Concerned Your Child Is Using Drugs? Write a Letter.

hand writing a letter

If you’re concerned about your child’s alcohol or drug use, consider writing a letter. Yes, the good, old-fashioned pen-and-paper kind.

A written letter can provide an opportunity to express your thoughts and feelings to your son or daughter that you might find hard to share in person.

In today’s world of emailing and texting (not to mention a steady stream of digital distractions even when you are in the same room together), a “retro” method of communication has a good chance of breaking through the noise and getting your child’s attention. In many ways, a letter shows an extra level of effort, time and respect.

Plus, in a letter you may find it easier to raise the more uncomfortable issues you want to talk about with your teens – without raising the tension — making it easier for him or her to hear what’s on your mind.

And by sharing your thoughts in writing, you will likely spark the in-person conversation you’ve been wanting to have, laying the foundation for a genuine, heart to heart.

Part I: Before You Write

Here are some ideas and tips to think about before crafting your letter:

  • Consider the attention span you’re dealing with. Keep your letter to one page.
  • Be conversational.
  • Write as a parent, not as a friend. If appropriate, sprinkle in a little humor to help break the ice.
  • Avoid anger, scare tactics and shaming words which will likely make your child shut down. Instead, try to be curious, respectful and understanding.
  • Try to avoid sounding angry or confrontational. If you’re deeply upset, take a few deep breaths or go for a walk to calm down before you start writing.
  • Some words/phrases to consider using:
    • Love – Remind your child that you love him or her and are always there to listen, help, comfort and offer guidance.
    • Trust – Trust is valued by your teen but it’s something that must be earned. If you’ve filled in your teen on the rules (and consequences for breaking them), chances are she got the message. Communicate that you trust her, but she has to keep up her end of the bargain.
    • I Noticed – Give concrete examples of your teen’s behaviors – good or bad – that you’ve observed. A recent decision he made, an act of kindness, a project she worked extra hard on, something they’ve done that made you happy. Or – or made you cringe. Or perhaps it’s something that didn’t sit right with you. Paying close attention is one way to let your child know that you care.
    • I’m Concerned – You are writing this letter because you are worried and want to express it. It’s important to come out and say it. Be sure to share any details of what you’ve seen, heard, smelled, found, read, etc. (Example: “You haven’t been yourself lately”).
    • I’m Here – Be sure to tell your teen that you will always be there to talk and listen to what he or she has to say.
    • I Understand – Admit your own feelings and experiences (ex: “I remember when I was a teenager…”; “I’m not perfect but…”; “I feel that way sometimes too.”)

Part II: Anatomy of Your Letter

1. Break the Ice

To start, consider a friendly hello. A joke, perhaps. Or a meaningful quote.

Then simply state why you’re writing this letter. Feel free to acknowledge that you understand this is type of communication is unusual/retro/old-school. If your child is stressed or upset about something, come on out an acknowledge it

Now say a few kind words about your child – why you’re proud of him or her or simply what you love about him or her. Or maybe explain what you love about your relationship. Something positive. Perhaps it’s an example of a recent accomplishment or mention of a particular personality trait that you adore.

2. State Your Concerns

Just come out and say it. For example, you can say: “I’m concerned about your marijuana use.”

Then give a couple examples (if you have them), referencing recent behavior you’ve noticed, to support your concern. A few details go a long way. For example, you can say: “You failed your history test, you’ve been having a hard time getting out of bed, and your teacher called and said you’re not completing assignments.”

Then explain that this concerns you – and why. For example, “This can’t continue and I’m concerned about you.”

Try your best to sound calm and rational – being overly dramatic or angry might push your teen away.

3. Detail Some Next Steps

“I’d love to talk to you about this more.” Or “I feel far away from you and wish we could talk openly more often.” Or “I’d like you to get a drug assessment.” And include specifics. For example, you can say: “Let’s discuss this tomorrow night on the drive home from soccer practice.”

Clearly state any new rules or strategies.For example, you can say: “Let’s try to sit and talk for a few minutes every Tuesday after you finish your homework.”) or “Let’s make a formal agreement that I’ll be there to help you whenever you need me.” 

Consider writing a contract together at a later date.

4. End With Love

Tell your child that you love and care about him/her and want the best for him/her. Remind him or her that you are always there to listen, support and talk. (Get as gushy as you feel comfortable.) Thank him or her for listening. Then sign your name.

The formality of a letter can add a seriousness to the situation that can get your child’s attention – and allow you to express how you really feel.

Sometimes we make the assumption that our kids know how we feel without our having to say it out loud (or in writing). But why take that chance? A letter can mean a lot to children of all ages. In fact, your child might save a note like this for a long time, reading it over again and again.

Part III: Deliver Your Letter

  • Treat your child to an activity – just the two of you, whether it’s a meal or a walk – and present it to them at the end, explaining why you wanted to spend some time with them and so that they understand the importance/gravity of what you want to communicate.
  • Hand it to him or her at a quiet time at home. Of course, s/he doesn’t have to read the letter on the spot, but you are assured that it was received, and it adds to its importance, personally letting your teen know that you care.
  • Put it in his or her backpack, leave it on his or her pillow or another place you know it will be found.

Some Final Thoughts

  • Be sure to read over the letter after you’ve written it to make sure it strikes the right tone and correctly captures what you want to say.
  • Read this father, Ron Grover’s letter to his son.
  • If you don’t have time to write a formal letter, a text or email or even a quick handwritten note, could work.
  • If you’re comfortable doing so, please share your letter with us in the comments section below.
Richard Catalano Ph.D.

“The overwhelming majority of kids say they would rather talk to their parents than their friends. Even kids who are involved in alcohol and other drugs wish they would be having those conversations with their parents."

Richard Catalano, Ph.D.

Follow Up with a Conversation

If your letter is an expression of concern about your child’s use of drugs and alcohol, it’s important to follow up with a face-to-face conversation.

Talk Bubbles

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