September 22, 2015 —

Perhaps due to a phone call from the school, a tip-off from another parent, or the uncovering of a hidden stash of empty cough and cold medicine bottles: Imagine that you have just discovered that your child is abusing over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Some parents start crying, screaming and blaming. Others may rationalize, justify or minimize. But this is serious business and parents usually benefit from taking a few moments, maybe even a few hours, to respond, rather than react. As a school administrator, parenting coach and parent educator, I have a few ideas on how to respond to this situation in an effective way that lets your teenager know you plan to take action and be supportive.

A small bit of warning first. It is highly likely that when you confront your teenager, they will deny or minimize their misuse. Perhaps they will blame it on friends who they are trying to help or cover for. Maybe they will craft a story about an enemy out to get them. They may even tell you that it is not a big deal and you should relax. In over 30 years of experience working with teenagers, I have learned that you can almost guarantee your teenager is responsible for whatever it is you find, what their school says they did, or what a fellow parent insists happened or is happening. The excuses you hear are exactly that, excuses. Teenagers don't lie or dismiss our concerns because they're amoral; they lie because they want to protect us from harm and worry, and because they want to protect themselves from consequences.

The following suggestions can help you not only frame your initial conversation, but your action plan as well:

  1. Go into the conversation with an assertion, not a question. Don’t set up a debate by asking, “How did this many empty bottles or containers end up in your backpack?” or, “Did you and Danny drink cough syrup at his house Friday night?” Instead, make a non-threatening, but clear statement like, “I am concerned about your misuse of over-the-counter medication.”
  2. Have a plan for at least one “next step.” My suggestion is to have an appointment in place with a substance abuse counselor. This may take a bit of footwork, navigating insurance companies and procuring referrals. Do this in advance of your conversation if at all possible, so that unforeseen roadblocks do not deter you; and, so that one of your next statements can be, “You have an appointment a week from Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. with a counselor for an evaluation.”
  3. Do the research. Find out all you need to know about what medications are abusable and why they are dangerous. This is not a time to cover for your teenager or their friends. Parents need to partner with one another to share information and close up access points. Furthermore, use your teen’s school guidance counselor, a social worker and/or nurses as resources. Often, in an effort to protect their teenager’s “reputation,” parents avoid seeking help from the professionals and other parents that can help them the most. Mental and physical health and safety must trump reputation.
  4. Resist shutting down their social lives entirely. Many parents’ first reaction is to ground their teen, take their devices away and shut down all social activity. Unfortunately, this allows teenagers to focus on perceived injustices rather than on the dangerous decisions they are making. This is likely to create an atmosphere ripe for underground activity, lies and resentment, hardly the building blocks for addressing a serious issue. Instead consider partnering with your teenager around limitations that you both can be comfortable with. This may seem counterintuitive, but providing your teenager with support rather than restriction will pay off as you begin to navigate their substance use.
  5. Show some humility. Humility is not a sign of weakness. Instead, it is a sign of authenticity, openness and a willingness to learn and change. We are asking that of our teenagers, so in return we need to ask it of ourselves. Without humility, there is little chance of partnership or sustained change. Here is a good time to say, “I had no idea this was happening and I am scared,” or, “I feel like I may have been sloppy with my own use of medication.” State your truth, but stay resolute about the plan of action.

There are no quick and easy solutions where substances and experimentation are concerned. Parenting is remarkably challenging and all of us have heart wrenching and frightening moments. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but commitment to doing the best job possible. Sometimes teenagers give it up once they are caught and educated. Other times, the journey is more arduous, especially where a history of use and abuse are at play. In either case, get the parenting support you need through counseling, 12-step programs and guidance from experts, as well as those parents who have walked, limped and tripped on the same path.

Linda Rosenberg McGuire is an avid blogger, speaker, parenting coach and consultant whose focus is supporting, coaching and educating parents and teachers as they live and work with the teenagers in their lives. She works with schools to inspire and reinvigorate their faculty so they can successfully work with the most challenging teenagers. Linda also helps parents understand and respond to their teenagers effectively, stressing the importance of listening, limits and building a sense of competence and independence in their adolescents. Linda has 30 years of experience working with children. Most of that time, she has focused on teenagers and their relationships with their parents. Linda got her start as a caseworker and trip leader for teens-at-risk, eventually working as a psychotherapist in community mental health as well as a school social worker and counselor. She has spent the last 12 years in independent school administration, working as both a program director and a dean. You can connect with Linda by checking out her website or following her on Twitter.