Know what to do if you suspect a problem

It’s not always easy to tell if your child is smoking, drinking or using other drugs. But no child is immune from substance abuse so it’s important to know what the warning signs are and what to do if you suspect a problem. The problem will only become worse if you avoid confronting it.

When you Suspect a Problem

We all want our kids to be healthy and drug-free, but it’s often difficult to spot the signs of drug use. Many of the most common signs are also seen in other normal adolescents. While there is no single warning sign of drug or alcohol use, some signs include:

  • drop in school attendance or grades;
  • lack of interest in personal appearance;
  • physical changes such as persistently runny nose, red eyes, coughing, wheezing, bruises or needle marks;
  • uncharacteristic withdrawal from family, friends or other interests;
  • isolation, depression or fatigue;
  • hostility and lack of cooperativeness;
  • borrowing more money, more often than usual;
  • sudden change in friends;
  • use of incense or room deodorant.

No one sign points directly to substance abuse. If you see any of these signs, talk with your child about what’s going on in his or her life. But trust your instincts, if you believe that he might be facing a problem with alcohol or other drugs, seek help.

Your first step should be to talk to your child about what you see going on. It's important to do this at a time when you can be calm and rational. Getting angry and yelling won't help. If you've seen specific warning signs that make you suspicious, tell your child what has made you concerned and give him a chance to respond.

If you need help, involve your child's guidance counselor from school or the family physician. They'll both be able to help you talk with your child about what's going on or refer you to a treatment program if needed.

Taking Action: Confronting Your Child About Suspected Alcohol or other Drug Use

Choosing the right time to confront your child about suspected drug use can be a difficult task and is critical to the outcome of the situation.  While most parents would be angry with their child, and maybe even with themselves, it is important to maintain your composure in order to be a key player in bringing resolution to this problem.  Flying off the handle, though tempting, is one of the worst things you could do when you discover your child is experimenting with or actively using drugs.  So, think about it, devise a plan, and choose the right time to confront your child—a time when you’re ready to take everything on.


  • Choose a time when distractions will be minimal.  You need to make sure that you’ll have plenty of time to spend discussing this issue with your child.  Make sure YOU won’t have any interruptions (like a ringing cell phone) so your child understands this is a top priority for you.  Also, go to a quiet room with your child so noisy siblings or pets won’t detract from anyone’s ability to concentrate.
  • When your child breaks household rules, there should be set consequences for their actions.  It’s best to clearly establish a list of rules and assign consequences for each broken rule.  Clearly spelling out your expectations for your child will help them make better decisions when facing the decision of breaking that rule.  When the rules are broken, stick to the game plan…and be consistent with each child, each and every time.  As long as your child knows you are serious about consistently enforcing consequences, he/she may be deterred from making the same bad choices repeatedly.


  • Be specific about the signs you have observed.  Start the conversation out by saying something like, “Sam, I wanted to talk to you today because I’ve noticed some changes in your behavior lately, and I’m very concerned.  I’ve noticed that you haven’t been talking very much lately, the door to your room is always locked, and your room smells like you’ve been using a bit too much air freshener.”
  • Give your child a chance to confess.  If your child doesn’t respond to your initial statements of concern, ask him if there’s something that’s bothering him or if there’s something he’d like to tell you.  If your child resists, explain calmly that you’ll be a lot less upset if he tells you now, because you’re concerned and you want to help him right away.
  • Understanding (“I realize a lot of kids might think about trying drugs or alcohol.”)
  • Firm (“I’m your parent, which means I have to put your health and safety first.  I cannot allow you to engage in harmful activities.”)
  • Supportive (“We love you and care about your well-being very much.  We sense something is troubling you, and we want to help you.”)
Don’t Be:
  • Sarcastic (“Don’t think you’re fooling me!”)
  • Accusatory (“You can’t lie your way out of this one!”)
  • Hostile (“How could you be so dumb?”)
  • Self-pitying (“How could you do this to me?”)
  • Self-blaming (“Where did I go wrong?”)

Remember, if your child is in fact using drugs, they need help now!  Don’t be afraid to be a strong parent.  Your child has enough friends—you need to be the responsible adult.  Nevertheless, the problem may be too big for even the strongest parents to handle on their own.  Please don’t hesitate to seek professional help.  Counseling, support groups, and treatment programs can be very helpful in turning your child’s life around.