I usually don’t spy on my son, but a parent in our neighborhood reached out to me recently to tell me that she is certain that my son (and a few other kids) is using drugs. She shared a print out of my son’s Facebook, which showed a number of concerning things, including photos or marijuana leaves and references to getting high. When I confronted my son with what I discovered, he denied any drug use and was upset with me for viewing his Facebook page without his permission.
At 18, he feels that he should have a right to complete privacy and that I should just trust him. I have noticed that something hasn’t been quite right with him over the past few months, but I just chalked it up to normal teen stuff. My husband thinks that we should test him for drugs, but I think that that would only upset our son more. He’s leaving for school soon, and I don’t really know what to do. I’d love to get your thoughts on our situation.
The prevalence of illicit drug use across the nation remains at a very concerning level. According to the CDC, 9.2 percent of all Americans age 12 years and older have used some sort of drug recreationally within the past month. While 2012 data show that marijuana continues to be the most commonly used and abused substance (14.8 million users), many teens and adults are also using other sorts of drugs – cocaine (2.4 million users), prescription medications (7 million non-medical users), heroin (669,000 users), hallucinogens (1 million users) and methamphetamine (731,000 users) are the top contenders.
Drug use does not discriminate across socioeconomic status; you will find drug users amongst the poor, the middle class, the upper middle class and the wealthy. In fact, most illegal drug users are gainfully employed. And Loudoun County is not secluded from or immune to drug abuse and/or dependence. Drugs are most certainly at your son’s high school (public or private), and they are in your neighborhood. Recently in the news, use of the deadly new designer drug known as “25i,” “Smiles” and “N-Bomb” by three teen girls (ages: 13-18 years) in a Lansdowne home led to police involvement and their hospitalization.
As the director of a private practice that assesses and treats individuals with substance abuse problems and alcoholism, I can tell you first hand that teen drug use in Loudoun County is a very real problem and your concern is valid. Not surprisingly, I received a number of phone calls from concerned parents regarding their own children in response to the recent Lansdowne incident. However, based off of the limited information you have provided here, it is not clear to me if your son is abusing drugs. His seemingly proud posts and interest in marijuana may simply be his attempt to be cool and to fit in with others or it may reflect a more serious problem for him.
There are a number of general signs for alcohol and drug use to watch for as a parent, which I have listed below:
- A shift from normal patterns of behavior and interests
- Mood changes and/or attitude problems
- Disrespect and a lack of cooperation with family rules and responsibilities
- Declining grades and/or sudden academic struggles
- School truancy and/or a lack of interest in school
- Having a decreased interest in activities or dropping out of activities
- Changing friendships (and not allowing you to meet certain friends)
- Erratic, hostile or aggressive behaviors
- Decreased motivation
- Sleep Problems (increase or decrease)
- Missing money or valuables from your purse or wallet or the home
- Poor hygiene and a changing physical appearance
- Cognitive struggles – disorganization and forgetfulness
- Sudden appetite changes (increase or decrease)
I agree with you that drug testing your son will most likely upset him, and it may also drive a very real wedge between him and you as parents this Summer. Thus, instead of starting out with a drug test, I think you should first sit down with your son to discuss your concerns as parents. I recommend respectfully reviewing the Facebook printouts with him and also sharing any concerns you might have in your observations of him. Try to get him to understand that you are approaching him as concerned parents and not parents that want to accuse him or catch him.
During your talk, I think you should also address your expectations of your son over the Summer and before he heads off to college. Your expectations should be clear and reasonable across all of the areas of importance – job, curfew, family time, chores – in helping him to have a fun, productive and responsible Summer.
I agree with your son regarding his need for privacy and trust inasmuch as he is 18 and he will soon be out of the house and on his own at school. However, I think your son needs to understand that these rights are not unconditional and that, as loving and caring parents, you will increase your involvement and control in his life if you continue to have concerns (e.g., drug testing if warranted).
The take home message for your son is that you want him to be happy and successful at 18 and in life and that you would prefer to not be concerned about him or overly involved as parents. It really is all about the choices he makes and the way he behaves. You might also want to speak to your son about the sort of messages he is sending out about himself to the world. The Internet is not entirely private, and many employers, and even schools, review Facebook and other social media.
If, however, you continue to have concerns about possible drug or alcohol involvement for your son, I recommend, for a couple of important reasons, that you do not drug test your son but instead that you seek professional help. First, over the counter drug tests are not necessarily valid or reliable and the majority of them can be manipulated by teens that know how to do so. Professionals in your area of need have much stronger tests that cannot be easily manipulated. Second, it is not just about catching your son and punishing him. If your son is using marijuana or other illicit substances, he may be in trouble in different ways psychologically (e.g., he may be depressed or he may be addicted or dependent) and you will want to get him the necessary treatment. The situation most often worsens when parents attempt to wear too many hats and hats that they are not trained to wear – the law enforcement hat and the therapist hat.
It is my hope that with a firm but loving talk your son will be on the same page with you as parents involving drug use. It is also my hope that he will have a fantastic Summer before heading off to his new life as a college student and that you will be confident in his doing so.
Dr. Michael Oberschneider is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services. Send questions email@example.com.