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What to Do if You Suspect Your Child Is Using Drugs

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What to Do if You Suspect Your Child Is Using Drugs

Mar 17, 2022

Substance use in children can start as early as middle school. While experimentation is common in teens, it's important as a parent to know how to have conversations that can prevent abuse and protect your kids' development. Child psychiatrist Mary Steinmann, MD, shares the strategies that can help parents speak with their teens about the consequences of substance use and identify the best time to intervene with professional help.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: What should you do if you suspect your child is doing drugs? It's a scary moment for any parent. I mean, how do you know for sure? What's the best strategy for talking to them about it? How much can you do on your own and when should you see a professional?

I'm going to answer those questions with our expert today, Dr. Mary Steinmann. She's a psychiatrist who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry.

Dr. Steinmann, let's start at the beginning here. We're going to cover a lot of ground today. But what is the first thing a parent should consider if they have a reason to believe that their child may be using some sort of a substance?

Dr. Steinmann: So I think there's definitely a difference between experimenting with substances and actually developing a substance use disorder. And so it can actually be fairly normative or expected behavior in children and adolescents to be curious about or experiment with substances. But we also know that using substances can really place individuals at risk of developing later substance use disorders. So it's something that we want to take very seriously and be able to help parents identify signs in their own children that may warrant additional questioning or additional evaluation or perhaps even getting additional help and support and resources.

Interviewer: Yeah. So if experimentation can be normal . . . I would imagine as a parent, as soon as I saw my kids or had the idea my kids were using drugs at all, I would be like, "Oh, they've got a problem." But you're saying that that's not always the case?

Dr. Steinmann: That's right. It's definitely concerning behavior. It's not something that parents need to be complacent with. I think it's important to actually dissuade substance use and to talk to kids about the dangers of substance use and the potential consequences of substance use, because there are a lot of them.

Kids don't tend to think about long-term risks very much. Their brains aren't hardwired to think about long-term consequences until, honestly, sometimes their 20s. And so that's where I think it's helpful for parents to kind of take a role of, "These are the rules in our house. This is what our views are. These are what our values are. Here's what's acceptable and unacceptable behavior for our house. But I am also here and open to answer questions or listen to what you have to say. Or if you find yourself in trouble, intentionally or unintentionally, I am here for you."

Interviewer: So I'm a little confused. If you suspect that your child is using a substance and maybe . . . I don't know. Do parents generally have a good idea if it's early on? When you said, "Don't be complacent," do you just kind of sit back until you start seeing a problem develop, or do you jump right in as soon as there's some sort of substance use and say, "I understand this is just a natural thing. If you ever want to talk about it, we should"? I mean, I don't quite understand that differentiation.

Dr. Steinmann: I think a lot of the differentiation depends on families, right? So there are some families where even alcohol use or smoking is not a practice in the home, and so there might be a different baseline for a family addressing substance use and experimentation and how they approach that topic in their children, versus maybe a family where there is recreational alcohol use, or occasional nicotine use, or what have you. And so there are some baseline cultural differences that I think go into play.

We certainly want to educate our kids up front about what the dangers are, and say, even if you're comfortable as a parent, "This is kind of my own experience with using substances," talking about responsible use, if that is a value in your home. And in other homes, that might not be acceptable at all.

But kind of laying down, "This is what our family values here, our baseline. I understand you may be tempted to experiment with things. Here are my concerns about that."

And then also knowing your child and knowing their baseline and being able to identify if they're starting to behave differently, if they're starting to hang out with a different peer group, knowing what their peer group is and who their friends are. Having those consistent expectations is really important, but then also providing that guidance, that education, "This is what we value in our family."

That may be no substance use whatsoever. That may be, "This is the concern I have about you using substances right now as an adolescent." And that's the stance I tend to take as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. It's, "I'm concerned about the effect that any substance has on your developing brain. I understand you might be tempted to use. I discourage that, but I am also here if you have questions," and not to shut down that conversation prematurely.

If curiosity develops, if they're like, "Well, I see you drink all the time. Why can't I?" being prepared to kind of have those discussions so that then that increases your chances of having your child actually be honest with you if and when they start down that path, and being available to support and guide and eventually seek help, if needed.

Interviewer: So it sounds like if you suspect your child is using substances, and maybe they're just at the point where they're just kind of experimenting, that's a great invitation to have a conversation at that point?

Dr. Steinmann: Exactly. And even before use. I think sometimes we overestimate the age at which kids may actually be exposed to substances in schools, but we may be having these conversations too late sometimes and setting those expectations too late sometimes.

And so being aware that a lot of times, by middle school, kids are already exposed to peer groups or other folks who use, and maybe thinking about this for themselves. We may be wanting to even have those conversations earlier, depending on the environments in which our kids socialize.

Interviewer: And it sounds like a parent's kind of mindset is super important for this first conversation from the standpoint that I think . . . Well, first of all, what are some of the reactions that you see parents have when they find out their kids are using drugs? I can imagine there could be some anger that is probably born out of fear, because drugs can be detrimental to somebody's life. There's probably the thought that only bad kids do drugs. Are there some other reactions you see? Or what do you see?

Dr. Steinmann: Fear is a big one. And I love what you just said as far as anger often being born out of fear. Anger is a very reactive emotion. We all get angry over a lot of things. But if we dig deep, a lot of times it does come from that fear, either because we're terrified of . . . We just want the best for our child. We want them to grow up to be the best version of themselves that they can be, and there are serious consequences to problematic and ongoing substance use. There can be dangers to even intermittent substance use. And so fear is a very, very common and normal response to parents.

Also, that anger component of fear or fear that gets manifested as anger tends to be the emotion that then puts our kids on the defensive and shuts them down.

And so even though it's a completely valid emotion and an understandable one as a knee-jerk response on the parents' end, it may be the one that we want to kind of work on our own response to continue to invite that conversation instead of making the child feel that they're a bad kid because they thought of going to a party with their friends or even tried to ask a question or to get clarification for themselves or to seek help. Very often it's that fear of anger and punishment that keeps kids from seeking help.

Other common responses I get are often, "Only bad kids do that." And I think probably what parents often mean by that is the behavior is certainly concerning and undesirable, but that doesn't mean our child is a bad kid. There's a difference between the behavior and who someone is as a person, and sometimes kids can overly internalize that.

And so, if a parent's response is, "Well, only bad kids do that," or, "My kid possibly can't do that," that's a form of denial that probably needs to be addressed, especially if you're starting to see telltale signs of substance use or behavior changes. And we can talk about that in a little bit.

Or it can be, "Well, why are you judging my friends? They're not bad people. I know who they are. You don't," which can also raise defensiveness and unwillingness on the part of the child to engage more in that conversation.

Interviewer: Let's say a parent has suspected that their child is using a substance. They've had the conversation, they followed your advice, but then they start noticing, like you mentioned, some personality changes or they start becoming more concerned that it is escalating to a different level. Is that the point that you would get your child help, or is there another intervention that a parent would do first?

Dr. Steinmann: I think there are a couple different routes to go. So we have that conversation. Maybe we were lucky enough to have that conversation upfront before use even started, and the conversation had exactly the effect that we intended to have, which is to deter use. That's kind of the best possible scenario. "Hey, let's talk about the dangers of this." The kid acknowledges, "Yep, that's not a behavior that is good for me," and we move on.

Maybe experimentation happened, and then I think it's important to have the conversation potentially of, "What was that like for you?"

Understand what drives a behavior. We don't tend, as human beings, to engage in behaviors that don't work for us, especially in the short term in teenagers.

And so some may admit, "Hey, I've been really stressed out and I tried alcohol," for example, "and it helped me to feel better." Wow. As a parent, I would want to know, "Well, what's been stressing you out? Is there something else that's healthier that we can kind of engage in? Because, once again, I have my concerns about kind of going this route to address stress and manage stress. Are there different things that we can work together on to help you out with?" and seeing if we can get to the underlying driver of that behavior.

If the behavior continues despite, "Hey, we have a house rule we don't smoke, we don't engage in underage drinking, we don't engage in any forms of substance use" . . . which again is my stance, really, as a physician, because I'm concerned about that brain development . . . and the use continues, then we might need to consider additional types of interventions and understanding what's underlying that continued substance use.

I'm also going to be keeping a close eye on function. Function is really, in psychiatry and in medicine and mental health, what we look for to really start to make that distinction of, "What's the difference between substance use and a substance use disorder?"

And when we say the word "disorder," what we really mean is there is some impairment in academic functioning, in relationships, and that could be friends, family, etc. Are we engaging in additional risk-taking behaviors? Are we putting ourselves in safety risk by result of use? Are there legal consequences? Are we carrying vape to school, for example? All of those things would be red flags for more serious problematic use and possible disorder that might warrant additional treatment.

Interviewer: When a child is using a substance, is there generally some other underlying cause? Is it really truly just kind of a symptom of something else going on? I mean, either experimentation out of curiosity or an underlying condition, or are there other reasons?

Dr. Steinmann: It can be all of the above, honestly. What can start as experimentation can then kind of just spiral out into use for other reasons.

Some people may never engage in use but may find themselves starting with symptoms of anxiety or depression and then are just trying to find a way out of feeling that way. And they may have tried other things or talking to friends or things like that, or hear that, "Well, taking this has helped for me. Maybe it would help you too." And so it can sometimes be a chicken-and-the-egg type of scenario, honestly.

Interviewer: All right. Sounds like we have two steps so far. A parent suspects their child is using a substance, they have a conversation because it's just experimentation. Then that behavior continues, they have another conversation again asking this time, "Is there something else going on?" or, "Why are you using it?" or, "How does it make you feel?" reiterating the rules or the policies in the household. What would be the third step if it continues on past that point?

Dr. Steinmann: I would say then it's probably time to get some external support and some help. And honestly, it's never too early to get external help and support. Again, if this is just a conversation that, for any reason, a parent might struggle to have with their child or not know how to approach it, it is perfectly fine to seek out professional help to help learn how to have that conversation.

And there are a lot of other internet resources that are available if you don't have the ability to talk to somebody.

But I would seriously then consider looking at other resources, including a therapist or a primary care physician.

Not all cases of substance use disorder have to go directly to a psychiatrist, just like not all cases of depression and anxiety need to go to a psychiatrist. Sometimes talking with external supports, such as your child's pediatrician or primary care provider, someone that has an established relationship with them and knows them, can be a good middle-ground next step to get additional support before jumping into subspecialty options, although those are definitely certainly available.

Interviewer: Is there a negative message given to a child when you say . . . because there's a certain weight to saying, "All right. We've got to go to the psychiatrist now." You know what I'm saying? For this problem. That comes with a whole bunch of other stigmas.

Dr. Steinmann: It can. And unfortunately, getting mental health care and having mental illness needs is still really stigmatized in our society. I think that's why I generally recommend starting out with primary care if someone is having questions.

Now, granted, there are times where you would want to bypass primary care. For example, if your child has been absolutely refusing to go to school or you're noticing that they're skipping school a lot or they're getting suspended or even expelled for issues related to substance use, or you're concerned that there's an imminent safety risk, such as heavy use or heavy binge use or physical consequences from that, or you suspect a really severe underlying driver for substance use, including depression or anxiety, perhaps even things like suicidal thoughts, or if you suspect another serious mental illness, those would be things that would be quite appropriate to go up to a higher, more specialized level of care.

It can take a while to access the mental health system as well, and you don't want to get stuck in the lurch while your child is really struggling, especially if their imminent safety is on the line.

Interviewer: When you talk about substances, drug use, what does that entail for you as a physician and a psychiatrist?

Dr. Steinmann: That's a great question. I think a lot of times, when we talk about substance use, our minds automatically go to the hard stuff like heroin or cocaine or methamphetamine. We also think about alcohol and nicotine and marijuana, which are a little more readily available.

But there are also, especially with teenagers . . . Think about access and what you're more likely to be able to get a hold of or afford. Or what are the underlying concerns that might be problematic in teenagers, such as anxiety or depression?

This is another great example of a misperception, actually. Sometimes we think, "Well, my child is very high functioning and they do great in school. They can't possibly have issues with substance use." But I work with a lot of teenagers and young adults who may have some mild ADHD or anxiety who are very high performers and may feel compelled to be even higher performing. And so they may actually get wrapped up in overuse or misuse of cognitive enhancers, like caffeine or prescription stimulant medication.

And so having an idea of kind of the breadth of things that can be misused or abused is important.

It's scary and it can be overwhelming to think about, but it's important to, again, think about those underlying drivers of behavior and the type of direction that might lead even into substances we might not typically think about as being abusable.

Interviewer: And some of these ways of talking to the children about substance abuse might be kind of against a particular parent's parenting philosophy. We are all raised in our own ways by our own parents, and a lot of times, that's the way we raise our children. Is this evidence-backed stuff? Should somebody just go ahead and use their instincts instead going into this conversation? What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Steinmann: I think that parents are the experts on their children, and so using your instinct can be a very powerful tool.

If you are noticing that your child is not acting like themselves, I do think it's important to ask more questions and probe. And again, by asking, you're kind of almost opening the door to, "I'm interested, I'm curious about you. I care about you."

Sometimes the hardest thing we can do, as parents, is to open the door to conversations that we might not be comfortable having, but by doing that, we're actually modeling for our kids that it's okay to talk about these things, that maybe their assumption that we're going to blow our stack or over-assume might be unfounded, that we want to be and try to be safe people to talk to because we have their well-being at hand.

I liken it in some ways to talking about suicide, for example, and suicide prevention. There's significant data that shows that simply asking about suicide does not increase the risk of suicidal behavior. And I think the same is very true for substance use.

Just because you're asking doesn't mean that you are giving permission or suggesting that they should engage in that behavior. All asking does is signaling your child that, "Hey, I'm aware that this is a problem and I want to be a person that you can rely on and trust to talk to about it."

Interviewer: For a parent listening to this interview that wants to go on to get some more information, what are some good reliable sources that they could go to online to get some help framing this or figuring out the approach or whether or not they should be concerned at this point? What do you recommend?

Dr. Steinmann: For reputable sources on the internet . . . because you're right, there are a lot out there and it can be really overwhelming to kind of weed through and find the best sort of reputable information. I really like the Substance Use Resource Center through the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, or SAMHSA, also has a lot of good resources.

And something that I found fairly recently as a resource, that I thought was very parent-friendly type of language, is through the Child Mind Institute. And they have various questions about how to talk to your teen about substance use for parents who may not be sure on how to start that conversation.