Double Take: Parent considers home drug testing

Dear Dr. Wes and Samantha: As a divorced parent of a high school student, I need your ideas on how much do I "chalk up" to being a teenager and when to step in and be the parent. Specifically, how do you view the home testing of pot use, and, if positive, what are reasonable consequences? What about driving rights? How long is long enough?

Samantha: If you suspect your teen is using pot, you have a right to do a home drug test. It's your house; your teen should live by your rules. Don't just threaten to do one, however. If your teen knows ahead of time, he or she could find a way to tamper with the results. If the test is negative, try again a few days later. After the third random test, accept that you were wrong and admit it to your teen. If the test is positive, don't jump straight to punishing your teen. You usually don't get anywhere with anger in helping them reverse the habit.

You have some questions to ask. When did your teen begin smoking pot? What is the frequency of use? Which friends smoke pot? Where did your teen get it? Assure your teen that you will not report the dealer. You just care about his or her safety. If your teen refuses to answer your questions or shows no improvement in drug tests after three weeks, you need to take your teen to a drug counselor.

Hold all your teen's money (allowance and/or your paychecks) in a fund for him that will be waiting when he tests negative for three weeks. As a minor your child only has rights to the money you allow. Cutting your teen off makes it much harder to buy drugs.

Grounding your teen won't prove helpful, because he or she will probably just sneak out. However, if you know your teen has been driving under the influence, a suspension of driving privileges is appropriate. All of these punishments should last three weeks. Experts say it takes 21 consecutive days to make or break a habit.

Throughout this difficult process, make sure your teen knows you are on his or her side. However, tough love is certainly needed. Your teen is looking for direction, and you can give it. Be an active parent. Don't ask prodding questions with a suspicious air. Just ask about how your teen's day was like, and about plans for the weekend.

Be firm in your stance that drug abuse will not be tolerated in your house, and make sure your ex-spouse feels the same. A united front is very important. If your ex- won't cooperate, consider renegotiating the custody agreement. Your teen's drug use may have a serious effect on the rest of his or her life. The decisions you make now are very important.

Wes: I second Samantha's advice. I have no problem with drug testing, as long as you've reached a point of reasonable suspicion - more evidence for than against that your child has a substance abuse problem. Absent that, I wouldn't press in that direction.

Unfortunately, there are about as many obstacles to Samantha's suggestions as one can imagine. At the top of the list are adult substance abuse patterns, both in the family and in society in general. It is a pretty silly state of affairs when we somehow expect teenagers to have better judgment about drugs and alcohol than we do. If you or your ex has substance abuse issues, I think you'll be fighting an uphill battle. Of note, I consider a substance abuse problem to be routine use of illegal drugs in the home or drinking to the point of intoxication and/or acting that out in front of kids. Same with drunken driving, whether you get caught or not. By the time you're diagnosable as an addict, the ship has long since sailed with your kid on board. Repeatedly I've seen families who spend incredible amounts of money on inpatient drug treatment for their kids and never spend a dollar or a minute addressing their own chemical dependency problems. I'll let you guess how that turns out, which brings us to the next obstacle.

Follow through. Samantha is right when she says you should not threaten drug testing (or treatment, or counseling or AA or anything else). There is no substance abuse program in the world that is going to cure your teen without a coordinated aftercare program. Period. The good news is that AA is free, and it has a long history of success, and therapists who specialize in aftercare. You have to stick tenaciously to these programs, or else things quickly fall apart. Often parents are at one minute bent on doing anything necessary to prevent their child from using drugs. In the next they are looking the other way. That simply doesn't work. Recovery takes time, and you have to stick with it even when our kid doesn't want to, which is most of the time.

Before you do anything, first make an honest assessment of the risk your child faces and your willingness to counter it. More kids are smoking weed these days than you may think. For many it has gone from being an interesting diversion to a way of life. In my oddly controversial opinion, that isn't turning out so well. In fairness, for many kids pot use is purely recreational and its impact minor. You can easily separate them from the "lifestyle" kids because they don't build their whole day around smoking. If your kid really fits into that category (which is tricky to determine if you aren't hanging out with them every day), then you may create more problems than you solve by cracking down hard. But the minute a teen's pattern leans toward regular use and away from an occasional trip down marijuana lane, you need to be ready to respond.

Last note: There are plenty of other drugs floating around our fair city, from prescription meds to cocaine. Don't hesitate to respond to those. They don't take long to take a toll.

Next week: We'll answer the second half of this reader's question. How much should parents access teen's text messages, Facebook and e-mail?

— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to doubletake@ljworld.com. All correspondence is strictly confidential.

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