By Meghan Vivo
Laurie Wilmot, LCSW, Answers Parents’ Frequently Asked Questions

The teenage years are all about developing a personal identity. As part of this period of self-exploration, many teens will break rules, defy authority, and possibly experiment with drugs and alcohol. During this stage, teenagers can be hard to communicate with and nearly impossible to read. Well-intentioned, but sometimes naive parents are left trying to decipher the hidden truths behind their teen’s mysterious behaviors and remarks.

To help parents determine whether their child may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, Laurie Wilmot, LCSW, provided the following responses to some of parents’ most common questions.

Is My Teen Using?

If you’re asking the question, “Is my teen using?” there’s probably already an issue, says Wilmot, a therapist with Aspen Education Group, a provider of education programs for struggling or underachieving young people.

“In my experience, parents are aware of about 30 percent of their child’s rule-breaking behaviors like sneaking out of the house, cutting classes, or experimenting with drugs and alcohol,” says Wilmot. “Parents are particularly naive about their teens’ drug and alcohol use. Often, a child’s drug use is at least double what parents report, and has been going on a lot longer than they would’ve guessed.”

When students arrive at a program like a wilderness therapy program, they complete in-depth assessments detailing the extent of their behavioral and substance abuse issues. Because they are in the wilderness, far removed from their family and home life, students tend to be fairly candid in their responses, which can come as a shock to parents who are often hearing the extent of their child’s issues for the first time.

What Are the Red Flags for Substance Abuse?

It can be difficult for busy, working parents to vigilantly monitor their children’s behavior and pick up on the signs that a problem may exist. Therapists recommend that parents keep an eye out for the following warning signs of drug use in their teens: irritability, secretive or suspicious behavior, or changes in eating habits, personal appearance, sleep patterns, hobbies, academic performance, or friends.

Other behaviors that may be indicative of a larger problem include always having cash on hand, new trendy clothes, or costly gadgets like iPods and video games, or compulsive use of caffeine, energy drinks, online gambling (especially poker), video games, or pornography. Wilmot also advises parents that a teen who smokes marijuana or uses one particular drug is most likely using other drugs as well. Once teens try one substance, their curiosity grows about how other drugs will make them feel.

Because many of these signs closely resemble normal adolescent behaviors, many parents ignore their intuition and tell themselves their child is just being a typical teenager. While this may be true of a child who makes an occasional mistake or skips class once in awhile, if these occasional incidents turn into a pattern of behavior, it’s is a red flag that your child may be involved with drugs.

According to Wilmot, parents need to keep a watchful eye not only on alcohol and illicit drug abuse, but also prescription and over-the-counter drugs, which are now some of the most easily accessible and widely abused drugs among teens. Wilmot’s advice to parents? Look in your medicine cabinets and the medicine cabinets of family and friends your teen visits regularly.

“I’ve heard too many stories of teens overdosing on over-the-counter drugs like Benadryl and their parents’ prescription medications,” she says. “Lock up your medications and keep an eye out for red flags like kids asking for cough medicine, medications disappearing from the cabinet, or empty boxes or containers in the trash.”

How Much of My Drug or Alcohol History Should I Reveal to My Teen?

Depending who you ask, you’d probably get different answers to this question. But Laurie Wilmot advises parents to be honest about their past drug or alcohol use, and use their experiences to quickly lead into a discussion of the consequences of their actions.

“Parents don’t need to disclose every detail of their history, but they can tell key stories and describe how their drug use affected their grades, their home life, and they felt about themselves,” counsels Wilmot. “By sharing what they’ve learned from their own experiences and asking their child questions to make sure their message is getting across, parents can be honest without inadvertently granting their child permission to use drugs or alcohol.”

Many parents are ashamed or embarrassed to admit they tried marijuana or other drugs in their teen years, and feel like hypocrites for prohibiting their child from experimenting like they did. But Wilmot reminds parents that today’s drugs and drug culture are very different than they were in the old days. “For one, marijuana is far more potent today than it was in the 60s,” she says. “Drugs like marijuana and Ecstasy are also laced with more dangerous substances like meth and heroin now. Kids don’t even know what they’re putting into their bodies.”

The bottom line is: Let your child learn from your mistakes so they don’t have to repeat them. At the same time, you’ll be opening the door wide open for further conversation, and you may be able to convince your child that you, too, were young and adventurous once.

When and Where Should I Turn for Help?

If you’re concerned that your teen may have a problem with drugs or alcohol, an open dialogue between parent and child is the best place to start, advises Wilmot. Find out what your child is using, how often, with whom, where, and why. By asking questions, avoiding long lectures, setting specific and enforceable boundaries, and making sure there are consequences if a child breaks the rules, parents can stay actively involved in their teenager’s life.

Wilmot also encourages parents to have their teens take random drug tests. She counsels parents to wait one day before giving their teen the test results, so that the child has an opportunity to problem-solve and voluntarily reveal any drug use. “Sometimes negative behaviors can be good learning experiences for teens,” she notes. “If you let them work through it, and give them a chance to be honest and figure things out, you might be pleasantly surprised at how responsible they can be.”

If your teen knows the rules and breaks them repeatedly, Wilmot recommends that parents speak with school counselors or principals, or call an expert at a residential facility or wilderness program to determine if their child needs professional help. The therapists at wilderness programs specialize in assessing adolescent behavior and determining the best course of action to help the entire family get back on track.

“Wilderness therapy has proven highly effective in teaching teens the life skills they need to lead productive, healthy lives,” states Wilmot. “In the wilderness, teens learn to control impulsive behaviors and their desire for instant gratification by working for everything from basic necessities like food and shelter to trust and respect from their peers. Without drugs, alcohol, television, or other distractions, teens can re-evaluate who they are and how their behaviors have impacted their lives and the lives of everyone around them.”

The adolescent years can be hard on the entire family. For teens, discovering their identity, their likes and dislikes, and deciding what kind of person they want to be are essential to their transition into adulthood. Be proud of your child’s growing independence and developing sense of self, but also know when it’s time to intervene.