Should I home drug test my teenager?
Teenagers. Even ones who don’t get into trouble can raise their parents’ blood pressure to the level of an ER visit. But what about the ones who are skirting the line, maybe taking illegal drugs, in danger of getting in trouble with the law? What's a parent to do?
For those who think their children are abusing drugs, there is the option of readily available in-home drug screens. They have become much less expensive in recent years. A marijuana screen may cost as little as $1. There is a lot of controversy over resorting to drug screening. But having worked for nearly 11 years in Multisystemic Therapy (MST), I see drug tests as a huge parenting “win.” Knowledge is power. If you believe there is a problem, you can act.
First, let's address some questions.
- What are the benefits of in-home drug screens? The negatives?
- If you become concerned about potential drug use and decide to give your child a test, what’s the best way to do it?
- How should you respond to a positive drug screen?
- Once you confirm your child has been using drugs, what are your next steps?
So, what are the pros and cons of home drug tests?
The issue of parents giving drug tests has become a polarizing one with mental-health providers on both sides of the fence. The American Academy of Pediatrics released this statement in 2007: “Drug testing poses substantial risks—in particular, the risk of harming the parent-child relationship by creating an environment of resentment, distrust, and suspicion.” Many other providers disagree, including most MST clinicians. Parenting consultant Karen Alonge blogged in 2008, “Random drug testing can be a fantastic deterrent to peer pressure. ‘No way, my parents could test me anytime’ is a pretty strong reason to ‘Just Say No’ that other kids easily understand.”
There are merits in both statements. Yes, drug testing at home poses risks. It might lead to a heated argument. Your child could get angry and feel like you don’t trust him. He could become skilled at “fooling” the test or start using something for which you don’t test. On the other hand, you might learn of a problem before it grows into something bigger and more dangerous. You could prevent future legal charges. Most importantly, this has the potential of creating an opportunity to insert yourself more fully into the life of your teenager, learn about her struggles, get to know her friends, and offer a higher level of accountability.
What’s the Best Way to Give a Drug Test?
First, develop a game plan. How will you explain what your child might see as a gross invasion of privacy and lack of trust? It’s not going to be easy. Find some support, have your partner practice the conversation with you, and do it together. Or, if you’re a single parent, have a friend come over whom your child will trust. Do it in a non-confrontational way by explaining your concerns and discussing what will happen if the test comes back positive or negative. Decide on incentives for clean drug screens and consequences if the test comes back positive.
Next, find a way to increase your chances of getting accurate results. Teenagers are sometimes smart and creative in “playing” a drug test. Some caregivers choose to have the same-sex parent or relative observe as the youth takes the test. Others have turned off the water or put tape across the sink, making it easier to see if the water has been turned on.
Be prepared for refusal. If your child will not take the test, decide what you will do next. Many parents have been successful by treating refusal as a positive screen and giving the same consequences until the teenager complies with submitting to the test. If you have concerns that you might not be able to handle conflicts that arise, speak to a mental-healthcare provider before you screen or consider having the test performed by your primary care physician. Lastly, offer contingencies. Take away a privilege that is important to your child, allowing him or her to earn it back when the drug screen comes back negative.
If the drug test Is positive, what then?
If your fears are confirmed and your child has been using drugs, there are some important questions to ask yourself as a parent. First, do you need outside help? If your child is already in treatment, speak with his or her mental-healthcare provider. If not, turn to your primary care physician. He or she can give a follow-up test to ensure that your child is not using substances that you did not test for and make referrals for more support, as needed. Second, learn as much as you can about when and where your child is using drugs. Who are his friends? Where does he spend time when he is not at home? Consider having a friend or neighbor help you keep tabs on your child or enroll him in a positive activity to take up any unstructured time, reducing the opportunity for drug use. You might want to sweep your home for drugs, as suggested by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. “Search for drugs and drug paraphernalia. If you want to collect concrete evidence of your child’s drug use before your intervention, here are some good places to look: dresser drawers, desk drawers, backpacks, the glove compartment of the car, the back of closets, corners of bed sheets, under the mattress or bed, small boxes, books/bookcases, make up cases, over-the-counter medicine bottles, and empty candy wrappers.”
If you do locate drugs, decide how you want to dispose of them. Some parents flush them down the toilet or throw them away. Others have found that you can anonymously surrender them to law enforcement, but it will be important to check to see how this is handled in your community.
Teenage substance use is a complex problem. But, it is a problem that parents should be empowered to help solve. Be encouraged that you can influence your teenagers to make positive changes. Our children need us to stay informed and involved—and identify the problem. Inexpensive and easily accessible drug screens will in some small measure, put parents back in the driver’s seat and allow us to take action to protect our children.