kids & drugs: a guide for parents

by Lexi Summer Hale (@velartrill)

i'm writing this guide because i want to do my part to help promote healthy and constructive attitudes to drug use within families. i have a fairly unique perspective, as someone who is herself a young adult drug user, who is open and honest with her family, friends, and partner about her drug use, who experienced extremely toxic family dynamics growing up but went on to find ways to maintain a safe and healthy relationship with that family, who has experienced medical neglect, and who has helped take care of adolescents escaping from abusive families. i write both from extensive direct personal experience and exhaustive study on this subject.

there is a lot of dangerous advice to be found on the topic of youth drug use. following the conventional wisdom is a virtual guarantee that you will harm your child, destroy their trust in you, or most likely, both. below, i try to address the most common questions parents have about their children's drug use and offer pointers in the right direction.

finally, i'm always happy to answer reader questions — i'm not a doctor, a counselor, or a lawyer, but if you think my perspective might be helpful to you, feel free to hit me up on Twitter any time.

how do i make them stop using?

is that really what you want?

a lot of parents, when they find out their child is using drugs, have a knee-jerk response. their top priority becomes making her stop, motivated by an axiomatic belief that drugs are bad and harmful. while it's an understandable response, given the culture we live in, it's important you acknowledge the gravity of what is going on. you need to take a step back and assess the whole situation, not charge in half-cocked like a bull in a china shop.

what is it you actually want for your child? happiness? health? success in the life they aspire to? simple survival? the fact that they're using drugs shouldn't change any of that, and you need to act with those interests in mind. if you go into this with the reductive idea that drugs are bad and make everything worse because they just do, you are not going to be able to respond effectively and you may end up doing more harm that good.

if you find out your child is using drugs, you need to approach them respectfully, compassionately, and non-confrontationallyespecially if they chose to place their trust in you and open up to you, something that is very difficult in a culture when children reasonably come to expect anger, retribution, or outright violence from their parents in response to drug use. it's not very likely that your child is going to want to stop using (and they may have a good reason not to; see below), and if you come into this conversation with that as your end goal, you are creating a conflict. conflict establishes that you are not interested in a two-way dialogue, that your goal is not supporting and protecting your child but controlling their life and forcibly altering their behavior.

as is often the case in life, humility is the best approach. you are not an expert on drugs, not even if you're a former user yourself. you do not understand why your child is using drugs, you do not automatically know what's best for your child in every situation, and you do not understand the effect those drugs are having on her — even drugs as straightforward as opioids can have dramatically different effects on different people. correcting this ignorance is the goal of this conversation, not convincing or browbeating your child into discontinuing her drug use. only when you understand the situation can you respond appropriately.

maybe this sounds like a lot of bullshit to you. maybe you feel like taking anything but an abusive, angry, “tough-love” approach is just enabling a junkie and that he needs to experience harsh consequences to scare him straight. maybe you're going to decide to be the dumbest motherfucker alive and straight-up call the cops on your own child. this won't accomplish what you want, but never mind that — taking an aggressive approach is absolutely 100% guaranteed to destroy your child's trust in you, even if it doesn't destroy their life or kill them outright.

maybe you don't care. maybe you don't want to be trusted, you want to rule your family with an iron fist, through fear and discipline.

do you care if your child lives or dies?

trust isn't just some feel-good bleeding-heart ideal here. your child is still going to be using drugs, one way or another — the only difference is that if she trusts you, you'll be able to help her stay safe. if she doesn't, the odds she'll die of an overdose, from polydrug poisoning, or end up taken advantage of are extremely high in the long run.

and if you don't care about that, if you think that being a drug user means your child deserves death, injury, or rape, you're not a parent. you're just a common murderer.

why is my child using drugs?

the very first thing you need to be able to understand is that drugs are not some satanic force that rises up unbidden from Hell and engages your children in a struggle of willpower for their souls. if you don't have the maturity to accept that, you might as well just give up right now.

so this is the first question you need to answer. this matters. it's not something you can bypass with a blanket dictum that ~drug use is wrong~ because the only way to improve your child's outcome is to address the issues at the root of their drug use. let's take a look at some of the reasons people use drugs:

for fun. the majority of people who use drugs aren't dependent on them. they use them occasionally, recreationally. and i'm sorry to have to break it to you, but they don't have a problem. there's nothing intrinsically harmful about taking ecstasy at the occasional party or smoking a joint now and then.

if this is the level of drug use your child is engaging in, you need to help them understand whatever risks may be involved in their drug use and help them develop strategies to mitigate them. trying to control your kid's recreational drug use is not only futile, but it will damage your child's ability to trust you (and rightfully so)… which can really be a problem if their drug use escalates and they decide they need help.

physical dependency. if your child doesn't have access to trustworthy, accurate information about drugs (and let's face it, if their only sources are their dealer and the chain-smoking cop who came to their school and made their class sit through Reefer Madness, they don't), they may accidentally become physically dependent on a drug. this is why it is important to involve yourself in your child's life and help them develop strategies to keep their drug use from becoming unhealthy.

the nature and effects of physical dependency vary wildly across different types of drugs, and it's important to understand these effects so that you can respond to them appropriately, instead of killing your daughter by demanding she quit benzos or alcohol cold turkey, or discrediting yourself in front of your son by accusing him of being “addicted to weed.”

self-medication. your child may be using drugs to cope with an underlying issue. it's very important for you to recognize that nobody turns to drugs lightly. if events in their life have affected them so deeply that they feel they have nowhere to turn but substance use, they've already tried just about everything else they can think of to cope. you need to do everything in your power to support them emotionally, and help them develop coping mechanisms other than drug use, so self-medication doesn't lead to physical dependency.

it's also completely possible your child has an undiagnosed physical condition that they're trying to compensate for, such as using heroin to combat chronic pain or tobacco to combat depression or chronic fatigue. if this is the case, do not dismiss their medical problems as an “excuse” — find a doctor who will take their problems seriously, and don't even think about disclosing your child's drug use to them without unambiguous informed consent. it's also important to be aware that pharmaceutical or therapeutic options offered by a doctor may simply be less effective or come with more severe side effects than whatever drug your child has been using so far, and that you may need to advocate forcefully to get them better treatment.

legitimate need. it's hard for parents to admit, but ultimately, your child's use of drugs, whether legal or illegal, may simply be a matter of legitimate need that cannot be addressed any other way.

young people in America, especially young women, are systemically denied access to pain medications as a matter of course — doctors like to believe we're invincible, and that any reported chronic pain is temporary, overstated, something we “just need to shake off,” something that can be treated with pseudoscientific remedies like acupuncture or gabapentin, or entirely made up in an attempt to access prescription painkillers.

it's also possible that you child may be suffering from borderline personality disorder or depression caused by endorphin dysfunction. these conditions can be effectively treated with opioids, particularly atypical opioids like buprenorphine, but doctors are only ever willing to attempt treatment through counseling and conventional antidepressants, neither of which have shown any efficacy in treating these conditions.

this last situation is obviously a worst-case scenario. being dependent on illegal drugs, even if it causes no inherent risk to health (which it often does), poses significant legal risk, particularly if you're part of a demographic that is already a target for police violence. however, you can't write off the possibility out of hand — law and medicine are not perfect, and sometimes people have to take risks to make their lives bearable.

how should i educate my children about drugs?

you don't want to come off as a lecturer preaching from on high, particularly if your kids already have direct personal experience with the drug you're trying to educate them about. drug education is best approached collaboratively. do research together. ask them about their own experiences. don't ever dismiss or downplay them just because you've heard something contradictory. always remember there are a lot of myths about drugs, and while some of them are promulgated by breathless tabloids and feckless media personalities like Dr. Phil, you can find even real scientists and doctors regurgitating some of the most pernicious ones. share your own drug experiences, if you've had any. you always need to keep a dialogue open, show interest in your child's life, find ways to relate to them. that hasn't changed just because they're using drugs.

many parents with children who are drug users have a “not in my house” rule, motivated by personal squeamishness and a desire to remain wilfully ignorant, to give themselves a way to pretend everything is normal. this is incredibly selfish, and if you can't pull your head out of the sand, if your child doesn't feel safe using drugs around you, you have a very dangerous situation brewing. it may feel counterintuitive, like you're “enabling bad behavior,” but you have to remember: whether or not they're getting high at home, they're getting high. and getting high at home means less risk that they'll fall out and die of an overdose before they can receive medical treatment.

always make sure that your children have a safe environment to try new drugs in, especially when it comes to alcohol, which is the world's most common date rape drug. let's be honest: your kids are going to be drinking as minors whether you like it or not. it's better for them to get a handle on their tolerance and learn what effects alcohol has on them in an environment where there's no risk that they'll be taken advantage of, and where they have someone to take care of them in the event something goes wrong.

is it my fault?

fault is always a tricky thing. we're at our most vulnerable when we're growing up, and it's completely possible something you did, something that may have seemed minor to you, has left your child with long-term scars. maybe if that hadn't happened, they wouldn't be using drugs to cope now. or maybe it would have made no difference. there's no way to know, so trying to decide if anyone is “to blame” is a waste of time and probably outright counterproductive.

where the past does matter is in the alliance you need to forge with your child now. it's useless — and again, counterproductive — to try to guess what it was you did that hurt them, since you haven't lived their life and your own ego makes it hard to be objective about your decisions. this is a long-winded way of saying: talk to your kids. young people are not some opaque cipher that can only be interpreted at long range by prophets and augurs. they are people, just like you and me, and if you want to figure out whether they have lasting grievances with you, you need to ask them.

you need to make it clear you're not trying to argue with them. and you need to understand that intent is not magic. your intent alone is not sufficient to keep you actions from hurting a loved one — all it impacts is whether they'll be able to forgive you.

if this all sounds very one-sided, that's because it is: as a parent charged with the care of a child, you have an extreme degree of power, both psychological and legal, over them, and with that power comes responsibility. that means when you think you may have harmed them, where you may have failed in your responsibilities as a parent, you need to let go of your ego and be ready to accept criticism and make amends.

when should we consider rehab?

NEVER.

i cannot be emphatic enough about this. rehab programs are physically and psychologically dangerous, and do not address the root issues behind drug use. if you sent your child to rehab, it is extremely likely they will die or suffer serious trauma, either due to physical abuse during the program (youth rehab programs in particular have a reputation for sadistic physical abuse) or an unintentional overdose after its completion. those who do survive a rehab program are often haunted for the rest of their lives by drug cravings and the untreated psychosocial issues that motivated their drug use in the first place — and because they've never experienced any alternative, they think this is the best outcome possible, and encourage others to subject themselves to the same abuse.

there is never an acceptable reason to send your child to rehab. or check into rehab yourself, for that matter.

never.

what drug is my child using?

there is no shortage of television personalities and rehab gurus encouraging you to be a detective, to violate your child's privacy and attempt to determine what drugs they're using by locating their stash or identifying residue and paraphernalia. the truth is, this isn't likely to answer your question correctly — lots of drugs involve the same kinds of paraphernalia — and it will seriously undermine your child's ability to trust you. for good reason.

if you want to know what your child is using, you need to ask them — kindly, respectfully, and non-confrontationally. if they won't answer, then you need to earn their trust before you even try to address their drug use. don't bluster, don't threaten, don't push them — say, “i understand that you don't feel comfortable talking to me right now, and i hope some day you'll be able to trust me with this. i care about you, and i'm only asking so i can help make sure you're safe.”

let's take a look at some common drugs and what they might mean for your child's health and lifestyle.

marijuana

marijuana (formally cannabis; vernacular names weed, pot, green, grass, budnot “dope”) is a unique drug that is essentially harmless — even when smoked, if you can believe that — and carries no risk of death or overdose. in fact, it can have many health benefits, particularly for people who suffer from various chronic diseases. as long as your kid isn't getting stoned behind the wheel, the only thing you need to worry about is legal action. relatively few places have legalized marijuana, and your child may still face severe retaliation from the state for their habit.

what's the withdrawal like? marijuana does not lead to physical dependency. there is no risk of withdrawal.

how can i help? you don't need to. marijuana is safer than tylenol. consider lighting up with your kids from time to time — you might enjoy it, and it'll do wonders to secure their trust.

heroin

heroin (formally dia(cetyl)morphine; vernacular names dope, smack, H, gear) is an opioid. pure heroin is diamorphine, which is twice as powerful as morphine when administered intravenously. however, very rarely is street heroin pure — it's often contaminated with extremely deadly opioids like fentanyl (which is fifty times more powerful than morphine and lethal in the milligram range) or the chemical weapon carfentanil (which is fifty thousand times more potent than morphine and is lethal in the microgram range), whose only approved medical use is immobilizing elephants.

what are the risks? opioids as a class are relatively safe. heroin, however — particularly street heroin — carries unique risks, due to its route of adminstration and common contaminants. heroin is typically administered intravenously, which is very dangerous when not performed with sterile equipment in a sterile environment by a trained professional. in the short term, this can lead to deadly infections, particularly if needles are shared or dirty needles are reused; in the long term, it can lead to vein collapse or deep-vein thrombosis.

what's the withdrawal like? heroin withdrawal won't kill you, but it'll make you wish you were dead. trying to quit cold turkey is dangerous and stupid, and almost always results in a relapse down the road. these relapses can be fatal due to decreased tolerance for the drug: relapsing users don't always factor in how much time it's been since the last time they used heroin, tolerance to which can build indefinitely but resets within two weeks of non-use. it's therefore critical that if your child wants to get off heroin that they titrate the dose down over time — and it's best if they can do this with a drug that's less dangerous than heroin. kratom can help, and unlike most opioids is legal in many places; failing that, give poppyseed tea a shot or find a methadone clinic.

how can i help? your first priority has to be getting your kid on a different opioid. painkillers are the safest option. if you've got any leftover percocet, vicodin, hydrocodone, codeine, or any other opioid painkiller, figure out a safe dose for their level of tolerance and switch them to that as soon as possible. kratom can help reduce withdrawal symptoms, but it rarely provides a high to users with a tolerance for heroin.

if switching opioids isn't an option, encourage them to take heroin orally or by insufflation (snorting). this will remove the risk of infection, vein collapse, and deep-vein thrombosis. it won't offer the same “rush” intravenous heroin users report, but it'll help keep them alive. make sure that whenever your child buys a new batch of heroin that they start out with the lowest possible dose to get a feel for how strong it is, since heroin strength varies wildly. and if they take a break or try to quit and relapse, make sure they have a safe place to do so, and that they decrease their dose appropriately for how much time has passed.

remember, however, that there is no safe way to use heroin unless you know exactly what it's contaminated with.

once they're safe, then you can start addressing their opioid use.

make sure you have a steady supply of naloxone on hand in case of an overdose. prompt administration of naloxone may be the difference between your child recovering in the hospital or dying in your arms.

see the “painkillers” section for further information.

MDMA (ecstasy)

MDMA (vernacular names ecstasy, E, XTC, molly) is a stimulant, euphoriant, and entactogen that's a popular club drug. most people who use ecstasy do so infrequently, as the comedown can last days and be very unpleasant. dependency is possible, however.

what are the risks? ecstasy is rarely sold in pure form, and many products billed as ecstasy tablets may contain no ecstasy at all. even in its pure form, ecstasy can be neurotoxic when used frequently and long-term. that said, when used sparingly and cautiously, ecstasy is relatively safe, and no studies have ever found signs of ecstasy-induced brain damage in anyone who's used it less than fifty times in their life. so the main risks aren't physical — they're social.

what is the withdrawal like? as with any stimulant, ecstasy withdrawal can cause depression, lethargy, and anxiety. tolerance to MDMA takes an extraordinarily long time to decrease — while most drugs will stop causing withdrawal symptoms within a few weeks, MDMA can take months to fully withdraw from. ecstasy is therefore best taken as an occasional indulgence, not used habitually.

how can i help? since ecstasy is such an intense experience, it's important to be proactive in your approach, and this requires building a solid foundation of trust where your child isn't uncomfortable talking to you about drugs. if she attends parties frequently, try to talk to her — supportively and non-judgmentally — about ecstasy ahead of time, so she knows what to expect, can take measures to protect herself, and doesn't need fear retaliation if she feels unsafe and wants a ride home. as always, do your research beforehand, and don't just regurgitate drug myths — websites like PsychonautWiki and Erowid are great places to start.

… to be continued …

what are some common drug myths?

nicotine is addictive and bad for your health. there's a difference between tobacco and nicotine. tobacco is extremely dependency forming and dramatically raises your risk for heart disease when smoked (although the cancer risk is overblown). nicotine is only one of tobacco's many active components, and it does not mediate the dependency-forming properties or increase your risk of heart disease. tobacco is hard to quit because it contains a chemical in the monoamine oxidase inhibitor class, an old and dangerous class of antidepressant — and it's just as addictive as any other antidepressant. so while e-cigs are pretty safe, used in moderation, they're probably not going to help much with cigarette withdrawal.

black market pills are cut with dangerous substances. most black-market pills are diverted pharmaceuticals, and it's not profitable to grind-up and re-press pills just to add contaminants that will kill your clients. counterfeit pills, on the other hand, are very real and can put you in serious danger. so if when buying pills off the black market, it's best to make sure they come in the original packaging (blister packs are the safest bet).

ecstasy is made from heroin and meth (or cocaine). MDMA is its own unique drug. while i'm sure you can find unscrupulous dealers trying to pass off speedballs as molly, real molly is something else entirely.

dealers give drugs away for free. they've got a business to run. they're capitalists trying to make a profit, not demons trying to corrupt and damn the souls of the innocent through vice and sin.

… to be continued …