Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Can I Discourage My Impulsive Teen From Experimenting With Drugs?

Symptoms such as impulsivity and anxiety put teens with ADHD at higher risk for trying alcohol and using recreational drugs — and can make it more challenging for parents to prevent risky behavior. Find out how to set clear limits.

“How can I discourage drug experimentation by an impulsive child who may find that using makes him feel better, even if only temporarily? When I was a teen, the fear of being hooked kept me from experimenting, but my son doesn’t think the same way.”

Dear Beckster,

This question is on the minds of most parents, especially those parenting a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). Research suggests that, because teens with ADHD are impulsive and more prone to anxiety or depression than the general population, they are at greater risk for drug or alcohol abuse as well. The group at highest risk: Children whose ADHD is untreated.

In terms of brain development, several factors collide during adolescence to make it a particularly dangerous period for drug abuse. At the same time teens are drawn to risk-taking and experimentation, their brains are also most vulnerable to the effects of drugs, alcohol, and head trauma (like concussions).

Chances are, unless you lock your son in his room, he will have the opportunity to smoke marijuana or drink alcohol. But don’t panic yet. Experimentation and occasional use are unlikely to harm the brain.

In fact, some believe that teens are better off trying alcohol or marijuana while still under the watchful eye of their parents. However, I don’t agree with the logic of providing a safe place to experiment, because it gives kids permission to party. Not every teen whose parents are lenient develops a substance abuse problem, but most kids that I’ve treated for substance abuse have at least one parent who tacitly allows them to drink or use drugs. (However, safety trumps limit-setting, so it is a good idea to offer of a consequence-free ride home if needed.)

Setting clear limits about substance abuse can help keep your child safe. Deterrents serve as brakes that slow teens down. If they know you’re watching, they’ll be more cautious and potentially use less frequently.

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Tell your child ahead of time that you will ground him if you catch him using drugs or alcohol. Then if you see him visibly under the influence (not always so easy to tell) or find drug paraphernalia lying around (happens more often than you think), ground him for two weeks. Grounding means he cannot go out, friends cannot come over, and he cannot play video games. If you catch him again, double the sentence. After three strikes, you should assume your son or daughter has a problem, and it’s time to seek professional help.

As a general rule, avoid searching your child’s room or checking his phone. Teens deserve privacy as much as you do. However, they also need supervision. So after a first-time offense, put your son on notice that you might search his room. Also insist he turn over his phone password and put the phone on the kitchen counter each night for charging (you may have to buy him a separate alarm clock!). Be sure to say that you do not intend to spy on him. However, if he gives you probable cause, his right to privacy goes out the window.

You may also be considering drug-testing your child, but this raises additional questions (what to test for, and what to do if the test is positive, among others). If you reach this point, it’s probably time to consider seeking professional help for your child, in which testing will be a part of the treatment plan.

If you think your teen may have a substance abuse problem, make an appointment with your pediatrician and a good therapist. Twelve-step recovery models work for teens who admit they have a problem, but for those who don’t, a motivational interviewing approach can be more effective. A professional will help you determine the best treatment option. Keep in mind that many teens who get high every day are self-medicating an anxiety disorder, which should also be treated.

Finally, though you asked about drug use, I was careful to include alcohol in my answer. Many parents seem more comfortable with their teens consuming liquor versus pot. Not only are both harmful, but alcohol may be a factor in more problematic behavior (such as fights, unprotected sex, or nonconsensual sex) than marijuana. Consider them both when taking steps to keep your teen safe.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.

Adam Price, Ph.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.