Lies and Drugs: Tips on How to Approach Your Teen

shutterstock_232628977When parents realize that a child is blatantly lying about something, it can be a disheartening moment. When that lie has to do with drug abuse, it can be a devastating one.

A study in the journal Pediatrics showed how common these kinds of lies can be. As reported by Val Willingham for CNN, Wayne State University researchers surveyed “high-risk urban teens” and their parents about drug use. Then they took hair samples and tested them for opiates and cocaine. A key result: “The data found that young people were 52 percent more likely to test positive for cocaine in their hair samples than they were to actually report using cocaine on their questionnaires.”

“They are giving socially acceptable responses,” said Dr. Virginia Delaney-Black, the study’s author, in the CNN story. “People are not willing to admit to drug use so freely as they are other things. … We’ve known from other studies that adults downplay their drug use. This is the first time we’ve documented it in teens.”

What can parents do when they realize their children are using drugs and lying about it? Here are a few tips.

Go with your instincts

Parents that suspect teen drug use should trust that feeling, as Joanne Barker writes in a story for WebMD. She features Mason Turner, chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco, who says, “If a parent’s gut is telling them something is off, there has got to be a reason.”

“If the cold or cough syrup in your medicine cabinet disappears or gets used up, ask about it,” Barker writes. “Over-the-counter cough medicines contain dextromethorphan, an ingredient teens can drink in excess to get high. Cagey behavior may have a simple explanation or a serious cause. Perhaps your child is stressed over schoolwork. Maybe she had a fight with a friend. Or she could have a problem she’s afraid to talk about. Turner counsels parents to make it as easy as possible for their teens to talk to them. Start by asking what is going on. Talk about specific things you see and concerns you have, and then be ready to listen.”

Take a reasoned approach

It’s natural for a parent to take drug-related deception personally, especially if significant efforts have been made to warn the teen of the inherent dangers of drugs. As Barker writes, “You may feel hurt, angry, guilty, and betrayed.” And, as she points out, these emotions won’t help the teenager. But lying is a “normal teen behavior,” as Turner notes in the story.

“He goes on to say that normal or not, parents can and should teach their kids that lying is unacceptable,” Barker writes, adding that the conversation should include these topics:

  • “Explore the reasons your child lied.”
  • “Understand what is going on.”
  • “Let your child know that lying is not OK.”
  • “Talk about how to be honest in the future.”

Stay calm

As parents get into the topic with their child, emotions — especially frustration and anger — may come bubbling to the surface. In a story for the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Cassie Goldberg advises trying to maintain composure, “to remain calm, curious and objective,” despite that being a difficult task:

“Do your best to avoid finger-pointing and accusations that will shame your teen, and instead try something like this: ‘You said you had only smoked weed once, but I know that isn’t true. Why didn’t you feel like you could tell me the truth about that?’ You can also ask questions like, ‘What were you trying to accomplish by lying?’ Or: ‘What can I do to help you feel more comfortable telling me the truth next time?’”

Discuss consequences

Ideally these kinds of discussions will reach a positive resolution, one that leaves the teenager feeling secure in being honest with the parent in the future. The parent should clearly explain the dangers of substance abuse, addressing the health risks (including those on the not fully formed teenage brain), the safety risks and the potential legal risks that can follow a person for years. And lying should bring consequences as well. As Goldberg writes, “… Once you have talked about the reason behind the behavior you can then explain the consequence.”

“Be sure to think about what this might be beforehand, so that you can clearly communicate the reasoning behind it and be sure that he understands why you chose it and why the consequence is important,” she explains. “The consequence should fit the violation, and should be specific. In other words, try not to make the emotion around the situation (shaming, name-calling) become the consequence itself.”

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