When You Discover Drugs in Your Child’s Bedroom

Most parents worry that their child will experiment with drugs. But you mustn’t overreact. Countless teenagers go through a drug’s phase and emerge unharmed. If you’ve discovered a cannabis joint or bag of cocaine, you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last.

Initial Reaction

Imagine the scene. You are hoovering your daughter’s bedroom and accidentally knock over a bedside lamp. You pick it up and your blood runs cold. There, taped to the base, is bag of white powder. How is this possible? Only a few years ago you were reading Harry Potter to her in this very bed! And now she has entered a new world, one beyond your reach and understanding.

First, stay calm. What is it? Is there more? Some drugs are more dangerous than others, and it is important to know precisely what she is taking. For example, you may be relieved to discover that it isn’t cocaine but opioids. Yet opioids are extremely dangerous and highly addictive. The same is true of alcohol. Many parents are relieved to find that their teenage son is drinking instead of using MDMA or ecstasy, like his friends. Yet alcohol, were it invented tomorrow, would be classified alongside heroin.

At all costs you must avoid alienating your child. If they shut you out, or begin to see you as the enemy, that can be dangerous. How can you protect such a person? If you alienate your child, you drive him or her into the arms of dealers and addicts.

The first thing to do is talk to your partner. If you are a single parent, maybe talk it over with a loved one or trusted friend. Be sure you can trust them, however. You do not want this to spread. For example, don’t phone your daughter’s friend’s mum. Imagine if she then bans her daughter from seeing your child! Nothing will turn her against you quicker than that. Above all, do not confront your child in a highly emotional state.

What to Say

Choose your moment carefully. You do not want to be interrupted, so switch off the phones and tell your friends not to call round. You don’t want to confront them just as they are planning to go out, for example, or are about to tackle some overdue homework. Wait until the house is empty (could your parents take care of your other children for the evening?) and there are no distractions. Ideally, your child should also be in a calm and receptive mood.

Before discussing the drugs themselves, make two things clear. First, that you weren’t going through their room looking for them; no one likes being spied on, and teenagers in particular hate intrusion. Second, make it clear how much you love them. Avoid some great moralizing rant about drug trafficking or crime rates in Central America. And never say “how do you think this makes me look?” or “what would the neighbor’s say if they found out?” Your child may be scared, or possibly addicted. They need to feel that you are angry because you love them and are worried about their safety and happiness, not because they’ve compromised your political ideals, or added fuel the neighbor’s gossip.

You also need to adopt the right tone. Don’t patronize them! No one likes to be patronized, especially not teenagers. You can retain authority without speaking down to someone, so don’t set yourself up as an all-knowing, morally superior being. And try not to shame them either. For all you know, they may be consumed with shame as it is. Neither should you go on the offensive and tell them they’ve let the family down, etc. When people feel labelled, they tend to live up to those labels. Some parents rant, and they do so in a piercing and accusatory way. You wouldn’t listen to someone who spoke to you like that, so why would your child? Remember, you need to talk with them, not at them.

In any case, ranting and lecturing is absurd until you have the facts. And you won’t get those facts until you talk to them. So make that your first priority. Again, try not to overwhelm them with questions. The first, and most important, question is whether or not they have developed an addiction. Next, how long have they been using? And how often do they do so? Once a week? Every day? You also need to know where they got them. For example, they may be experimenting with a friend. Or they may be under the control of a dealer, who is blackmailing them. Men often use drugs to gain a sexual hold over women.

People abuse drugs for all sorts of reasons. Some are curious, others simply enjoy the high. Often, teenagers use them to fit in. Many addicts will tell you that their habit began with bullying. They felt excluded and persecuted, so they used drugs to appear cool and win over a new group of friends – or even the bullies themselves. Others use drugs to escape mental illness or emotional pain. Being a teenager is hard. You feel clumsy, awkward and unsure. Teenagers are also prone to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, self-loathing, and numerous other problems. Opioids, cannabis, alcohol, etc. numb the pain, while cocaine and alcohol make you confident.

Of course, the drugs may not belong to your child. In fact, he or she may not even be using them. For all you know, they are hiding them for someone at school. Maybe someone has threatened them unless they do so (which is why you should never destroy the drugs you find – doing so could place your child in danger of retaliation). Or maybe they are dealing drugs in order to pay off someone who is threatening or blackmailing them.

When you speak, do so in a soft, calm voice. Your child may be terrified, angry, humiliated or shocked. And when people are emotional they find it hard to absorb information. After you tell them what you found, give them a moment to recover (maybe suggest a coffee and a chat, which will give them time to calm down). When you speak, do so clearly and slowly, and keep the language simple and precise.

You could begin by telling them about your own experiences, or those of an uncle, sister or friend. When you do, you reduce their shame and make them more inclined to listen. Make it clear that you understand the appeal. It is stupid to say “drugs are disgusting, I can’t see why anyone would use them.” People use them because they feel great when they do. Whenever you deal with someone in crisis, the message should always be “I’m no better than you. Like you I’m flawed, scared, confused and fragile – we all are. But I love you, and I will be strong for you.”

Also, avoid saying stupid, ignorant things. Your child may know a great deal more than you realize. Indeed, he or she may know more than you. We are in the information age now. A smart child can find limitless information on their drug, so get your facts straight before you discuss things. For example, don’t try and scare them by saying “cannabis causes schizophrenia,” or “cocaine burns the networks in your brain.” Stay grounded and sensible. If your child senses that you don’t know what you are talking about, they will cease listening.

You want the channels of communication open. Never forget this. If your child becomes obnoxious or offensive, bite your tongue. Let them calm down, and be sure to hear them out. This cannot be over-emphasized. When counsellors are called in, they are often shocked at how little the parents know. They discover that their child is taking drugs, then rant and rave, threaten to throw her out of the house, and so on, yet never actually find out why she had the drugs in the first place! The counsellor spends a little time alone with the child and realizes that bullying or depression are to blame.

You want your son or daughter to take responsibility, but they aren’t going to do that if you lecture them like naughty children. When you allow someone to explain themselves, they feel respected, and that makes them more inclined to behave maturely. In short, if you treat someone like a silly child they will act like a silly child. So listen. And that means really listen. It doesn’t mean rolling your eyes and sighing at everything they say. Neither does it mean waiting for them to finish so you can launch into another rant.

Don’t be weak, however. Dealing with this issue means walking a tightrope. On the one hand you don’t want to fall out with your child, but neither should you be too soft. Of course, it is easy to give advice. And teenagers vary a great deal. Some are more mature than others and, while some respond to discipline, others see it as a challenge. No matter what your child is like, however, no one respects weakness. Just be careful not to confuse strength with bullying and intimidation.

The message you need to get across is “I love and care for you. I also understand the appeal of drugs, and I know that being a teenager is confusing and hard. But don’t take me for a fool. When I say no, I mean it.” Teenagers don’t like being nagged. And they don’t like lots of intrusion and petty rules. However, though they won’t admit it, many like their parents to be strong and principled. And they like a few rules and boundaries. They may like the idea of total freedom, but the reality would be scary. Boundaries and rules make a child feel safe.

Finally, get to know their friends. This is vital when dealing with a troubled teen. If their friends like you, they will warn you when your child is in danger. But be careful how you approach them. Don’t blunder in and say “I’m really worried about Sarah – is she smoking cannabis?” That is an intrusion into your child’s life they are unlikely to forgive, one permissible only if they are in danger. Instead, chat to their friends in a casual manner and hope they let something slip. If you do talk to them about drugs, keep it impersonal, as though you are just curious what people are into these days.

It is a myth that drugs always lead to addiction and harm. Of course, no drug is harmless, but your child isn’t necessarily on the path to destruction. Be kind, patient, strong and loving. And remember, those who do destroy themselves often do so because they have no one who loves them.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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