Title:   Drug Proofing the Family
 Authors:   Erica Wittenberg & Jim Parker

 Publication Date:

  September 2003

 Catalog No:


..Red Flags

Suppose the unthinkable happens and you suspect (or, even worse, you have proof) that your child is already using drugs. What can you do? What should you do first?

Your first task will be to deal with your own feelings, whatever they are -- denial, shock, anger, fear, guilt, or shame.

These feelings are natural, but don't let them get in the way of an effective response. Talk the situation over with your spouse or a friend. Realize that you're not alone, you're not a bad parent, and you don't have a bad child.

The second step is getting both parents (if both are present and involved) to agree on a way of handling the situation that both feel comfortable with.

In private, you may differ in your feelings and opinions about how to respond. But no effective action is possible if parents are at odds with each other and you use the situation to carry on that conflict.

Without a coherent, unified plan, individual parents can dilute or sabotage the other's efforts. And an already-confused child can interpret conflicting messages as one more piece of evidence that adults are just too weird (or out of it) to confide in or take seriously about anything, much less something as important as drinking or drug use.

Sometimes, in the grip of a crisis, it's hard for parents (especially divorced or combative ones) to cooperate and resist the impulse to blame each other.

If this is the case with your family, counseling might help.

A good counselor has no interest in assigning blame or "rightness" or in taking sides, but in helping the family discover what keeps it from functioning cooperatively to find less conflict-oriented options.

Once you've dealt with your initial reaction and worked out an action plan with your partner (or any other adults having responsibility for your children), the next step is to gather information. Begin by getting answers to these questions:

  • What drug(s) is your child using?
  • How much? How often?
  • Who else is involved?
  • What else has changed in your child's behavior?

Be specific. Some of this information may come from your own observations or from adults who see your child daily, such as teachers and school counselors. It can come from your child or from other kids in the family. The goal here is simply to assess the level of your child's involvement -- to determine whether their use is only experimental or already at a higher level of risk.

At this point, remember that you have a number of obvious alternatives. You can:

  • Do nothing and hope for the best.
  • Confront your child in the heat of the moment and improvise.
  • Let your child know how disappointed/angry/ashamed/sad you feel and why.
  • Impose an immediate punishment -- grounding or taking away privileges.

Believe it or not, there's nothing wrong with any of these options, and any of them -- even doing nothing and taking a wait-and-see attitude -- could be the best away of responding to a given situation.

But another type of response can also have value: working with other parents to establish common rules and a consistent means of enforcing those rules.

If some or most of your child's friends are drinking or experimenting with drugs, chances are the other parents are as uncomfortable as you are. Get in touch with them. Parents can use the support of other parents in working out consistent rules for their kids and jointly following up if problems arise.

Parent support groups can take many forms, from informal coffee groups to teams organized to share responsibilities, such as driving the kids to and from school or providing after-school supervision.

There are a lot of advantages to talking and working with the families of your child's friends. Kids benefit from being part of a community where adults feel a mutual responsibility for their welfare and common expectations are shared and rules are clear.

Even if specifics vary from one home to another, it helps if each parent can say clearly: "This is what's expected in this house," and kids understand that. The exact content of a family's rules is probably less important than the fact that there are rules and they're understood by the whole family.

It's also important that rules be applied impartially and consistently. Children need to know that adults are aware of what they're doing, and have agreed to enforce mutually-accepted rules.

The point isn't to make kids feel policed or threatened, but to provide a sense of common values and concern involving as many parents as possible in your child's circle of friends for everyone's well-being.

Grade School Middle School High School Adult Child


Continue with Chapter 5: If Your Child Needs Help
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This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation. Check us out online at www.doitnow.org.