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Beyond the usual teenage mood-swings, my teen's behavior has become unusually erratic. He stays out late, and seems to go out of his way to avoid me when he comes home.

His sleep patterns seem completely random, and I don't trust the people he's been hanging out with.

Should I confront him? Should I search his room to see if I can find any evidence? Should I tell him he can't hang out with "that crowd" anymore?

If I do confront him, I have no idea how to go about it. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

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Hard to say if that behavior is a result of a drug or just teen angst. It's hard to say not knowing the kind of relationship you have, but I'd start by just asking. –  DA01 Sep 25 '12 at 17:41
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A side question you don't have to answer here: did you ever do drugs? Because if you did, any kind of moral stance you take now might be a bit compromised, unless you can point to addiction problems you had to overcome. If you have that story, you could just share it apropos of nothing, because it's your story, not his. But if you used drugs and are none worse the wear and he knows that you did that, then being moralistic would ring very very hollow. –  mmr Sep 26 '12 at 2:09
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A friend of mine had a similar situation with his daughter. It turned out that she had begun to date a girl, and was a bit confused about the whole situation, and was therefore hiding it for the timebeing even though the parents are completely open-minded about those things. The moral here is, you have no idea if it's drugs, really, so be careful not to accuse in advance. That could backfire badly. –  Ana Sep 26 '12 at 10:20
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7 Answers

up vote 32 down vote accepted

You don't have nearly enough evidence to accuse him. You're also beyond the point where you can forbid him from doing something. You need to persuade him, and performing a search won't help with that.

Badmouthing his friends is also likely to backfire. His selection of friends is highly personal and the largest part of his identity right now. It would be like someone telling you that you made a poor career choice and married the wrong woman. If you insult his friends, you're insulting his decision-making ability precisely when you're trying to persuade him he can make the right decision on drugs.

So the first thing I would say is to show an interest in his friends. Ask your son what he likes about them. Remember their names. Encourage him to invite his friends to your home by offering to buy pizza or rent a movie or whatever. Maybe let him postpone homework or something if he has his friends over to your house instead of going out. When they come over, greet them warmly, make a little small talk, then get out of their way.

When you have a talk with him, try to do more listening than talking. Take him out to a restaurant or sporting event where you'll have a guaranteed block of time and silences won't be so awkward. Remember you want to coax, not confront. Speak in hypotheticals instead of accusing him. Ask him what he thinks the consequences of drug abuse would be. Ask him about strategies for resisting drug use. If someone offered him drugs at a party, what would he do?

Praise him for what he knows and fill in the gaps of what he doesn't know. Ask him what you can do to help. Offer him no-questions-asked rides. Tell him he can blame you to his friends. Ask him if he did make a mistake, what would be the adult way to handle it. Assure him if he acts like an adult, you will treat him like one, but if you find out from someone else, it will not be pretty for him. Show him he can trust you not to jump to conclusions by not forcing him to open up. Give him plenty of time. One talk isn't going to instantly change things.

If he is abusing drugs and doesn't open up about it, trust me that he will know you suspect him even if you don't directly accuse him. The fact that you know but are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt will send a much stronger message than accusing him without proof. The goal here is not to micromanage his behavior, but to build up enough confidence for him to want to say no. You want him thinking "Dad trusts me to make the right decision" instead of "Dad doesn't trust me anyway, so why should I resist?"

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+1 Fantastic answer, thanks! –  Beofett Sep 25 '12 at 21:19
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This is awesome, +1. I'd like to see an addition, though, for what to do if this approach has not worked after a few months. –  Joel Coehoorn Sep 27 '12 at 3:26
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Ransacking his room and invading his personal space may come back to haunt you, especially if he is hiding something. TRUST me, he will notice if you've searched his room and that may cause him to distance himself even further from you.

I would just casually confront him about it via discussing something you "saw on the news" recently relating to drug-use and then steer the conversation from there. Don't be overly aggressive about it; i.e., "Son, sit down. We have to talk." That may scare him off. Just mention a story or something about drug-use in a blasé fashion and see how he reacts. That should be the first step.

Sincerely, A teenager

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+1 for providing perspective from the teen's side of the fence –  afrazier Sep 25 '12 at 19:30
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What you describe sounds a lot like me when I was a teenager about a decade ago. Long story short, I've never done drugs.

I had a terrible sleep schedule, and I still do. It wasn't so much that I was doing anything important or bad as it was that I was on MSN talking to friends (some of whom lived in Japan), or playing Starcraft. As a result I'd often take long naps, which would mess up my schedule even more. A lot of my friends have terrible sleep schedules too, as do the students at the high school I volunteer at. I think it's just a problem that plagues our generation as a whole.

I avoided my parents a lot too. There wasn't any particular reason, and I didn't hate them or anything; they just weren't as much friends as they were parental units. I guarantee you that as long as you don't get into utterly unamicable arguments with him, he'll eventually stop avoiding you.

I hung out with good people who also happened to be stoners and ravers. They never forced me to participate, and instead we just drove around town or complained about the Iraq war or life or worked on nerdy projects, often late at night. We never caused a ruckus -- except maybe that one birthday party when my friend's parents weren't home.

As for your son -- chances are that if he's doing any drugs at all, it's pot -- and if it is, you'll know it from the smell. If it's a dangerous amount of alcohol, again, you'll probably know from the smell. If it's any other "hard drugs", you'd probably see a lot more symptoms.

If it does turn out that he's smoking pot, it might be a good idea strategically not to admonish it too much, because it is true that a lot of research exists in defense of marijuana, and so you could risk him using science against you if you went at the problem guns blazing. However, it's also true that most places in North America are locking up more and more marijuana users, so you could let him know that you don't want that to happen to him.

If it's something like MDMA/ecstasy, you might want to be a bit concerned -- but again, as the others have said, it'd probably make sense to tread as lightly as possible within reason, especially until it becomes an unmistakable threat to his wellbeing.

Less kids are doing drugs in general. They have the internet and 9gag and YouTube; they've all seen and laughed at the stupid things people do when they're high. They all have friends that have their parents on Facebook, even if they don't themselves. That's not to say drugs are gone, but I think it's coming to a point where it's safer to assume that it's some other problem besides drugs, quite likely something more benign.

Hope that makes you feel better.

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While you don't exactly answer the question, I really like the perspective you bring and the information you included. Thanks! –  Beofett Sep 26 '12 at 23:02
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Are you sure you are asking the right question? You suspect he's using drugs not because you have any evidence, but because he's staying out late and his behavior isn't what you'd like. I think maybe you are looking at this from the wrong perspective, maybe you should be asking why he's avoiding you and staying out late. There comes a time when you can't stop them from doing what they want, and trying to stop them makes them either rebel or resent you. You can't boss anymore, you can only try to guide and provide advice for the most part. There still needs to be limits, but much fewer and less tight.

Teens need freedom, and if you don't give them enough willingly they are inclined to take it for themselves at the risk of their relationship with their parents. Is it possible that you are trying to control his life too closely? Maybe these behaviors are a message to you to back off a bit and start treating him like a young adult rather than a kid. Take a look at your parenting style from the perspective of your son, put yourself in his shoes and see how you'd feel. If there's things that you realize might not be helping change your style as necessary.

Next, talk with him. Not to him, but with him. Let him know it's time for him to start making his own decisions, and that you aren't going to try to stop him from running some aspects of his life but that to get more freedom he has to earn your trust. Express your concerns and why you have them, and ask him to come up with solutions. Negotiate on those solutions until you come up with a workable compromise. Write down the agreement and stick to it. This will show him that you respect him and don't look at him as a kid anymore, and your respect is one of the things he wants most.

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Lots of good answers already but I think there are still some important things to point out. This is one of the hardest challenges for a parent.

What type of drugs are we talking about?

There are three groups of illegal drugs that are worth differentiating: A) Alcohol, B) Weed, Hashish & Marijuana, C) prescription drugs and hard drugs. All three of those are illegal (depending on age and country) but I think they need different approaches. For now I'll assume this is restricted to alcohol and/or weed. If you suspect it's something worse, please seek professional help ASAP.

Is my kid taking illegal drugs?

Of course he/she does at least at some point!! According to www.drugabuse.gov (US centric) 40% of all high schoolers got drunk 17% smoked weed just in the last month. The number of high school students that actually graduate without any exposure to alcohol or weed is vanishingly small. I know that all of my kids had exposure before graduating. I grew up in a different country a long time ago, but even then the picture was the same: Access to alcohol and weed was always there and most kids participated to some extend. But that's not a necessarily a bad thing:

What is your goal?

Before you dive in here, please be clear about what you are trying to achieve. In an ideal world you child would never be taking any illegal (or legal) drugs for their entire live but a) this is not going to happen, and b) it's not your choice anyway and you have little or no control once they leave home. A better and more realistic goal could be the following: "teach my kid about the risks and rewards of drugs and enable them to make responsible decisions" . This is very different from "drugs are bad, don't take them".

In the end you want your child to become a responsible adult. Most responsible adults will occasionally engage in some sort of drug use (illegal or not), so they need to learn the tools of how to do this.

How do you do that?

Keep the communication lines open and keep judgement to a minimum. Be clear about the message but be realistic, honest, factual and by all means avoid hypocrisy. Don't tell your kids that alcohol is a terrible thing when you pour yourself a drink first thing you come home from work. Don't lie or be overly dramatic. A statement like "you cannot smoke weed because it leads to addiction on hard drugs" is simply not true and your kids know that already. Speak openly about what you know and what you don't know, do some research together if the kid is up to it, but be open enough to accept the results of your research. Set some "common sense" rules: MIT for example allows alcohol in dorms but always a requires a "party monitor": a person that is sober and pays attention and can intervene when things get out of hand. In general "always have a person around that is clear headed and that you trust". Allow for some "training": In my opinion it's preferably for kids to have their first exposure at home in a safe environment than to wait until they are for example in college where things are much more dangerous. At some point they need to figure out what e.g. alcohol does (or doesn't) do to them and how they react to it, so it might as well happen when there is a safety net available.

Legal Stuff

Many drugs are indeed illegal which means that you and your kid can get in trouble with the law. You and your child should be aware of the actual regulations and the potential consequences. In Massachusetts for example, weed is actually less of a problem than alcohol. Weed under 1oz results in a citation and $100 fine. Alcohol, however, gets you often (but not always) in front of a judge with a significant chance of a criminal record. Again, it's important to do the research and stick with the facts and accept them, even if you personally feel otherwise. Do this with your kid together. Make sure he/she understands what the laws and the potential consequences are. Factually, not threatening.

Should you search your teenager's room?

Heck yeah!!!. Here is why (which you should clearly explain to them): Depending on your local legislation even parents & siblings are at significant risk of legal exposure. If illegal drugs are found on your property, you may be legally responsible for this. If you end up in front of a judge and end up with fines, jail, or get a criminal record the whole family suffers. Most teenagers are NOT aware that storing some weed in their room or raiding the liquor cabinet with their buddies can result in serious legal consequences for the parents. You need to be very clear about this: "Mike, we cannot have any weed in the house because if this gets out, I'm legally responsible and since my company has strong no-drug policy I will likely get fired. I really need to make sure". The teen is going to be annoyed, but they tend to be permanently annoyed anyway so what's the difference :-). Searches in my house were actually productive, did not harm the relationship long term and actually triggered some good discussion.

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A related way to think of this problem / situation is to learn more about your child's motivations. What do they want - not just 'in life', but in their heart. Confronting them about 'drugs', or other projections of your own, will get in the way of their mind/self coming out.

What do they not know - about themselves & their abilities - that they would take a mind-altering/expanding drug to get in touch with themselves? (or join a yoga class, an ideology club, etc)

Most kids won't face the thought that they're 'seeking themselves' - which I've often seen to be coming from the tendency of people that age to project. They project themselves on the world & so do see their search for themselves. Not all kids are this way, and some do it only for certain aspects of life.

You must become part-psycholanalyst, without presenting yourself as such.

You're almost beyond the point where you can impress your values on them - so bet to know what values they've come to lean toward. Maybe you can inject enough perspective that they can alter themselves by the time they're mid-way through college.

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(That is, unless you're one of those parents who thinks it's ok to steer your children away from a solid educational foundation) –  New Alexandria Oct 3 '12 at 14:53
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I've not seen it explicitely mentioned in the other answers, but did you have a general talk about drugs with him already ? Regardless of your suspicions, if your teenager is in age to test drugs then it's probably past time to have such a talk. Same applies for all sensible topics.

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I'm wondering if this downvote is meant to disapprove drug talks in general, or that it's to be avoided in this particular case, or because the voter feels it doesn't address the question… –  Skippy le Grand Gourou Oct 18 '13 at 12:00
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