Supporting a Child Through Substance Abuse
As our children grow, the concerns we have about their wellbeing evolve, too. We stand over our babies’ cribs, watching their chests move with each breath. We run after our toddlers to catch them if they fall. We hope our pre-teens’ school days are filled with learning and safe fun. And when our kiddos start reaching adolescence, many new worries arise; one of them is that of substance abuse. Today, let’s talk about ways to recognize and overcome times when our children may encounter dangerous substances.
Children and adolescents have different ways of exploring boundaries and testing out the world around them. Sometimes, this leads to harmful choices. There are a number of risk factors that make it more likely for a young person to abuse a substance:
- Family history of substance use
- Favorable parental attitudes towards the behavior, such as heavy drinking
- Poor parental monitoring
- Parental substance use
- Family rejection of sexual orientation or gender identity
- Association with delinquent or substance using peers
- Lack of school connectedness
- Low academic achievement
- Childhood sexual abuse
- Mental health issues
Notice how not all of these are within the parents’ control, so don’t blame yourself if you suspect that your child is using drugs. It’s important to stay calm and rational in order to be able to handle this situation in a healthy manner.
Signs to Watch For
If a child is involved in illicit activity of any sort, they might be reluctant to talk about it directly to parents or guardians. So, watch out for the following signs of substance abuse and, if you suspect something, have a gentle and honest conversation with your child.
- Change in behavior/mood swings
- Grades/academics dropping
- Change of friend groups
- More time alone in their room
- Change in sleeping or eating habits
- Change in weight/appearance/style
- Finding drug/alcohol paraphernalia
Of course, none of these are definitive signs that someone is abusing drugs or alcohol, but they could be helpful in tipping you off that something is not right. Also, some teens may actually want to come to their parents about their usage and ask for help; if this happens, keep an open mind and remember to be kind and understanding.
Tips For The Talk
If you do suspect that your child is struggling with substance abuse, it’s time to have that difficult conversation. It does not have to be complicated – simply start by asking them about it in a non-confrontational or judgmental manner. Here are some actionable tips:
- Be careful with your tone and word choice. Stick to ‘I’ language; avoid accusations. For instance, instead of saying “you are doing drugs and that’s not okay,” say “I am worried about you – can we talk about this?”
- Choose a time when you’re alone with your child in a relaxed environment.
- Share your observations and the reasons for your suspicions.
- Allow them to share their side of the story. Listen and show compassion.
- Let them know your thoughts on substance; share facts on the dangers of substance usage.
- If necessary, propose creating a plan of action, help them figure out the steps, and support them in following through.
Your response to the possibility of your child using drugs will be one of the most important factors in their future thoughts on usage, as well as their seeking out help for their usage. This is why it’s important to approach the issue delicately and gently. (For more advice on having this difficult conversation, check out our earlier blog on the topic: How to Talk to Kids About Substance Abuse.)
If you and your child decide it is time to seek help, remember that there are always community resources available to you. Speak with the school counselor to see if they offer any relevant programming. Your child’s pediatrician can be another great source of support. If you need more information, check out these trusty links:
And remember – choosing to seek help is the first step towards recovery, and supporting your child through this tough time is the best you can do as a parent or guardian.
About the Expert
Ciandra St. Kitts is a licensed clinical social worker with over 15 years’ experience working with children, adolescents, and their families in a wide range of therapeutic settings. She specializes in helping people dealing with anxiety, trauma, death and the associated grieving process, depression, stress management, and teen pregnancy/parenting. Through a strengths-based and solutions-focused lens, she draws on a multitude of treatment modalities in order to provide her patients with the most appropriate care.