As a parent, you play an essential role in your son’s life. As he grows into a young man through his pre-teen and teens, you might worry about his exposure to the new risks he could experience. One of these risks is substance use, including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or prescription drugs. As a parent, you might wonder how to approach your son about substance use. It’s a delicate topic requiring a specialized approach. You can also speak with your son’s pediatrician about screening for substances.
Substance use can have devastating impacts on the developing mind and well-being of your son. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has created an agreement with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to implement a guide for substance use screening in pediatric practices to assist pediatricians in addressing substance use. The screening is recommended for children as young as nine years old.
The following are the most commonly used substances by young adults:
Despite its legality for kids under the age of 21, findings released by the CDC show that 12 to 20-year-olds consume one-tenth of all alcohol in the United States.
Understanding the risks of substance use can help you sit down with your son and discuss choosing better behaviors. Explain to your son that substance use can cause the following:
The earlier your son starts drinking or using illicit substances, the greater his odds are of developing a substance use disorder (SUD) later in life. If your son starts drinking in his teens, he increases the chances of becoming addicted or abusing other substances as an adult.
Do you suspect that your son is using or abusing substances? It’s a possibility he’s not acting like himself, or maybe he’s been cutting school and ditching other responsibilities. Perhaps his behavior has changed, his grades are dropping, or he’s started running with a new crowd. If you’ve noticed he’s been secretive or money has gone missing, his physical appearance has changed, or his sleep habits are unusual, it may pique your interest to determine what’s going on – they could all be signs that he’s using.
As a parent, it’s natural if your first reaction to potential drug or alcohol use triggers a rush of frustration, anger, sadness, fear, or disappointment. You’ve watched your son grow up, and the thought of them using drugs can break you. The feeling leaves you wondering where to start – how to approach your son about substance use?
If you think back to when you were your son’s age, you’ll remember that it was a challenging period of finding yourself. With that said, establishing trust and taking the right approach will determine how your son reacts. There are a few things to keep in mind when you approach your son about substance use. Pay attention to the following:
Although the issue is far too serious to be subtle, you must approach your son directly and immediately. Despite the feelings that are boiling inside you, it’s vital that you avoid letting anger and frustration spill into the conversation. The most efficient way to approach your son is with delicateness, not dramatics. If your initial approach is with anger, accusations, panic, or aggression, you can almost ensure that your son will not tell you anything.
If you lead with yelling or lecturing, your son will withdraw and sneak around or lie. You must approach him from a space of genuine concern for his well-being. It’s certainly a challenge to remain calm, but it’s without a doubt, the most effective approach to get to the bottom of your concerns. It’s extremely common for kids to deny drug or alcohol use or take a lighter approach and admit to not using it that often. If this occurs, provide a response where you tell them they shouldn’t use drugs of any kind. Lay down your house rules and consequences that may follow.
If you catch your son “in the act,” you shouldn’t speak to him if he’s drunk or high. It may seem like common sense at the moment, but “lecturing an inebriated teenager” is not the answer. You must wait until they’re in a fresher mind state.
When you ask open-ended questions, it’s more likely that your son will be honest with you. Some examples include, “can you tell me more about that?” Or “how did you feel in that situation?” If your child admits to using drugs, ask “how often” or “if they plan on using again.” It’s also wise to ask his input on how to proceed.
Avoid punishment as it rarely works. For example, if you take his cell phone away, it will not keep him from using drugs or alcohol in the future.
If your son admits to using drugs, you should thank him for his honesty. You must always let him know you’re there to help him and how much you love him.
Although your son’s substance use may not be a full-blown substance use disorder, it will help to see a qualified therapist who works with teens and young adults. There shouldn’t be any negotiations for professional help, and you should never take “no” as an answer. You must remain firm and pull your rank as a parent. Depending on the situation, you can provide your son with options regarding treatment centers or the therapist, but that’s it.
Even if your son is over the age of 18, you should have a similar type of conversation. Although you can’t force your son to attend therapy, you can use leverage in other ways, such as your financial position. You must also communicate your limits clearly to your son about using while living at home.
Knowing that your son is using drugs is stressful, and it’s challenging to sit down and have that conversation. If you feel that you are losing control over the situation, you must take a break and return once you’ve settled down a bit. Even if your son doesn’t admit to using drugs or alcohol, seeking therapy is crucial. There are various resources online that can help you find what is best for your son, and it may be time to start looking.
NIMH (October 2020) Substance Use and Mental Health. from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health/index.shtml
CDC (October 2020) Alcohol and Public Health. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm
NIDA (October 2020) Marijuana. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/marijuana
CDC (October 2020) Teen Substance Use & Risks. from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/fasd/features/teen-substance-use.html
CDC (October 2020) Underage Drinking. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm