Taking Action Against My Son’s Drug Problem

father and son watching sunsetHow could a person in recovery from alcohol and drugs possibly fail to recognize the symptoms of substance use in his own teenager?

Stupidity? Blindness? I’d have to say both, combined with a powerful, potentially deadly dose of trust.

In 8th grade, my son was part of the Gifted Students Program. One year later, he nearly failed his freshman year.  But there were what my wife, Paula, and I mistakenly considered, mitigating circumstances.

The summer prior to attending high school, he suffered from mononucleosis and the doctor warned us that the illness could reoccur. He seemed to have fully rebounded in time to attend classes and compete on the high-school wrestling team. But in a matter of months he started coming home exhausted, going directly to his bedroom and “sleeping,” or more accurately “passing out.” He looked pale, had dark circles under his eyes, lost his appetite and grew too skinny.

All signs and symptoms of substance use, right? But, did we see it?  No.

He also quit wrestling. A teen withdrawing from sports and activities they used to love is also another big warning sign of substance use and we completely missed it.

Note: It’s helpful to ask yourself what is driving your son or daughter’s behaviors around substance use. It could be anything from boredom and a lack of purpose, to feeling left out and insecure, to curiosity and thrill seeking. Understanding the “why” behind your child’s drug and alcohol use can foster empathy for your child and also help you think about ways to encourage healthier behaviors that compete with his or her substance use. Learn more about how “Behaviors Make Sense” > 

Instead, we brought him back to the doctor, thinking the mononucleosis had returned. His tests came back negative, including another for the closely related Epstein-Barr virus.

Now, let me cut to the chase.

In the first week of his sophomore year he was caught ditching class, four out of eight days in World History. That is when my wife and I finally put it together. We confronted him as soon as he came home that day.

“Are you using drugs?”


“Look me in the eye,” I said, “and tell me you’re not getting high.”

Fortunately, he’s not much of a liar. He could only glance up at me for a second and then lowered his eyes.  But the lie came anyway.

“No,” he said. “I don’t use drugs. I’ve just been sick.”

Our biggest mistake was trusting him. But we trusted him because we love him and because he had never lied to us before. Little lies? Sure, what kid hasn’t? A big lie, like drug use?  No. Not to our knowledge. (We later learned that lying is a symptom of the disease of addiction.) We were in denial and wanted to believe him. That yearning, need and desire to trust, that can be lethal.

Given my own dark past, I put the word out about him in my recovering community.

A simple question: “I don’t care who’s dealing to him. I’m not trying to bust anybody. I just want to know what he’s taking. What’s his reputation?”

Inside of a week, I had three reliable sources report that my son was known as a pot smoker, Ecstasy user, and a drinker. At that point, there was no more denying the obvious, and my wife and I had to take action.  Here are five things we did.  Let’s call them rules.

Rule #1: Drug Test

It’s best to have a doctor administer a drug test, but we bought an over-the-counter drug test kit.  Please keep in mind that drug tests, professionally administered or not, aren’t a hundred percent accurate, and teens often find ways to beat them. Still, our son’s home drug test came up positive for THC and a benzodizepine. He didn’t deny the results.

Rule #2: Consider Changing Schools

If possible, remove the teenager from the drug environment and peer pressure. In his case, it meant changing schools, from public to private. Though it was an expensive move, and we’re not wealthy people, it was worth the sacrifice. In our small community, the only private high school is a Christian Academy, with small classes (12-15 students) and a zero-tolerance policy for drugs. There were, according to our son, “no cool kids,” which we took to mean “non-drug users.” Begrudgingly, however, he adapted to his new environment. I should add that in our initial meeting with the principal, because of the fear and stigma of the disease, we conveniently failed to mention his drug use in fear he’d be denied admission.

Note: We recognize that many families can’t afford to move or switch schools. What’s most important is to try to understand why your child is using substances.

Rule #3: Attendance at A.A. and N.A. Meetings

Though he hadn’t developed an addiction, he was well on his way. From honor student to nearly failing his freshman year, he was on the fast-track to the dark side. Since membership in Alcoholic Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous requires only a “desire to quit drinking (or using),” I took him to many meetings. It’s detrimental for teens in the early stages of drug and alcohol use to see others their age who have a full-blown addiction. It is important for them hear the horrific stories of where others’ lives have taken them and, most of all, how they found recovery and turned their lives around.

Rule #4: Ground Rules and Curfews

We feared if we cut him off from all his old friends, including his girlfriend, then he’d rebel and we’d lose whatever little ground we’d gained. So, we set some rules. If he went out, he had to be back by 11 PM and he also had to agree to take a drug test the following morning. If he failed to meet the curfew or pass the drug test, he’d be grounded for a month and his cell phone would be taken away. One night, he missed curfew and Paula and I had to pick him up at his girlfriend’s house. When he got in the car, I could see he was high and could smell alcohol on his breath. The next morning, he failed his drug test for benzodiazepines (this was frightening news, since taking tranquilizers and drinking can be a deadly cocktail).

To his credit, without much grumbling, he turned over his cell phone and accepted his grounding. In time, he lost contact with most of his old friends. Since he couldn’t get high, he didn’t feel – again to his credit –that there was much point in hanging out with them.

Note: If your child is using opioids, it’s best to seek medical help with detox. Substance abuse treatment providers and doctors can help young people stop using the drug they are addicted to, control their cravings and get them through withdrawal. Learn more about medication-assisted treatment > 

Rule #5: Spend More Time With Your Child

Paula and I both made a point of spending more time with our son. For her, that meant taking him to the movies, shopping and lunches. For me, since he enjoys wrestling, that meant spending more time with him in training. The benefits we’ve reaped from including him more in our lives on a daily basis have been tremendous. At first, like most teenagers, he didn’t want to hang out with his parents, but that wore off after a couple of months and now we’re closer than ever.

It’s been nearly a year since we first discovered our son was taking drugs and drinking, and except for the one time he broke curfew, every drug test we’ve since given him has come up negative. I’ve talked to him a lot, especially about my own addiction, where it took me, and how, given our genetic link, he’s right in line to follow in my footsteps if he isn’t extremely careful. Now, since he’s been in recovery for nearly nine months, Paula and I feel he’s earned back our trust, at least enough to let him return to the public school (for a number of reasons – he’s not happy at the Christian Academy) and compete again in wrestling.  He’s also well aware that from here on out, our eyes will always be wide open.

Obviously, we’re taking a chance.

But we must believe in our child, just as we hope our child believes in us.

How to Have a Conversation, Not a Confrontation

Finding out your teen uses drugs definitely stirs up a parent’s emotions. It can be a very confusing time. But the best way to help your teen – and to make sure she hears you – is to remain as calm as possible throughout the conversation.

How to Have a Conversation not a Confrontation

19 Responses

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    Mike Charia

    May 24, 2016 at 8:26 PM

    All same stories then why USA Government is not putting banned the sale and use of Alchole and other drugs. Why allowing this deadly poison sale through billions of dollars adv budget to sell these poisons.

    It must have to be banned to produce, distribute, sale and used. Start with Beer, then liqueur and other drugs destroying communities.

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    February 4, 2014 at 5:54 PM

    We have a son whom we have forgiven, cherished, engaged in all kinds of endeavors and activities, supported the search for knowledge, payed the school , the treatment ( and have participated in the treatments too), trips with the family (in US and other countries ), have repeated over and over how much he is capable of, how he is not only the addict, he is much more than that, and how strong he is. We have a home that is tolerant, full of love, music, books, people from different cultures, we love to sit around the table every night and laugh and talk for hours and hours. But strangely enough, he shows to be the most prejudiced one. Comes to the table and makes a point to show how he doesn’t care about the conversation, behaving like a 12 year old.

    We open the house for his friends, even though we know they are users too. They are usually great guys, entertaining, social and we justify having these people here by thinking that maybe they need to know that they can be loved and accepted. Usually the friends have to tell my son to chill down and be nice to us.

    We live in a state of siege in our own house. We have been disrespected, abused, lied to, stolen, not only me, but all the people in the house. Young siblings have had their piggy banks ransacked, baby sitting money made by his sister has been stolen, we have to hide all my credit cards, can never have any cash anywhere in the house, have to hide purse, keys and any valuable things. The last antic was stealing his 16 year old brother’s wallet and going around late at night pretending he was his brother, and stealing his credit card. We have tremendous bills because of this son of ours.

    He is not able to keep a job. He stopped going to the meetings and won’t go back, he won’t take the pills (forgot the name , the prescription ones that react with opiates). We have taken the car from him, until he can do a drug test and prove to us that he is not using.

    I found out he is dealing from inside our house to make money for his habits. He disappears for days and I don’t know where he is. We have spent hundreds and hundreds in therapies, special schools, rehab. I have willingly driven and brought him to wherever he needs to go. This boy is only 18. He has terrorized our family since 14. And… I love him, in the few times he is clean he is absolutely an amazing person, handsome, amazingly smart, funny and has tremendous charisma. But these times of cleanness are fewer and fewer. when he is under the influence he has told me that he doesn’t want my love, only my money. He has told me to forget about the son he was, because he is not that son anymore. And still… I love him.

    I have sat beside him and just touched him and told him that I love him, that I believe in him, and asked what hurts him so much. Since he was a child, he has never shared his problems.

    Yesterday I had enough. A lot of people would say we shouldn’t spy the computer, the room, etc, but … He left the house as always without a good bye, the computer was open and I did read his messages. I know I shouldn’t get angry, but when you know that your son is dealing from inside your own house and absolutely poisoning the air you and your family breathe and doesn’t make the minimum effort to get better, what are the choices?

    I told him to leave. He said that he will be even worse outside our house. And that kills me. But he is destroying himself here under my roof, and he is bringing our family along his path of misery and addiction. It hurts me to send him out. And as I told him to leave, I told him: ” Son, all I want is one word from you, tell me that you want to quit, that you want to change, that you will go to the meetings. then we can have a new beginning.” He wouldn’t say that, he said: “I’l get back at you.” it hurts, hurts really bad. He has lots of friends users around town, so he probably is with them. I still pay his phone and I can see who he talks to. But I never used this information for anything. I feel that I want to be there for him , in case he changes his mind, or in case he gets close to the end.

    My only fear is that he might never forgive me for telling him to leave home. But I heard something that has been a tremendous comfort. My love for him never dies, no matter what he does. So I believe that his love for me will never die either, no matter what I do.

    I want to hear from somebody that was there in this place of misery. It hurts so bad.

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    December 26, 2013 at 10:29 PM

    I have been married for 4yrs to a woman that has a son that has a bad pot smoking problem and he is only 17. I have tried to support her but every way I try to support her she get’s mad because I have been through this being over 25yrs clean. I feel like every time I say something she is in denial and she always try’s to turn everything back on me. I’m not sure how to help her because like I said I been through this but I’m just lost because she wants to fight with me about anytime I say anything and where we live at the property is owned by the company I work for and I’m afraid that someone at my work might think I’m smoking and that’s not true. Me and my wife are in counseling for our marriage but this problem with her son and my step son is very bad and again if I say anything she takes up for him by saying he’s cutting down and he she states that he is not smoking in the house anymore. What the hell can I or should I do? I know my thoughts in my mind is getting out of the marriage?

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    November 8, 2013 at 12:06 AM

    Hi my daughter is just on 17, passed year 9 with a D, failed year 10 (just didn’t go) so we put her in Chisholm to study hair & beauty and do her year 11 VCAL, which she also failed and she couldn’t be bothered with the work, she just wants to sleep and most of the days she took off school where a Monday. I received a phone call at 11.15 on a Saturday morning from a hospital saying she has overdosed and was dumped there (if she wasn’t taken there she would be dead now) she took two doses of GHB, smoked crack and took an ecstasy with 3 600ml bottles of wine, they gave her a category of 3 which was pretty bad, we where lucky she didn’t go into a coma, she just snapped out of it. I have tried really hard, but am at a loss, she never comes home, stays out all night doing only god knows- I never know who she is with, but after reading the stories above it has helped to know that there are other people going through the same thing. I am now seeking help outside of the home, as I always thought I can to this, I can fix this, but I know I can’t.


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