A Personal Note – When You First Discover Your Teen is Abusing Substances


A few weeks ago, I wrote a personal note to other parents of people who struggle with addictions. I felt a need to connect with others who have situations that are similar to mine and also wanted to let anyone out there that feels alone know that they are anything but alone.

I’m going to post a personal note once a week on this blog. I’m hoping it’s a way to give parents of those that struggle with addictions hope, but maybe I can also share some of what I’ve learned along the way. For my part, my family and I have been dealing with this situation for about eight years or so. It’s been nothing short of a challenge, but it’s also taught all of us a lot.

This week, I wanted to talk about when the whole thing started. My daughter was in her teens at the time. She had always been on the edge of rebelliousness, with a hot (more like scalding) temper, a need to speak her mind, and more brains than she knew what to do with. Despite all these negatives, she was a pretty good kid. She had a strong love of her family, and while she did struggle with a tumultuous relationship with her biological dad, she had fully embraced my husband to fill the dad-role, or that’s what the surface showed.

They Hide it Well

In my daughter’s case, and in the case of many other kids, parents are caught pretty unaware when they find out that their teen is abusing substances. It’s a complete and total shock. My daughter hid the things she was doing so very well. Yes, we were having the usual teen-parent disagreements and distance. Yes, her friends knew her better than we did. Of course, she wanted more to spend time with them than with us, but that was normal, wasn’t it?

I have learned that kids can hide things really well, and too often we chalk it up to them being teenagers. In our situation, we thought that by giving her a little space and room to spread her wings, we were doing a good thing.

She hid her substance abuse for about a year or so before things kind of started to get shady. But, let me tell you, once you start noticing weird things, they will keep popping up everywhere.

I’m trying to remember the chronology of the situation because things fell apart and stayed jumbled for what seemed like forever. When she turned 16, she got a job and her license, but we didn’t let her use our vehicles because of her history of substance abuse. Very simply, we didn’t want to be responsible if she happened to be high and got in an accident.

I dutifully took her to and from work for every shift she had and didn’t think much of it when she started getting very friendly with her college-age co-workers. I still didn’t allow her to spend time with them outside of work, but that didn’t make a difference. The girl had found a way, and really, that’s not unusual for teens.

If this sounds familiar, don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean that your teen is using substances, it just means that he or she could be. In my case, I choose to believe the good in everyone. It makes me seem naïve, but I am learning the hard way.

Until I did freak out.

When I Finally Discovered What was Going On

It took a while, but my husband and I did finally start catching on. We started watching our daughter’s behavior and asking questions. Now, I can’t remember the exact events that led up to the situation. I think we wound up grounding her from her phone and went through it. I’m pretty sure there was a violent exchange that morning, and I do remember being scared and angry.

What I also clearly remember is my reaction to her when I finally did see her. It was not pretty. I pride myself on being fairly calm and collected. I like to think I’m one of those, “You can tell me anything,” parents. On that day, though, I was anything but.

I yelled at her. I chastised and berated her. I am honestly ashamed to say that this defining moment in my daughter’s continued substance abuse definitely turned her toward the “Screw it, I’m already in trouble anyway,” side.

I was horrible. I was hateful. I said things that I wish I hadn’t said, and yet – once unleashed – my fear, anger, worry, and heartbreak all came rushing to the surface and bubbled out like one ugly mess of tar that I had been trying to keep down.

My husband was speechless, and my younger daughter hid in her room. To this day, she says she is scared to make me mad like my oldest did. The worst part is that in my memory, as I was yelling at my daughter, I still see her eyes widen with fear, and then narrow with hurt. I saw the moment she turned away from trusting me, and I couldn’t stop.

No, I wasn’t physically abusive, and I tried, again and again, to tell her that I was sorry I blew up, it’s just that I love her. But, you know, too little, too late.

Then, I assumed she was addicted. She was using Suboxone at the time, and later she admitted that she was addicted to it.  However, I forced her into intensive outpatient rehab. Like, I kept her home from school and wouldn’t let her go anywhere until she finished treatment. I thought I was doing the right thing. I believed that she needed to feel “punished” for what she had been doing. I didn’t realize that I would have a punishment, too.

My punishment was having to sit through five sessions of family therapy where my daughter was allowed to hurl all of the hurtful, hateful things she held in at me, and I could do nothing. My punishment. I would come home from those sessions and just cry. It left me feeling like I had really been a terrible mother to my oldest daughter. I was scared to parent my younger daughter, I was scared to try to talk to my oldest.

On some level now, I wonder if this is how my daughter felt when I yelled at her. Or how she felt when I looked at her like a second-class citizen because of her “addiction.” I have often wondered if I truly failed her, or if I was just acting the way society expects us to. I have often wondered just how much damage I did to her emotionally.

What I’ve Learned

First of all, if you’re going through anything even similar to this, I feel your pain, and so do millions of other American parents. In the case of having teen abusing drugs, there isn’t ever a truly right answer. It’s not like someone wrote a one-size-fits-all instruction manual to parenting, and unfortunately, we are all human. It’s normal to have selfish feelings (why does it have to be my kid doing this), fears (what if he gets in a wreck and kills himself), anger (where does he get off acting like this), and heartache (my child has been lying to me all this time and I’ll never get him back).

It’s also normal to have a quick response to a situation like this, but experts feel that this just isn’t the right approach. I wish I had taken the time to do some research, but I didn’t, and I can’t take it back.

What I have learned is pretty powerful, though. It’s helped to shape me into the person I am, and it’s also helped me in my relationship with my oldest daughter today. It’s helped how I deal with almost every situation, too, and for that I am grateful.

In hindsight, I remember that my daughter had been trying to tell me what was happening in her life for a while. She would tell me about this recurring dream of a runaway freight train. She was on it and it kept going faster and faster and there was nobody controlling it, but she couldn’t get off.

When she told me that, I did try to be calm and told her it sounded like there might be things in her life that she was doing that didn’t feel right to her. Maybe, I said, she should ask herself what was really going on and assess whether they were behaviors she wanted to continue. I told her she could talk to me about her problems and I could help her work them out, but nothing came of that. I understand, girls hit an age that they don’t want their moms to fight their battles for them.

I also know now that I should have dealt with things differently. By flipping out, I was showing as much of my desperation over the situation as she was. I wasn’t being better, more mature, or guiding with a strong hand. I was freaking out. That’s it. I was showing my daughter that I am not a strong leader or role model and that I didn’t want to admit it.

But, like all things, my daughter’s addiction isn’t and wasn’t about me. That, more than anything, is what I have learned. Unfortunately, when you find out that your teen is abusing substances, chances are, it has nothing to do with you. Yes, it affects you, but you might not be the cause, and the way you feel about it doesn’t matter.

So, what do you do?

This personal note has to do with what I did wrong when I found out my daughter was abusing substances. I’m not completely sure what you should do when you find out that your teen is abusing drugs. I do know that you shouldn’t freak out. You shouldn’t yell, and you shouldn’t make your teen feel like he or she has done something shameful, or really, even wrong. You’re telling your child that he or she is bad. Bad, in your teen’s eyes, can cause feelings of self-loathing, and self-hate.

Instead, here’s what I should have done. I should have set up a session or two with a therapist. I should have called and told him or her my suspicions, and definitely talked about the behavior and lack of communication. Then, I should have requested a couple of appointments to try to get to the bottom of what was happening with my daughter.

Then, and only then, should I have proceeded with getting her addiction treatment? That way, I would have known what was happening. Also, I feel that it would have prevented her from being so angry and determined to “play the system,” like she did. It might have helped her to open her heart and mind to be more receptive to the idea of overcoming all addictions.

Then, when it was time to seek treatment, I shouldn’t have taken her to one program and hoped for the best. I should have called a company like Elite Rehab Placement so I had lots of options to choose from. I should have found out all I needed to know about getting my daughter the type of addiction treatment for teens that she would respond well to, and I should have pursued that.

If you’re where I was, first of all, take a breath. You need to know for yourself that not every kid who abuses substances becomes addicted. Lots of kids actually pretend to use, but really don’t. Others just find other things to keep them busy. I drew the short straw when it comes to addiction and my child, and I should have dealt with it differently, but that doesn’t mean that you will.

So, before you flip out and assume the worst, the most important thing you can do is talk to your child. Show him or her why you suspect substance abuse and ask if they would like to talk to someone. Or, if they could to help put your mind at ease. Show your teen that you aren’t mad, but that the situation does need to be dealt with and that together – you will find a way to make things better.

And remember, if you need us, we are here to help you find an addiction treatment program for your teen that will truly help him or her to start a new, healthy life.