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What Parents Should Do Once They Spot the Warning Signs of Substance Abuse
(Provided by the Governor’s Prevention Partnership)

If you recognize any of the alcohol-other-drug use warning signs, it's time to take action. At this point parents often feel confused about whether there really is a problem and are reluctant to risk taking the first step, unsure of where it will lead them.

Parents, grandparents and other family members often feel tempted to wait things out and see if they get better. Sometimes they confront the child only to be accused of being distrustful or they hear angry denial, leaving them more confused than before.

It is important to remember that you don't have to do it alone. Following are crucial steps that will ease getting help for you and your child.


Involve a professional to help determine what to do next
  • Your child's school counselor, a clergy, a local youth service bureau, drug treatment or counseling agency can all provide you with information and advice on what to do next. If you're not sure whom to turn to, call INFOLINE (1.800.203.1234) and they'll direct you to someone you can talk to.
  • If your child is in the very early stages of alcohol or drug use, making your no-use rules clear and enforcing consequences for behaviors that concern you may stop the problem. Many schools and youth service bureaus offer drug prevention insight groups through their student assistance program that your child can participate in.
  • Contact your child's school, speak to your child's guidance counselor and ask if school staff are seeing any unusual behavior or inconsistencies in performance. Ask to be contacted if they observe anything of concern. Ask if they have a student assistance program; ask to speak to a student assistance team member.
  • The more warning signs you observe, the more likely it is that your child is facing a serious problem that requires professional help. A combination of warning signs may indicate that your child has been using alcohol and drugs on a regular basis. A professional evaluation will be needed to determine the best course of action.
Document as much evidence as you can
  • Use checklists to record all the behaviors that concern you. If you really aren't sure there is a problem and want to delay taking action, set a time limit of no more than two months. Carefully record every behavior that concerns you during this period. Documenting your observations is important because your child will work hard to convince you that things didn't happen the way you remember.
  • Some parents search their child's room looking for evidence of drugs or paraphernalia. You should expect that your child will be offended at your invasion of privacy. If you do find contraband, typically you will be informed that it belongs to someone else.
Prepare what you want to say to your child
  • Careful preparation will increase your confidence in dealing with the problem and give you opportunity to anticipate how your child will react. Anticipating your child's response gives you time to prepare your own. Decide if you want to want anyone else to be present when you talk to your child. You might consider another family member, a school counselor, or clergy.
Plan to talk with your child at a time in a setting where you can have uninterrupted discussion. Strengthen your interaction by using the following talking points:
  • Describe specific behaviors you and others have observed and when they occurred. The more specific you are, especially if you have written your observations down, the harder it will be for your child to deny, disagree, or argue.
  • Express your love and concern and your desire to help your child.
  • Emphasize your firm, non-negotiable position that you will not tolerate drug use and that you intend to determine if these behaviors are indications of drug use.
  • It is not useful to ask if your child if s/he is using drugs. Almost always, children will deny using.
  • If you haven't observed very many warning signs and believe that your child has just begun using, emphasize that any use of alcohol or other drugs at all is unacceptable. Describe the consequences for further behaviors that concern you. Use strong leverage; consequences might include no driver's license, no use of the family car, an earlier curfew.
  • If you have observed multiple warning signs, discuss your immediate plan of action. It is a sound strategy to schedule a drug evaluation before you talk with your child. During your discussion, relate that you will go together to the scheduled appointment. If your child balks at the having an assessment, claiming that drugs are not a problem, you can offer reassurance that the assessment will support his assertion, if true, and, therefore, there should be nothing to worry about.
  • Reiterate the behaviors that concern you and your intention to get help. Don't negotiate, bargain, or debate. Keep it simple. Stick with your major points and documented behaviors of concern.
Make an appointment for a drug assessment for your child
  • A drug assessment is the surest way to determine the extent of your child's problem with alcohol and other drugs. When you make the appointment, assure that the agency understands that the evaluation is for an adolescent; also, that the evaluation includes a drug test. Don't alert your child that a drug test will be part of the assessment.
  • It is your child's decision whether or not you can be present during the conduct of the assessment. Provide the agency/counselor with your documented information before the interview. Encourage the counselor to have your child sign a release of information consent so that s/he may discuss the evaluation results with you. Federal law prohibits disclosure of the results unless the child consents.
6.Keep the appointment no matter what
  • Again, don't negotiate, bargain, or debate. Don't allow temporarily improved behavior to weaken your resolve. If your child absolutely refuses to go to the appointment, go yourself. Use the time with the counselor to discuss the situation with the counselor and determine what to do next.
Don't give up if things don't go the way you want - go the distance
  • If ignored, alcohol-other-drug use will progress. Your efforts to this point have been an effective intervention. Hopefully, it will work early on. Often, parents have to continue to discuss the situation with the child, document evidence and work with other significant adults in the child's life to turn things around. This difficult intervention may take more time than you want. Persevere.
  • Get help for yourself. Parent support groups such as Families Anonymous, Tough Love, and Alanon can provide effective help as you strive to provide effective help to your child.