May 8, 2013

What Should a Parent Do If the Child Is Using Drugs?

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Paul King, MD

Parkwood Behavioral Health System, Olive Branch, Mississippi


When confronted with the reality of one’s child drinking and using drugs, a parent often reacts with feelings of helplessness followed by enabling behaviors. Substance abuse is of particular public health concern in the young adult population (ages 18–30 years), where the problem appears to be increasing at an alarming rate. Added to this, the increased suicide rate among those with alcohol and drug use disorders gives us a picture of potentially dire consequences. Many young adults today, moreover, are not engaged in full-time employment, are still living with parents, or are receiving substantial financial support from parents. I am sure in our practices we see much evidence of parents supplying money for medical care after an alcohol- or drug-related motor vehicle accident or money for attorneys when their child (who may be an adult) has broken the law. We are also seeing grandparents raising one or more children when their own offspring (often the daughter) is too impaired by drugs and irresponsible behavior to safely raise a child.

What is a parent to do when feeling weak and helpless in this situation? Attending support groups can help. Al-Anon and Nar-Anon are support groups that originally were primarily for the spouse of the alcoholic or addict. This focus has changed with the explosion of teen and young adult substance use and abuse. Parents who attend these groups will no longer feel alone, and the group support will empower the parents. The strength is in the numbers, as stated in Ecclesiastes 4:12 (see the blog entry The Success of AA). When the parent is no longer enabling the child or young adult, the young person may then be willing to accept treatment and lifestyle changes. Treatment in which the primary focus is abstinence, and random drug screens are done, is the right treatment.

Alcoholism and drug dependence are serious conditions that often lead to incarceration or death. Even after experiencing a serious motor vehicle accident and/or legal problems, the use of mood-altering drugs continues unabated for some people. That is why this is called a disease. Dr. Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist and longtime director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, used the term “spiritual deficiency syndrome.” Unless a person has a belief in a Higher Power, the drug of choice becomes the idol, which is “worshiped” via drug use, leading to destruction.1 Parents cannot make sense of this behavior; it does not make sense! Rational (cognitive) approaches do not work when dealing with a spiritual disease. This concept will be understandable when the parents attend Al-Anon or Nar-Anon.

As psychiatrists, we often become involved in helping parents and their children who have substance use disorders when comorbid psychiatric issues are the chief complaint and the reason for the visit. Most often, mood problems are either the result of the drug use or aggravated by substance abuse. We psychiatrists can best serve the patient by helping the parents understand more about substance abuse and help to find proper treatment for the child. This treatment must be a priority since the result of compulsive drug and/or alcohol use may be life threatening.

Financial disclosure:Dr King had no relevant personal financial relationships to report.


1. Reiners, Ken. There’s More To Life Than Pumpkins, Drugs and Other False Gods. Wayzata, Minn.: Woodland Publishing Company;1980.​

Category: Substance Use Disorder
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17 thoughts on “What Should a Parent Do If the Child Is Using Drugs?

  1. I think you are conflating “use” and “abuse” of drugs and alcohol here. It causes problems to conflate the two. Second most notably, the problem of alcohol prohibition, which greatly strengthened organized, violent crime in America. And most notably, drug prohibition in present day America, which has precisely the same effect, in addition to the burden to society that our prison system and top-heavy, predatory police state create.

    As a parent, my concern would mainly be with making sure my child had accurate medical information about various substances, and a clear sense of proportion in life that would equip them to either abstain (which you assume is the only proper answer), or enjoy responsibly (which can be done with both alcohol and some illegal drugs, most notably the- thankfully increasingly legal- marijuana).

    I expect we would find broad areas of agreement on “red line” areas to advise a child to avoid- the ravages of heroin and methamphetamine are worth staying away from completely.

    But I believe these things are most appropriately treated as medical problems, as Portugal has gotten great results doing, rather than as legal problems, as we do here.

    By treating medical problems as legal ones, we ourselves introduce anxiety and negative consequences into the equation that exacerbate otherwise much smaller emotional problems around the substances you are concerned with here. And so our emotional state around them may manifest in a more “disorderly” way than it otherwise would, with a dose of perspective. Hence an ill-advised institutional/legal position manifests as a “psychiatric disorder.”

  2. To legalize marijuana is to legalize a whole host of other drugs. Unfortunatly most people do not stop at marijuana, they try and use or abuse other drugs. This situaton impacts society at all levels: violence to self and others, etc, etc,etc, Most importantly for those of us who pay taxes and pay for multiple social services for those who cannot or choose not to stop doing drugs, it is time to pull away any federal and state financial help. These individuals can chose to treat the situation that brought them there in the first place: go to AA or Narcotics annonymous, or into rehab ( on their own dime) Treat the disease of use and abuse, go into rehab?!
  3. A “clear sense of proportion” does not work in one that carries a gene for addiction lives in a household fraught with constant chaos, etc. Regarding marijuana: consider the high risk potential for lung cancer, paranoia, and amotivational syndrome.
    What are your professionally published sources for “Portgal has gotten great results”.
  4. I take umbrage at the statement that not believing in a “higher power” creates a “spiritual deficiency syndrome”. Not all of us have to believe in a fantasy in the sky to get us through life’s difficulties. There are many sources of strength that have zip to do with believing in a god; friends, family, mental health professionals, and reading inspirational verses.
    As far as Portugal goes, it’s easy enough to find information on their success in decriminalization of formerly illicit drugs. Crime is radically reduced, as is drug addiction. Google is your friend.
  5. First, I must say that I am very pleased that this blog is leading to so much discussion. I wrote this after having a discussion with the parents of a 19 year old girl and the parents had no idea that she wan snorting heroin, cocaine and using xanax. Unfortunately it went on to long starting of course with the usual “gateway drug,” marijuana. If it could have been caught and treatment started the course of the “disease” (if you believe it to be a disease) may have been interrupted rather than progressed. There are no easy answers to substance abuse and horrible impact that it has on the individual as well as the family. The situation is especially dire in the young adult population. Those of you who work with this population know exactly what I am talking about. Those of you who do not, may talk about Oregon, California or Portugal.
  6. As a graduate student pursuing a counseling degree, ex-wife of an alcoholic, and mother of an addicted 19-year-old son, I’d love a handbook on how to help a loved one over-come alcohol and drug addiction while keeping my sanity. This is a horrible problem that takes Herculean strength of all the victims to address the issues surrounding the destructive behaviors. I worry every day that I will lose my son to these behaviors but am powerless to stop him until he wants to stop. If I could throw a giant butterfly net over him and drag him to rehab I would in a heartbeat.
  7. With my 40 years as an addiction psychiatrist I have seen it all; gone through the phases of “moral treatment” , discovery of receptors, ACOA movement now in decline, family roles (hero,lost child,enabler) , severe cocaine epidemic, still continuing ,discovery of new drugs ,war on drugs , Suboxone and Methadone , AA/NA , God of our understanding ,
    SMART alternative , insurance reluctance to approve almost any inpt treatments . In the end it seems to me that majority of my patients come from broken homes, either abused or spoiled (more of the former), poverty of love and money , sometimes the excess of the latter.
    The pains are real, all around. It is hard to watch the kid, if one is in the middle of ongoing conflict and misunderstanding among parents, they find their peers who then serve as role models or instigators. very little can be done once established path. The dynamic fators march relentlessly using the well identified defenses. Our country is divided, our families are struggling, our moral values are compromised. I am not a believer, but what is left if there is no Higher Power hope? I treat people with 15 attempts at rehab. They are still trying-we give them credit,because they have not yet pulled the trigger or ODed. We send parents to Al-anon or Nar-anon. Not too many go. It is not a disease? What is it then ?
  8. There is no question about addiction problems running in families suggesting a biological causation link rendering abstainance extremely difficult. Moreover, those personality and familial behaviors of drug dependent families we are all familiar with, will also be apparent. There is no simple answer and one kneels to the universe in gratitude for every client and family that “makes it” to recovery and maintains it. One also is grateful to those who are treating and caring for a very “off turning” population. We can offer what skills we have, compassion being the number one element, and perseverence the second, and education overriding all for patients and their families.. AA and the blue book are still the best we have and the cheapest and the most loving.
  9. I guess that we finally have to discuss why we as human beings have come to increase drug problems, suicides, family disintegration and so on. “Spirutuality” is not an issue of believing or not in God, but in believing that we can connect with our highest aspirations that can conduct ourselves and our families and societies at all to a great harmony. The spiritual deficiency syndrome is a problem of orientation, we have loose our “north”, because we are changing paradigms as how to assess our world, our expectations and values. We are going through a rational crisis which questions everything, that is its logical nature. Our emotional perspectives no longer hold our sense of life and our leaders have not help in these transition. Having a higher power in whom to believe is nothing but a symbol, this could be God, our country, our families, our work or anything that can inspire us so that we can keep in touch with our soul or whatever our highest self is. Drugs will try to fulfill our emptiness or our disorientation.
  10. So far I have not seen mention of this. I specialize in addictions, have a methadone/suboxone clinic for past heroin addicts and at least 80% of these patients have horrific childhood trauma/abuse histories resulting in their borderline type behaviours and I find effective counselling with DBT and Schema therapy really helps these people essentially become more emotionally mature.
  11. From your description addiction to both drugs and alcohol is a moral problem, but to imply that religion/a God is the only source of morality is not just insulting it is unrealistic. How have successfully recovered people overcome their addictions?
  12. Excellent philosophical way of looking at the bottom line issue of Spirituality or a lack of it. Whether it be the concept of how Michaelangelo painted the finger of God almost touching the human being or a nationalistic love for one’s country, it’s the same program. There is a human need to have a higher power to point us in the right direction.
  13. Thank you for your comment.however I am not sure how did you arrive at the conclusion. I must not have been clear enough. I have treated a couple of thousand alcoholics and addicts and am still doing it. When i started doing it in the 70s it was making me think that it must be a disease,change in the brain that makes smart people to continue to destroy themselves. Then came receptors and a number of approaches… does not fit all. It is a brain disease for me and a number of approaches are needed as well as a lot of a patience to make a difference.
    A number of lucky people recover,but we all know a few that canot stop smoking cigarettes even in the face of dying with or from COPD.
  14. Since 1965, I have treated over 20,000 pts, over 40% of whom were drug/alcohol/nicotine addicts each of whom, in turn, impacted about 20,000 people in their own universes. Any which way you look at it, all of these issues are affecting people under Girard’s 250 formula that each person so affected will intensely affect at least 250 people directly or indirectly.
    A person who, on her/his own resolutely decides to stop using without any outside help has a 48% success rate.Those whonuse 12 step programs and drug/alcohol rehab programs have a 36% success rate, Those who only use Naltrexone/Antabuse or Suboxone treatments alone(without any other forms of treatment) have an 82% success rate.
    Do the math.
    All of my pts have 24/7 access to me.I also do individual, couple, family and network therapy. Could there be some correlation here somewhere ?
  15. it is a burden on the society as well as the families parents as well as on yhe grand parents, it is time for young generation to take care of them self, get help,take responsibity ,please stop enabling them.

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