5 Steps To Take When Your Child Is Using

Realizing that your child is using drugs is very difficult to process. Your gut reaction is often to panic and plan for a major catastrophe. Your fear shows up as anger and rage; it tells you to control, condemn, and yell. Unfortunately, those tactics almost never work. (We know this because we’ve been in your shoes.) So let’s explore five steps that can help your child recover his or her sobriety and the relationship with you.

1. Do Not Panic And Catastrophize

Fear drives parents to:

  • Blame
  • Panic
  • Think the worst

In recovery, we call this reacting. Reacting takes away your power because the situation defines you and your responses. If you react, you will offer no healthy solutions to the situation.  Likewise, your child will then react to your reaction. This almost always escalates into an argument.  For example, when you see your child stoned, you may start yelling things like:

  • “How stupid are you?”
  • “You’re grounded for life.”
  • “How could you do this to me/us?”

Yelling and screaming triggers the same type of response from your child.  He or she will defend by saying something like:

  • “It’s my life and I can do what I want.”
  • “I hate you.”
  • “Everyone else is doing it and it’s no big deal.”

2. Take Action, Not Reaction

Instead of reacting, parents can take action. Taking action empowers you to find solutions and lets you respond from strength; you have choices. In this step, you separate your feeling from your options. For example, a parent who takes action first begins by calmly taking to the child about the substance use. When parents offer a listening ear, two things can happen:

  1. The child may actually open up, but even if this doesn’t happen, the strength position is modeled for the child.
  2. If the overreacting child doesn’t get the hoped-for reaction from the parent(s), the drama starves. It’s no fun to act out, argue, or throw a fit if the other person doesn’t play along.

Parents can also take action by finding support for themselves. Seeing a counselor or attending a support group is a very empowering process in its own right.

3. Explore Solutions And Consequences

By exploring healthy choices, the child learns the parent is on his or her side. This creates an open dialogue regarding what needs to happen in a positive choice manner. Parents and children can brainstorm healthy solutions such as:

  1. Not hanging out with using friends
  2. Being home by an earlier curfew
  3. Limiting the use of the car
  4. Going to family counseling
  5.  Attending AA/NA meetings (and young people’s meetings if available)
  6. Or if needed, seeking inpatient or residential treatment.

After some solutions are discussed, hopefully, the child will be willing to comply. If not, then the parents may need to set some boundaries. Parents and children must also discuss the consequences of future use.  Creating consequences with the child, not for the child, gives the child a voice.  This step may be repeated as necessary for recovery is not a linear process. There will probably be relapses so know in advance how you’ll deal with a relapse.

4. If Your Child Is Using Again Enforce The Consequences

Parents must follow-up and enforce the agreed upon consequences. Too often, parents ignore signs that the child is using again, but this is the worst thing a parent can do.  Some parents walk on eggshells to not trigger relapse. Other parents see their child as helpless or fragile. This is also called enabling the child.

Parents, remember step 2, take action. Giving in is a type of reaction, not action. The parent gives away the power in this situation. Interestingly enough, as a therapist, I’ve found that children and teens often give themselves more severe consequences than are necessary. Just like in step3, this step may be repeated as often as needed.

5. Be Supportive Of Positive Steps

We all need positive reinforcement in our lives. When your child is using, he or she needs even more support for the positive steps they take. Give them kudos for staying sober, for following up with their action steps, and for how their behavior has changed for the positive. Catch your child doing something right. If the child relapses, be supportive of the steps he/she/they can take to get back on track.  Honor the time they stayed clean and their behavior improved. Relapses are sometimes an important part of recovery. They can remind the child of how much havoc using created for them. Relapsing doesn’t have to send your child back to the old habits, nor should it send you back to panicking.


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