As a parent or other caretaker concerned that a young person you love is struggling with addiction, it can be hard to know what to do. There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there, and while some of it is useful, much can do more harm than good.
Below are some simple, crucial principles to help both you and your loved one. Remember: Secrecy, silence, judgment and shame can have fatal consequences. By talking and learning about drugs, you’re already on the path to keeping your loved one safer.
Don’t panic; clarify your concern. Is drug use negatively impacting your loved one’s life, their personality and their ability to handle their responsibilities? Or is your concern with drug use in and of itself? If it’s the latter, consider these reassuring facts: Most drug use doesn’t involve addiction, and young people frequently experiment without making it a habit. For those who do become addicted, most “age out” of it, even without treatment. Whether or not your loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, if they are using drugs, there are some important things you can do right now to keep them safer.
Get naloxone. If there’s a chance your loved one or their friends may be using opioids like heroin, fentanyl or other prescription painkillers, you should keep the “overdose reversal” medication naloxone on hand—and try to make sure your loved one does, too. Naloxone (also known by the brand name Narcan) is an “opioid antagonist,” which means that it counters the effects caused by an opioid overdose. It comes in a nasal spray and other forms, and is simple to use (here’s a quick video tutorial). It’s often literally the difference between life and death. Naloxone kits are often available for free from local harm reduction organizations, which may also offer trainings on how to administer it. You can use this site-locator to find an organization that gives out naloxone near you.
Educate yourself and your loved one about recognizing signs of an overdose—and about harm reduction strategies like drug checking, alternating alcoholic drinks with water, and using the buddy system. Learn the facts behind the myths. Did you know most overdoses attributed simply to opioids actually involve at least one other drug? Mixing drugs is more dangerous than using a single substance. The Harm Reduction Coalition and the Drug Policy Alliance are two good resources for evidence-based drug information.
Offer a non-judgmental ride home if your loved one is ever in a situation where they need it. Stick to the “non-judgemental” part.
Talk (and listen) to their friends and romantic partners. For most young people, it’s probably their friends who are spending the most time with them. They’re the ones driving with them, at parties with them, and perhaps using substances with them. Earning their trust, keeping an eye out for their wellbeing, and spreading the word about naloxone and other strategies can help keep your loved one safer. Check in with these friends to see if they share your concerns.
Don’t give them “tough love”, just love. Don’t fall for the unjustified message that punishing your kids will save them. Instead consider their overall well-being, and offer compassion and support.
If you want honesty, earn it. On the same theme: You can keep your kids safer if you know what’s really going on in their lives. But if you flip out when they tell you the truth, you create a disincentive for them to do so again.
Try to make sure you’re not the only one they talk to. Drug use is often a way of coping with underlying mental health issues, social anxiety, trauma or stress at school or home. Drug use might be the symptom that concerns you the most, but don’t let it distract you from other important stuff going on under the surface. Consider helping your loved one find a professional counselor. Encourage them to cultivate relationships with other adults in their life.
Consider options other than rehab. Outpatient services allow teens to stay in school while receiving professional help—and to develop and practice new, healthier coping skills in the environment where they actually live. Medication-assisted treatment (drugs like methadone and buprenorphine) is an approach proven to save lives. Rehab can be a particularly risky option for young people.
Put your own oxygen mask on first. Loving someone who is struggling with addiction is a lot to handle. And it’s hard to help someone if you’re struggling too, whether it’s with your own substance use, with feelings of guilt or anger about your loved one’s use, or other sources of stress. That’s one of the reasons family therapy is often recommended as a part of treatment for addiction. There are also support groups for family members of people with addiction, like Learn to Cope. (Be sure your chosen support group is up to date—some still cling to that ineffective “tough love” approach). Helping your loved one requires taking care of yourself.