s why it’s so important to be thoughtful about the behavior we model, the interactions we have, and the environment we create for them as they grow up.
Our focus is predominantly on prevention. We partner with parents and educators to bring relevant resources to help kids thrive. Our mission is to inspire and empower youth to find their natural high — before they try artificial ones.
But, we understand that good kids test the wrong limits, so we want to offer guidance and encouragement to parents and educators who care for them.
First things first. If you’re suspicious that your kid is experimenting with a harmful substance, whether it’s vaping, drinking, or worse, the first thing you need to do is…take a lap. Seriously, call a friend, go to the gym, grab your journal, or walk around the neighborhood. The fear and anxiety you’re feeling will prevent you from thinking clearly, and communicating clearly, and will only contribute to making things worse. Although you have an urgent problem, staying calm and clear-headed is important. If you approach them with intensity, fear, anxiety, guilt, disappointment, or anger, the interaction won’t go well, and you’ll cause a bad situation to worsen.
Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of your kid, so it’s normal and natural to feel tremendous anxiety. But, the more you allow big, hot feelings to be expressed towards your kid, the more likely they’ll feel unsafe around you.
2. Make a game plan
If you’re co-parenting, the next move is to get on the same page about your concerns and create an approach that you can agree on. Kids by nature will exploit your weaknesses, divide and conquer, and change the subject to avoid the bright light in their direction. So make sure you’re in charge, in agreement, and prepared to stay committed to the game plan.
Decide who will say what and what you will each do if the conversation gets heated. Permit yourselves to take a break or the other person to take over if it’s not going well. Make a clear plan for the consequences write them down, so you don’t forget.
3. Build a case
It’s not a good idea to begin with unfounded accusations. The more specific you can be about your concerns and where they are coming from, the better. That way, you’re not arguing about feelings or fears; you’re discussing facts. Bring your evidence and present your case in the most neutral way possible. Imagine the six o’clock news reporter presenting the facts of a new story.
4. Prepare for the worst
Nobody likes being caught or accused. Defensiveness is normal (and healthy), even if you’re caught red-handed. So, expect pushback or worse. It’s not uncommon for kids to say mean, hurtful things, deflect, change the subject, or make accusations. What’s important is to stay calm, not letting yourself get caught up in the moment or respond to every ridiculous comment. Decide to stay calm, and stick to a plan where you take breaks if things get too heated or feel you’re tempted to respond in anger.
5. Create (or reinforce) clear expectations
Chances are, your family hasn’t created clear expectations for every scenario regarding substance use. That’s okay — how could you imagine the current situation you find yourself in? Now is the time to clarify your expectations and fair consequences for their choices. Decide what your expectations and consequences will be going forward in light of these new circumstances. Write them down and keep them where everyone can see them. Don’t make the mistake of reviewing them once and assuming your kid commits or remembers them. Bring them up often, checking for understanding and their commitment.
6. Set up checks and balances
Now is the time to be more diligent, not more trusting. The health of your kid is at stake. Let them know what you will be doing to check in on them. Drugfree.org has a helpful article about drug testing your kid. Although they might make big promises for their choices going forward, or plead with you to trust them, or make you feel guilty for not giving them the independence they demand, remember that this is a crisis situation. They need oversight and support, not freedom. They can’t make healthy, wise choices for themselves yet, so you need to step in and help them for a while.
7. Come back to home base
Finally, this is likely intuitive to you already, but we’d recommend bringing your kid back to home base the most. By that, we mean to carve out intentional time to spend together. Consider getting away for a few days (and leave the devices at home) if you can. Do family game nights or movie nights. Go to the beach or the zoo together. Get in the car and go visit close friends or relatives. Bring them back home, to their center, and where they belong.
Your kid blew it, and you probably feel like you did, too. This is a wake-up call and an opportunity to engage with them in a new way.
Most importantly, recommit to loving them through this difficult time and phase in their lives and to your relationship with them. Recognize if you’re in over your head, and seek help from professionals who can give you and your kid the guidance you need.
Circle the wagons, so to speak, and do whatever it takes to reestablish a strong bond, clear boundaries, and commitments to working it out together.
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