Our daughters were 12 and 16 when the rumors began. We’d heard stories of drug use at school, of kids bringing pills to parties. They were so young! This can’t really be happening, can it?
So, one night at dinner, we had a frank discussion. Had they heard the rumors? Of course they had. Did they know kids who used drugs? We were shocked to hear their answer: yes. They both knew of classmates who abused pills, and some who used heroin, even in middle school.
Needless to say, my wife and I were deeply concerned. We had no reason to suspect our girls were using drugs—they were both smart, outgoing and had good heads on their shoulders. But, we also recognized that they’re kids—kids who, at this age, don’t always have the best judgment, decision-making skills or grasp of potential long-term consequences. Faced with friends, peer pressure and wanting to fit in, we hoped they’d make the right decision if the situation ever arose.
But, you can never be 100% sure, can you? Much like with everything in parenting, the “what if’s” nagged at us.
I see it every day.
For me, the dangers of adolescent drug use are ever-present. At any given time, there’s at least a handful of teens undergoing intensive addiction rehabilitation at the Laguna Treatment Hospital where I work—many of whom started using when they were just 13 or 14 years old. Their stories are shocking—some were even introduced to drugs like meth and heroin by their parents, and they got high together.
Not to mention, I’d grappled with addiction myself. As a physician in the U.S. Air Force, I became addicted to prescription pain pills following a routine surgery. Not only did it cost me my military career, but I was forced to call my mom on Mother’s Day to tell her I’d been admitted to rehab. That was 19 years ago, and since then I’ve dedicated my life to helping others recovery from substance use.
The risk of our girls going down that path was simply terrifying. Determined to keep them safe, we broached the subject of drug testing them, mostly for our own satisfaction, but also to give them an “out.” Our theory was, if they were ever offered drugs, they could turn it down with a solid excuse: “I can’t. My parents will test me and find out.”
So, at the dinner table one night, after another insightful conversation on the subject, we asked them: “What would you think about us testing you for drugs?” They exchanged glances, both smiled and said, “Sure.” It was no big deal.
The right approach makes all the difference.
I know there’s a lot of controversy surrounding this topic. Some experts believe drug testing your kids demonstrates distrust, invades their privacy, creates a hostile environment and simply causes them to do even more sneaky (and scary) things behind your back to avoid being caught.
In my view, however, drug testing your kids isn’t about trying to “catch them.” It’s about teaching them accountability, responsibility and giving them the confidence to stand up to peer pressure and say, “No.” In fact, if you suspect your child is already experimenting with drugs, I don’t recommend the home-testing route—you should immediately make an appointment to see your pediatrician.
When handled properly, drug testing reinforces positive behavior and the fact that staying clean and sober opens more doors and opportunities than the alternative. Plus, it’s not exactly a novel concept. Middle and high school students can be required to undergo routine testing in order to participate in competitive extracurricular activities (not just sports, but academic endeavors as well). Some college academic programs require students to stay clean, and many, many employers now require routine random screenings.
But, with kids being kids, aiming to assert their independence, it’s easy to see how even suggesting a random drug test at home might cause a family feud. Here’s how to approach it to keep the anger, resentment, tears and drama at bay.
- 1) Talk to your kids beforehand. Don’t just bring home a test one day and declare that today is the day. Ask your child if they’re aware of drug use at school or among classmates. Be clear about how dangerous it is to go down that path and how easily it can quickly spiral out of control. Don’t force them to name names, but make sure they know they can come to you if they’re concerned about a friend, or if they’ve been offered drugs and don’t know what to do.
- 2) Have a positive attitude. Reinforce that you trust them, are proud of their hard work and accomplishments with school and activities, and that you want to make sure they continue to have a clear path to take advantage of every opportunity. Staying clean is a means to that; getting tested is a normal part of having a job as an adult.
- 3) Don’t spring it on them. Don’t wait until they come home late one night and hand them a cup to pee in. That sends the message that you’re suspicious. Instead, get them involved. Go to the store and buy the test kit together. Talk about the different options and substances each detects. Find out what they know about these substances and how it affects users.
- 4) Turn it into a science experiment. My girls were actually quite curious about the whole process. We discussed how and why the test strips changed colors to indicate results. It’s a lesson in biology, chemistry, pharmacology and psychology all rolled into one.
- 5) Talk about the risk of false positives. No test is foolproof, and there is a risk of false positives with home test kits, so don’t freak out if you get a positive result. Make an appointment with your pediatrician, who can administer a more robust and accurate test, as well as reinforce with your child the importance of staying clean. If that one’s positive, your pediatrician is your best resource for next steps.
- 6) Consider offering incentives. Some schools offer Drug Free Clubs, where students agree to random testing in exchange for eligibility to win some pretty spectacular prizes, like iPhones, TVs, gift certificates, go on great field trips and more. If your school doesn’t offer such a program, consider a reward system for your own family.
Like anything else, the best approach to dealing with the risks of drug use is to just talk to your kids. Chances are they may know more than you expect or want them to, and that might be a little scary. But, the most important thing is to have an open dialogue. If your children know they can come to you with concerns or for guidance—about anything—they’re much less likely to head down a dangerous path.