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
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
- 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.