Teenagers, parents and alcohol.

If one works with teenagers it is an interesting question parents pose at times.


“Should I drug test my teenager?”


Kits for urine testing teenagers for illicit drugs are now freely available in most pharmacies for about $20. If a therapist is asked this question how does one respond? My usual answer is to advise against it.

However this is only one aspect and reflects a wider question of how do you approach your teenager. If a teenager tells you they smoke marijuana or take ecstasy how do you respond? There are two ‘positions’ on this.

The first states that you make a very clear statement to the teenager that illicit drugs are not OK and that abstinence is what they need to do.

The second states that one maintains a workable relationship with the teenager. Which means at times one will have to agree with things they don’t particularly want to. They may not want their teenage son to take ecstasy but they will not state so at least not in a direct clear from. They may want their teenager to be abstinent but they will not say so. This means the teenager is not getting a clear message form the parents not to use illicit drugs. Some argue this is a bad thing which in one way is true.

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The problem with the first approach is a number of teenagers will simply go and use illicit drugs anyway. The major problem with this approach is that it breaks one of the basic golden rules of the parent – teenage relationship. Always keep the lines of communication open. Never cut off the lines of communication with your teenager. There will be times when your teenager does things which you find very difficult to accept, that do not agree with your value system at all. For some parents taking illicit drugs can be very difficult for them to accept in their own value system. The other common one is the choice of girl friend or boy friend. At times parents can find their choice of partner most difficult to accept.

If you tell a teenager they must be abstinent a significant number of them will still take the drug and just not tell you. This is damaging the lines of communication. They are going to feel more so that you just don’t understand them and are out of touch with the real world. They then may feel more of a sense of isolation and that is one thing you do not want your teenager to feel. They are already vulnerable to exploitation due to inexperience in the world and they are for the first time using their peers as their primary emotional support and in an advisory role. Hence we see the need to always keep the lines of communication open. So the parents can still maintain a place in the teenager’s advisory group and an emotional support as well. If they loose that then teenagers are more likely, at times much more likely, to use more drugs and alcohol than they did before. Also, not only do they not include you in the loop on drug use but they will also stop telling you other things about their relationships, how they are feeling, any self harm of unhealthy eating and dieting, any other concerns they have and so forth.

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But this can be a very difficult position for parents to maintain. At times it will put them in a position where they are left with two choices, both of which are bad and it is a matter of picking the least bad one. Or picking the one that is bad in the short term but makes for a better long term outcome.


Your teenager is going away for a weekend holiday with friends (like in schoolies week). You are driving them to the holiday location with their friends and they put two large cases of beer in the car. You don’t want them to drink that much in a few days, indeed you may not want them to drink at all. You are left with two bad choices. Go along with it and take the beer, with them knowing you know it is there (and that partly supports their alcohol use). Or refuse to take it knowing they will buy some there anyways and knowing it cuts off the lines of communication a bit more, or maybe even a lot. Two bad choices.

My suggestion would be to take the beer and make a comment like:

“Oooh, that’s a lot of beer”. This is an ulterior transaction because it is said in a way that is slightly in jest yet also serious. You are putting a parental guideline in there but not cutting off the lines of communication. However you are still supporting the alcohol use because you are driving them to their destination with the beer. The short term result is bad but the long term outcome is more likely to be positive.

This is not helped at times like schoolies week when the police get up in the media and say how bad they think it is that parents will bring alcohol along with their teenagers to holiday destinations. That is very easy to say but managing a relationship with a teenager can at times require you to do things one does not particularly want to, for a better long term outcome.


Back to the original point of random drug testing a teenager. Usually by the time it gets to that point the lines of communication are well dead an buried and such a suggestion just further alienates both parent and teenager. It is saying, “I have no trust in you and I am going to force you to show me if you are taking illicit drugs”. If someone did that to you what would you think and feel? It is certainly not going to assist them to feel they can come to you in times of trouble.

Forget the whole testing thing and start the slow process of rebuilding the lines of communication. Hopefully it wont be too late and there are not too many deep scars left on both parent and teenager, such that a reconciliation is impossible.

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