Discovering that your kid—no matter their age—is doing drugs is scary and overwhelming. You may feel unsure of how to help. How do you talk to them about it? Do you need to stage an intervention? Should they go to drug rehab? Here’s some advice for parents of addicts and how to get your child the help they need.
Signs Your Child Is Abusing Substances
The signs of drug and alcohol abuse aren’t always apparent. You can be living with an addict and not know it. Other times, substance abuse sets off several red lights. There are three general categories of alcohol and drug use signs:
Physical Signs Your Kid Is Doing Drugs
Physical signs of alcohol or drug abuse include:
- Frequently bloodshot eyes or pupils that are smaller or larger than normal
- Frequent nosebleeds, which can be a sign of snorting cocaine or meth
- Appetite changes, such as periods of no appetite that alternate with periods of increased appetite
- Frequent, unexplained bruises or other injuries
- Incoherent speech, jitteriness, or tremors
- Breath that smells like alcohol
- Drug paraphernalia in their room or backpack
- Paint stains on the mouth due to huffing paint
- Burns around the mouth or on the fingers from smoking drugs
- Track marks from injecting drugs
- Poor dental hygiene and personal care
- Frequent requests for money
Emotional Signs Your Kid Is Doing Drugs
Some of the emotional signs of drug abuse include:
- Uncharacteristic and unexplained changes in attitude
- Sudden mood swings, such as outbursts of anger, irritability, or uncontrolled laughing, or going from very chatty and personable to surly and aggressive
- Periods of hyperactivity or agitation that alternate with periods of lethargy and/or apathy
- Anxiety or suspiciousness that seems to have no apparent explanation
- Uncharacteristic dishonesty
- Loss of motivation and problems with focus
- A loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed
Adult and especially early adulthood is difficult. Many of these signs on their own do not imply that your child is using drugs. But if you notice a few of these signs along with some of the physical signs of substance use, there may be cause for concern.
Social Changes That May Mean Your Kid Is Doing Drugs
Some social changes that may suggest drug or alcohol abuse include:
- Loss of interest in social activities
- A change in hobbies
- New friends who are not doing well in school or at work and mimic some of the same behaviors
- Becoming withdrawn and isolated
- Sneaking out, not going where they are supposed to, or staying out far later than expected
- Suspicious behaviors
- Stealing or unusual requests for money
- Complaints from teachers, co-workers, or friends about unusual behaviors
- Medication disappearing from around the house or missing alcohol
Often parents become suspicious that their kid is using drugs because of their friends or social acquaintances. This factor can’t be judged on its own. Consider signs from all three domains to assess the situation.
If the changes you’re seeing are more extreme than normal, take note. For example, if your child’s behavior is aggressive, their friends are changing for the worse, and they are isolating themselves from supportive friends and family, it may be a sign that substance abuse is an issue.
Drug Use Effects
Depending on the drug being abused, you may notice personality changes that coincide with the effects of that substance. For example, if your child is abusing stimulant drugs, like crystal meth or cocaine or ADHD stimulant drugs like Adderall or Vyvanse, you may notice they are:
- Eating less.
- Losing weight.
- Rarely sleeping.
- Highly focused on a specific task for long periods.
- Excessively social.
If your child is abusing a sedative drug like painkillers or benzodiazepines, they may:
- Sleep more than usual.
- Be barely able to maintain a conversation.
- Spend most of their time in isolation.
Talking to Your Adult Child About Their Substance Abuse
Parents of an addict often don’t know where to start. While the first conversation is sometimes the most difficult, it can be the beginning of your child’s journey to recovery. It may also save their life. Approach your child from a place of love and support. It can be helpful to consult a therapist, interventionist, or other medical professional prior to talking to your son or daughter. If you have a good understanding of addiction, it will help you to gently educate them on the dangers of the situation and the importance of getting help.
Express your concerns for your child based on the evidence that they are abusing alcohol or drugs. For instance, if your son or daughter is skipping work and you’ve noticed that they seem disoriented at times, mention this. If you have concrete evidence that they’re abusing alcohol or drugs, present that.
Do not accuse, call names, or imply that something is wrong with them. Instead, express your concern and love.
Use only factual information, and point out the negative ramifications of substance use. Your child will most likely believe their use of drugs or alcohol benefits them in some way. If they are sharing with you, listen to the justifications, and respond with alternative ways to satisfy these needs that do not involve alcohol or drugs.
Your goal is to convince your child to get treatment. This may not happen with the first conversation. It may not happen with the second or third or fourth conversation either. Each one can be a step on a journey that ultimately leads them to drug or alcohol rehab. There are several things to keep in mind when talking to your child about addiction:
- Keep the tone calm. Being confrontational, calling them names, or accusing them will most likely result in anger instead of cooperation.
- Ask questions and express concern. Really listen to what they have to say. Your child may clam up, but if they’re talking, make sure you hear them.
- If your child denies they are using, don’t get angry. Instead, point out the facts about their behavior that have aroused suspicion. Avoid emotional commentary and stick to the facts.
- Don’t embarrass your child. Don’t start the conversation in front of their friends or even other family members. Wait until you’re alone. They need to feel safe.
- Recruit help. Sometimes a formal intervention is appropriate. Even if you don’t opt for this route, there is strength in numbers. It can help to have a therapist or other supportive loved ones present.
- Be prepared for multiple conversations. It’s rare that this conversation only happens once. Getting your adult child the help they need will likely involve multiple attempts on your part. The key is to get the ball rolling and open the line of dialogue. Be honest with your child about the risks of substance abuse, especially at a young age. Simply cite statements on the impact of addiction on youth. Examples of these include:
- Getting high and getting behind the wheel, getting in the car with someone under the influence, sleeping with someone, and potentially contracting a fatal or life-altering disease are risks not worth taking.
- Even a single use of the wrong substance, or multiple substances in combination, can result in an overdose.
- The earlier someone uses any illicit substance and the more frequently they drink or get high at a young age, the more likely it is that they will develop a long-term problem with substance abuse.
- Even if they don’t end up addicted, substance abuse can seriously affect a developing brain, so any use before one’s mid-20s carries greater risk.
It is not a doomsday tactic to share these facts with your child. As of 2019, a person born in 2017 has a greater chance of dying from accidental opioid overdose than of dying in a car accident. It is not a small threat, and all drug use starts with experimentation.
Set Healthy Boundaries
Your child needs to hear the truth about substance abuse and its impact from you. They need to know what your expectations are as far as their substance use and the consequences if they choose not to maintain those boundaries. This can only happen with an open and honest conversation.
Clear rules that you follow yourself can help you to determine whether your child needs treatment. If they can moderate their behavior and stop all use of drugs and alcohol, then they may not need drug rehab. If they struggle with maintaining boundaries and consequences are not effective in helping them change their behavior, then treatment is recommended.
Examples of Boundaries Around Substance Abuse
Write up your house rules and healthy boundaries and have your child sign it. Families struggling with addiction often have unhealthy ways of relating to each other. That can include having troubles with codependency and boundaries. Boundaries are different for everyone, but some common ones include:
- No use of drugs or alcohol inside or outside the home.
- No stealing money or items from your home to sell.
- You will not make excuses for them if they miss work, college, or other obligations.
- You will not bail them out if they get a DUI or get into other trouble with the law.
- You will not make excuses for them if they miss social or family obligations.
- You will not help pay for phone bills, gas, or car payments if they’re using these things to obtain drugs.
- If you discover them using drugs or alcohol in the house, they need to find somewhere else to live unless they get treatment to stay sober.
- Your child will attend individual therapy, a support group, and/or family therapy or you will not allow them to live at home or help pay any bills.
During this conversation, it is also important to make it clear what the consequences will be if they decide to drink or use drugs anyway. Some form of consequence is necessary, just as it would be if they repeatedly made choices that put themselves and others in danger.
If your child is unable to stay sober despite your open communication, you must follow through on the consequences. This is critical when you are a parent of an addict. Allowing them to “get away” with using for any reason will send the message that they can cross your boundaries, and they will continue to do so.
The truth is that you know better than anyone when your child has a problem. If they are using substances, they are at risk — it’s that simple. If they cannot stop using drugs immediately, it’s time to get help. Waiting to connect them with treatment only puts them at risk for potentially deadly consequences.
In general, it is time to send your child to treatment when:
- Your child is violent or aggressive toward you, others in the family, friends, or people in the community, or themselves when under the influence of substances.
- Your child’s grades stay low, and their use of drugs impacts their academic future and hopes of getting into college or being successful in life.
- Your child’s health begins to suffer due to their drug use.
- They try to stay sober but are unable to do so on their own.
- They overdose or have an accident or other medical emergency due to drug use, and they are still unable to stay sober on their own.
Does My Child Need an Intervention?
An alcohol or drug abuse intervention involves family members, close friends, and other loved ones coming together to encourage a person to get help. Successful interventions are usually run by a professional interventionist or a clinician who specializes in addictive behaviors. Emotions will be running high. The interventionist can ensure that the entire event stays on track and is productive.
If you work with a professional interventionist, they will help you assemble the team members and prepare for the event. They’ll help you craft what to say to your child in a manner that has the best chance of persuading them to get help. They’ll even escort your child directly to treatment following the intervention, if you’d like.
During an intervention, you and the group lay out evidence of the problem, expressing your love and concern for your child. An intervention presents a unified front of several people who care for them. Seeing this level of concern and love may motivate them to reach out for help.
Sometimes people involved in the intervention will write letters to the person doing drugs. In these letters, you’ll outline how their substance abuse is affecting you as well as damaging their future. The interventionist will help the group phrase their letters in the best way possible to encourage the person to get help. The focus will be on a loving, supportive message of hope.
You can work with an interventionist to determine the best people to be on your child’s intervention team. This may include:
- Family members
- Close friends
- Spouse or partner
- Spiritual leaders
You’ll choose a treatment program prior to the intervention. This ensures you have a place to immediately take your child if they agree to get help. You may have a couple of options so your child can have some say in the final decision.
If your child agrees to drug rehab, don’t delay. You or the interventionist should escort them there immediately following the intervention. If you delay, it gives them time to change their mind.
If your child is a minor, you can bring them to addiction treatment without their consent. If they are over 18, they need to go voluntarily unless they are ordered by the court system.
Does My Child Need Drug Rehab?
Substance abuse treatment can be useful for anyone who is willing to put in the work to build a better life without drugs or alcohol. As the parent of an adult addict, you cannot force them to get help, but you can do the work of finding a treatment program so they don’t have to face that stress when they finally decide they need help.
The substance abused and the extent of the drug or alcohol use determine what type of treatment your child needs. In many cases, the first step is medical detox to eliminate the substance from their system so they can focus on getting better. During medical detox, your child will be under 24/7 care by a treatment team, who eases withdrawal symptoms with research-backed medications and monitors vital signs. Going through withdrawal in a treatment setting means you can rest easy knowing your child is safe and as comfortable as possible during this time.
Inpatient Versus Outpatient Treatment
Just because your adult child is no longer under the influence of alcohol or drugs doesn’t mean they can get back to normal life with no worry of a relapse. Following drug or alcohol detox, your child will benefit from inpatient or outpatient treatment. They need to address the reasons they’ve used substances so they don’t continue to do so in the future. Sometimes people who abuse substances have mental health issues and their drug use is a way of self-medicating those symptoms. Other challenges that can lead to alcohol and drug abuse include:
- Poor self-esteem
- Relationship issues, including domestic abuse
Specialized addiction treatment will help your child get to the root causes of their substance abuse, identify their triggers, and learn healthy coping skills. In residential programs, clients live at a treatment facility and undergo intensive treatment around the clock. In outpatient treatment programs, clients live at home or in a sober living home and visit the clinic for their treatment sessions. Many people in outpatient treatment continue to go to school or work while they receive treatment.
If your child has had previous unsuccessful attempts at recovery or if they have a severe substance abuse problem, residential treatment may be the better choice. If this is your child’s first time in rehab, outpatient treatment may be okay.
Treatment Issues of Teens Vs. Young Adults
A college-age child will likely benefit from a different addiction treatment approach than an older child. It is important to find the right program with the right support options. This will ensure your child has access to the best combination of therapies for their age, stage, and circumstance.
Whether your child is living at home while attending school or living on or near campus, enrolling in a drug rehab program will likely mean taking a semester off to focus on healing and recovery. This is a positive step. It means your child is acknowledging the serious nature of the problem, and they will have the time and space they need to focus on nothing but getting better.
Because your child is over the age of 18, they will likely not qualify for a teen treatment center. It is important to take care in choosing the right drug rehab program. Find out what you can about:
- The ratio of patients to substance abuse treatment professionals
- The ability of staff to monitor and uphold boundaries on relationships among patients
- What you can expect in terms of involvement in your child’s recovery since they are of legal age
- High staff-to-patient ratio
- High-quality professionals on staff, including therapists, physicians, case managers, and support staff
- Low overall numbers of patients onboard at any given time
- A home-like feel to the facility that reduces stress
- Specialty therapies that speak to your child; examples include sports therapies if they are athletic and arts and music therapies if they are artistic.
- Access to a personalized treatment plan that connects them with the mental health treatment they need
No matter how old your child is, they will always have your heart and feel like your responsibility. The older they are, however, the more likely it is that they will need to find their own way to recovery.
Parents of addicted adults should play as large a part as both feel comfortable with in the recovery process. Your support can be vital to their sustained sobriety, but it is important to recognize that boundaries are key. You may need to make some shifts in how you relate to your child if they are going to learn how to live independently in recovery.
Connecting them with a drug rehab program could be what starts them down the right path. Look for a program that:
- Is close enough that you can take part if your child would like you to meet with them during family therapy sessions or on visitation days in residential treatment.
- Works with your insurance company or your child’s plan, if applicable.
- Offers a range of therapeutic options, including the testing and evaluation your child needs to determine what exactly is necessary in terms of therapeutic intervention and support.
- Will provide your child with aftercare support, as well as the care they need while they are in treatment. This includes an aftercare plan that helps them build a new life after rehab.
Helping Your Child During Addiction Treatment
Being there for your child both during the process of treatment and afterward is a key factor in their success. Knowing that someone loves them unconditionally and cares what happens to them can be a motivating factor to get and stay sober. Though they can’t do this hard work for anyone else, it can encourage them to stay positive when things get hard.
Ask your child’s treatment providers the best way to support them during treatment. Maybe you can write your son or daughter letters they can read in therapy sessions. Perhaps you can attend visitation days and participate in certain therapies. Be ready to step in and offer support as appropriate.
Helping Yourself as a Parent of an Addict
Being a parent of an addict can take a toll on your physical, mental, and emotional health. Your self-care has likely suffered while your child has struggled with addiction. You may have been putting yourself last during this time.
Find a therapist who can help you process some of the issues you’ve faced with your child’s substance abuse problem. Attend support groups that provide help for parents of addicts, such as Nar-Anon Family Groups. If your child is in treatment, see the doctor, make a dentist appointment, and take care of all other professional appointments you may have put off while focusing on their addiction. Reintroduce yourself to old hobbies and activities you loved.
It’s important for you to begin your own healing process. This can mean taking a look at how your relationship with your child may have changed during their active addiction. You’ll have to work hard to make and maintain positive lifestyle changes, perspective shifts, and new boundaries that will help both of you to be stronger in the future.
All these things will help you to heal. While you’ll address relationship issues with your child in family therapy, it’s important to focus on your own life and goals. By taking care of yourself, you’ll be better able to support your child in treatment and ongoing recovery. Learn more useful ways to support yourself as the parent of an addict here.
How to Pay for Addiction Treatment
If your child is on your insurance plan as a dependent, that should be your first stop for payment options for drug rehab. Insurance may cover a significant portion of the cost of treatment. If your child does not have insurance under you and meets certain qualifications, public assistance like Medicaid may help cover some of the cost of treatment.
There will usually be some out-of-pocket costs even if insurance covers a good chunk of treatment. Here are a couple options to help your child or your family cover these costs:
- Discuss payment plans with treatment providers – Many offer financing options where the outstanding balance can be paid off over time.
- Consider treatment programs that offer discounted care – Many universities that have mental health programs, like psychiatry programs or graduate psychology programs, offer therapy and other forms of treatment on a sliding scale based on income level.
Get Them the Help They Need
It’s hard to understand the turmoil of being a parent of an addict unless you’ve been there yourself. The dreams you had for a healthy, happy future for your child can still come true. Addiction is a disease, but it’s a treatable one. With the right treatment and support, your child can live a fulfilling, rewarding life and leave drugs and alcohol behind.