If you’ve just discovered or have reason to believe your child is using nicotine, alcohol or experimenting with drugs, the first thing to do is sit down and take a deep breath. We know this is scary, but you’re in the right place. Take a beat and prepare for the important conversation ahead. Some brief preparation now can lay a foundation for more positive outcomes ahead.
Get on the same page
We’re all familiar with children’s trick of turning to one parent when the other says no. It’s best if you, and anyone who shares parenting responsibilities with you, can get on the same page about substance use before raising the subject with your child.
- Remind each other that nobody is to blame.
- Come to an agreement on the position you’ll take.
- Even if you disagree, commit to presenting a united front.
- Pledge not to undermine or bad-talk each other.
- Remind each other to come from a place of love when talking to your child.
Prepare to be called a hypocrite
Your child may ask, “Have you ever tried drugs”? There are ways to answer honestly that keep the emphasis less on you, and more on what you want for your child. For instance, you could explain that you smoked, drank or tried drugs in order to fit in, only to discover that’s never a good reason to do something. Focus on the fact that substances affect everyone differently. Just because your life wasn’t harmed by substance use, you’ve seen it happen to too many others.
Don’t let your response become a justification for substance use. Focus on the issue at hand. You want to keep your child healthy and safe, and this means avoiding substance use.
- Be honest – but be sure they know you don’t want them using.
- If you vape or use tobacco and your child calls you on this, mention that you are an adult, and yes, you can do this since it’s legal – but you understand that you shouldn’t and it’s not healthy. Underscore how hard it is to stop as an adult and that you want to help your child to avoid making the same mistakes.
- If you’re in recovery, think of your past substance use as an experience you can use draw from to help improve your child’s future. Tell your child, “I did these things but I made wrong choices, and I want you to know your family history.”
Gather any evidence
It’s understandable to have some reservations about snooping in your child’s room or through their belongings. Remember that your primary responsibility is to protect their well-being. As you gather evidence, try to anticipate different ways they might deny responsibility, like the excuse “I’m holding it for someone else.” Even if you don’t have an airtight case, you’ll be better prepared for the important conversation ahead.
Common hiding places include:
- Dresser drawers, beneath or between clothes
- Desk drawers
- Small boxes – jewelry, pencil, etc.
- Backpacks, purses or other bags
- Under a bed
- In a plant, buried in the dirt
- Between or inside books
- In containers designed to conceal – fake lipstick tubes, fake soda cans, etc.
- Inside over–the–counter medicine containers (Tylenol, Advil, etc)
Expect anger, resolve to remain calm
If you think the conversation will be uncomfortable for you, imagine how your child will feel. Be prepared for them to say things to shock you, deny even the most convincing evidence, accuse you of distrust or worse.
Prepare for how you’ll handle an angry or resentful reaction from your child. Read further on How to Have a Conversation, Not a Confrontation.
- Resolve to remain calm, no matter what your child says.
- Try not to be baited into responding with anger of your own.
- If the conversation gets heated, take a pause and pick it back up again later.
- Don’t forget to tell your child that you love him or her, and this is why you’re concerned.
Set a realistic goal
Things will go more smoothly if you have a desired outcome for the initial conversation with your child. It’s okay – and probably for the best – to keep expectations low. It may be unrealistic to expect them to admit to use and pledge to stop. A more reasonable objective, like expressing that you don’t want them to use, can be a win.
- Keep expectations to a minimum, especially if this is your first conversation.
- Set a small goal and move toward it, one step at a time.
Establish clear rules and consequences
Before initiating the conversation, think through the rules you would like to put in place, and what the consequences of breaking them will be. This can help clarify the goal of your conversation, and help you set a clear next step. Read further on Setting Limits and Monitoring Behavior.
- Going into the conversation, have a clear idea of the rules and consequences you’d like to establish.
- Be sure your spouse or co-parent is prepared to enforce these rules.
- Listen to your child’s feedback. They are more likely to obey rules they’ve helped create.
- Don’t set consequences you are unlikely to enforce.
Recognize any addiction in the family
It’s important for your child to understand that a family history of addiction puts them at higher risk of substance use disorder or addiction. You can explain that their genes make them more vulnerable, creating even more reason to avoid substances.
Download your free guide to speaking up
You can never be too safe or speak up too soon – even if you think they’re just “experimenting.” Download the Intervention eBook, our comprehensive guide to taking the first important steps to address your child’s drinking or drug use.