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How Do I Know If My Child Has A Drug Or Alcohol Problem?

The answer isn't the most important thing...

As an addictions specialist, I get lots of calls from worried parents. It’s usually a bad news/good news scenario. The bad news is that most of the parents calling are beyond the point of wanting to know if their child is getting high--they’ve known it for a while by the time they finally pick up the phone to call.

The good news is that even though addiction is a progressive and chronic problem, without a commitment by the addict to maintaining a sober lifestyle, it can be a very treatable problem, especially with early intervention. And that initial call inquiring about a problem is a very important and necessary step in the process of getting help.

I use the word “process” because people come for help for a substance abuse problem with varying levels of motivation and ambivalence. Most people I see initially are being prodded or coerced to attend treatment: by a parent, spouse/partner, friend, doctor, or a lawyer.

Even parents, who are usually feeling terrified and often desperate when they are calling about their troubled teenager or young adult, have some level of ambivalence about seeking help. They’re scared, or guilty, or embarrassed or usually a combination of these or other uncomfortable feelings. They’ve probably put off for a long time making that first call. The process of reaching out for help mirrors the process of addiction recovery itself: it’s not a straight line but a series of steps: two forward, one backward, up and down, ebbing and flowing.

The importance of that initial call by a parent is not based so much on the content of the discussion--the specific information shared--but the fact that the first call represents two crucial factors that need to occur in the early recovery process to increase the likelihood of a successful parental intervention: the willingness to educate yourself about addiction and recovery; and taking steps to reclaim control of your parenthood.


Accurate information is a front-line weapon in the battle against the disease of addiction. Addiction is a complex interaction of biological, psychological and interpersonal (social, family, peer relationships) factors. The more information you arm yourself with--for example, what addiction is, about the specific substances of abuse, types of addictions, the nature and process of addiction and recovery--the better position you’ll be in to figure out the action steps to take to feel more control of your child and his/her problem

Reclaim Control of Your Parenthood

I like to view that first call for help as the first step by a parent to get back in the driver’s seat of the family and reclaim control of parenthood.
An important shift in family functioning occurs when a family member is struggling with addiction. The addict is an expert at deflecting responsibility away from herself. Family members, out of love and concern, will be often willing to accept some (or a lot!) of the responsibility and even blame for the addict’s inability to take care of herself. So in addition to giving parents some specific information during that call, I’ll have them start the process of figuring out how they can begin to focus on which aspects of the problems associated with the addict’s behavior that they can control, or actually do something about. This is the first step in the parent’s own recovery.

Taking steps towards reclaiming your parenthood will begin the process of shifting the family functioning towards a healthier state and reduce the fear and helplessness for parents.

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