When a Teenager Uses Drugs or Alcohol


One of the most important things the gospel can offer parents is a testimony of hope—hope for the return of a loved one, hope in the healing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

With the birth of each of their four children, Richard and Jennifer Fisher have felt an intense responsibility to rear them in righteousness and help them return to their heavenly parents. To see one of those children surrender his life to drugs and alcohol has been almost more than they can bear. The heartache, they say, is indescribable.

“There’s such an overwhelming feeling of failure,” says Sister Fisher. “I review every day from the time he was born and ask myself what happened. What did we do wrong? What did we do differently with him than with the other children? And of course we can’t find any answers.

“I have felt a sense of failure to the Church family, too, not just to my own. At first I felt unworthy to serve in my Church calling and I asked to be released. When something appears in the paper about my son’s problems with the law, I think, how can I be an effective missionary?”

Those words describe the darkest periods of Sister Fisher’s struggle, intervals that recur less often now that her son has largely withdrawn from cocaine and other drugs, though he continues to use alcohol. The intensity of her distress also has diminished as she has learned not to blame herself but to see her son as a child of God with divine agency. He himself has reassured her many times that his choices are his own and that she was, indeed, a good and loving mother.

Brother and Sister Fisher, like many Latter-day Saint parents, are fighting a painful, and sometimes lonely battle as they cope with a child involved in alcohol and drugs. Interviews with parents, youth, and professionals—all Latter-day Saints—show clearly that the Fishers are not alone. But the interviews also show that Latter-day Saint families struggling with this challenge are not left to their own resources, for gospel principles lift them up, and the Church and their communities stand ready to help.

The Problem Is Real

Drug abuse among youth affects everyone regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic background, and religion. It can happen in any home. The Church, however, appears to be an important protective factor. For example, a national study in the United States shows that the rate of marijuana use among Latter-day Saint youth is significantly lower than the national average. These facts should not be considered lightly, however, especially since marijuana use often leads to the use of more dangerous drugs like crack—an inexpensive form of cocaine that induces an intense emotional excitement and can cause extremely fast addiction and even death.

Be Informed

While school children generally are aware of drugs—and possibly, their dangers—their parents often remain ignorant. Few parents know what substances are available to their children, how they affect the body, and how easy it is to obtain them. They also may not realize how acceptable drugs have become even in everyday society and thus how widespread the temptation to use them can be. And they may be ignorant about the extremes to which young addicts will go to obtain money to support their habit.

Abundant information is readily available. Educational materials and advice on treatment options are usually available from community sources, such as state, provincial, or national departments of alcoholism and drugs or departments of education or public instruction. Many universities also can provide instruction or educational materials.

Eighteen-year-old Chris Garrett has made a dramatic recovery from drug addiction so severe that he is considered lucky to be alive. He first drank alcohol as a small boy, was smoking marijuana by his early teenage years, and, within a few years, was using anything he could find: marijuana, cocaine, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), opium, crack, speed, and many types of prescription drugs. He even grew marijuana among his mother’s house plants. To finance his habit, he burglarized people’s homes, picked pockets, and took money from purses left in parked cars during church services. Three years ago, Chris entered a treatment program that took him fourteen months to complete.

Chris did not look like what most people think a drug abuser looks like, which is perhaps part of the reason his habit escaped his parents’ notice for a time. He was neat, well-dressed, and well-groomed. “You don’t have to look like a drug-user or associate with the ‘bad’ kids anymore to get into trouble,” says Carol White, a community leader in drug prevention. “I know one boy who started using drugs at work, and he used drugs with his closest friends and their parents. Many of those friends were leaders at his school.”

David and Shauna Bond, parents of a formerly drug-abusing teenager, believe they were able to help their son end his drug abuse at an early stage in part because they were informed. Brother Bond was familiar with the signs of drug and alcohol abuse and recognized them in his son.

“When we discovered Mike was using drugs, I got anti-drug literature and told him he had to read it; then we would discuss it together,” says Brother Bond. “Mike thought he knew what it was all about, but he didn’t. Part of convincing him to stop was educating him to the dangers of drugs and letting him know that his parents were informed.”

Getting Help

When parents discover a child is abusing drugs or alcohol, they can turn to many resources—from priesthood and Relief Society leaders, who can offer spiritual counsel and practical advice, to professional counselors and treatment programs. Close friends, especially those who may have experienced similar problems and who also have gospel standards, can often be of invaluable support.

Priesthood blessings can also be a source of great comfort and inspiration. Parents as well as the drug abuser’s brothers and sisters may want to call on this power. Even some teenagers with a drug problem may desire a blessing, though most troubled adolescents feel alienated from religious authority, and parents should not force a priesthood blessing upon them.

In addition, Church leaders can call on resource people such as home teachers or visiting teachers, trusted community professionals (doctors, counselors, or social workers) and agencies (hospitals, schools, recovery homes, etc.). Where available, government agencies and private, nonprofit support groups can also assist.

One of the first things parents must do when confronted with a child’s drug or alcohol problem is to make an important judgment: Is their son or daughter addicted and thus is need of a treatment program, or can the problem be handled without professional help? Parents may need to consult with several people to help them answer this question. If it is determined that the child is addicted, experts universally agree that professional treatment is vital. One mother of a recovering teenager is emphatic on that point: “Do not think for even a minute that you can handle the problem alone,” she says. “You cannot, cannot do it alone.”

Glen Lambert, an executive director of a substance abuse treatment center, has observed that adolescent drug abusers from religious homes often face unique obstacles to recovery. Any time a person defies deeply held values, he says, the potential for negative results is magnified. “Often, when Latter-day Saints or people from other strong religious backgrounds don’t honor their values, the problem is more extreme. The guilt also is worse.”

For that reason, early intervention—one of the steps taught to family members in drug and alcohol treatment courses—may be particularly important in Latter-day Saint homes. Lambert says three basic principles—all firmly in agreement with gospel truths—can help parents as they try to deal with a child who abuses drugs: Parents have the right to a drug-free and alcohol-free home; parents need to confront and help a child they believe is abusing drugs or alcohol; and children need to experience the consequences that follow bad decisions.

Although there is, of course, no guaranteed treatment method, just as there is no guaranteed prevention, those three principles worked for Brother and Sister Bond. After recognizing their son’s problem, the Bonds acted firmly and without hesitation in a spirit of love. First, Brother Bond confronted Mike in a calm, loving way, telling him that any use of drugs in their home was unacceptable.

When Mike continued using drugs, the Bonds used every resource they could think of to get him off drugs and keep him off: They informed themselves about drugs; they communicated with school officials about Mike’s problem and asked them to report suspicious behavior; they searched for evidence of what Mike was using and who was supplying him; and they established rules for Mike and would not change them. All this was done with constant reassurance to Mike that the main reason they were willing to do so much was that they loved him so deeply.

“I just said, ‘Look, I love you too much to let this happen to you. You have a choice. I have a choice, too,’” says Brother Bond.

At one point, after Mike had said he wasn’t using drugs any more but his parents discovered otherwise, Brother Bond acted promptly and firmly.

“I asked Mike who was selling to him, and he wouldn’t tell me. I told him, ‘I’ll find out, and when I do, I’m going to prosecute him to the limit of the law. If it means I have to hire a detective to find out who’s supplying you, I’ll do it.’ I think Mike really heard that, and I don’t think he’s used drugs since then.”

Following through on a warning can be frightening for parents, who may fear alienating their already troubled child. Mike was furious at his parents for their intervention, and their relationship “definitely got worse,” says Brother Bond. But the temporary loss of communication was worth the end result: a drug-free son.

The Mitchell family struggled much longer than the Bonds, but their son has conquered drugs and is leading a productive life as a husband, father, and faithful member of the Church. He began abusing drugs at age fourteen. As the years and his habit progressed, he eventually ruined his marriage, lost his home, and destroyed his business. Four years ago, after fifteen years of addiction, he entered a treatment program that was successful. Brother Mitchell thinks he and his wife might have helped stop their son’s abuse earlier if they had recognized the problem more quickly and dealt with it more firmly.

“We really didn’t want to believe our son was an addict. You know, you let yourself believe the things your child tells you that you want to hear. We paid his fines; we paid his legal expenses. We said, ‘Well, we’ll just help him out this one time.’ We did that for years.”

After their son entered the treatment program, the Mitchells learned the crucial concept that abusers stop abusing only when they are forced to experience the natural outcome of their behavior. “You have to help the person face the consequences of his addiction,” they say. “And the sooner you do it, the sooner he’s likely to change. He has to realize that the pleasure of using drugs isn’t worth the pain that follows.”

Parents who suspect their adolescent might be using drugs should not wait for proof before confronting him or her, whatever their fears.

Parents who do not communicate well with their teenage children might need to examine the relationship before initiating a confrontation, says Susan Asher, director of another treatment center.

“They might have to make the effort to reestablish contact—the care, the concern, the close relationship,” she says. “You can’t start with a child you haven’t spoken to in years—except to criticize—and expect him to be open with you.”

Understanding Behavior

Teenagers in substance-abuse trouble can test their parents’ patience to its limits. They are almost always deceptive, secretive, manipulative, and belligerent. Mike Bond, his father says, was “a different person” while using drugs, then returned to his old self after stopping. Teenagers who abuse drugs frequently say their problem is very small and often claim they have stopped or that drug equipment discovered by their parents belongs to a friend. They tell parents what they want to hear and often successfully convince them not to do anything.

Almost always, a person’s values change as he or she becomes more and more involved with drugs. A teenager may first learn to lie, then to steal if necessary. Finally, he might discard everything that was once important to him in a totally self-absorbed effort to protect and maintain his habit.

Understanding Emotions

No parents with a child who has gone astray can avoid asking themselves what they might have done to cause the problem and how they might have prevented it. Such parents might feel deep guilt about the problems. Some blame their spouse or the child’s friends. Others deal with the problem by denying it exists. Feeling angry is also a common reaction, especially among parents who believe they have done all they could to raise a child with gospel values.

In some cases, parents have indeed made some serious errors, particularly those who may have been abusive to their child, either physically or emotionally. For these parents, repentance and restitution may be needed. But for most parents, continually worrying about the past beyond the point of honest self-examination is useless.

Even teenagers, once off drugs, almost always place the blame for their problems on themselves. “I don’t blame my parents for anything I’ve done,” says Dave Nelson. “It’s convenient to do that, but my mother didn’t put a marijuana cigarette in my mouth and light it up.”

Parents Need Support

Extended family, friends, neighbors, and ward members can be a source of great comfort or the cause of deep pain for families experiencing the trauma of drug abuse. One family, for example, found that most of their ward members had only criticism to offer, not support. “Some people told us we were too strict; others said we were too permissive,” says the mother. “It was really hard for awhile to not despair and keep going to church when we felt that people were against us.”

“Members of the Church need to realize that the teenager and his parents should not be avoided and shunned as if they have the plague,” says a father who has seen drug abuse in his own family. “Go up to them and express your love. Don’t be afraid to just listen to them express their feelings.”

The Fishers found they could draw on their ward’s love and fellowship without reserve. “I told the ward in testimony meeting that I needed the ward members to join in prayer for my son, and I got a tremendous response. They have written notes and have made extra effort to speak to Jason when he attends church.”

Jason himself says he considered suicide but didn’t proceed with it because he knew of the love that others had for him. He has told his parents that their prayers and those of ward members protected him and that his life was spared because of it.

The Greatest Comfort

Parents who have experienced or are still coping with this heartache express great love for the Lord and gratitude for the comfort and direction the gospel provides. The Lord has promised to bless liberally with wisdom, upbraiding not, those who ask “in faith, nothing wavering” (James 1:5–6). He has also promised discernment. (See D&C 9:8–9.) Many parents say they have relied on the Lord and have received inspiration, guidance, and comfort as they have tried to cope with their difficult teenager.

One of the most important things the gospel can offer parents is a testimony of hope—hope for the return of a loved one, hope in the healing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

“A family might struggle with this problem for years, in spite of prayers and fasting and all the things you’re supposed to do to get answers,” says Brother Mitchell. “But don’t give up hope and don’t lose faith, because sometimes it just takes longer.”

For Sister Fisher, the fruits of her faith have not yet fully materialized, and she realizes her son may never turn entirely away from his chosen way of living. Still, she refuses to give up.

“I will never cease to have hope. Never.”

Some Do’s and Don’ts

Following is a summary of ideas suggested by parents and rehabilitation specialists.

Do:

—Take a serious look at the possibility that you abuse prescription drugs or are addicted to certain foods or beverages.

—Be willing to seek outside help when you need it.

—Be as honest as appropriately possible about the problem with neighbors, ward members, and friends who ask about the problem.

—Check up on your child in every appropriate way possible—through your teenager’s friends, parents, teachers, and school officials.

—Adapt your way of dealing with the problem according to the child’s personality and individual needs.

—Listen to your child and try to understand his or her feelings.

—Unite with other parents in your child’s age group to set standards; then stand firmly and unitedly behind them.

—Inform yourself about drugs.

—Continue attending the temple and serving in your Church callings.

—Allow gospel principles and Church members to be resources of strength, reassurance, and direction.

—Acknowledge any responsibility you might bear for your child’s problems; then move on. Do not dwell upon it.

—When necessary, choose with care a treatment program for your child, one that assists the entire family if appropriate.

—Express love and acceptance in spite of the child’s actions.

—Communicate firm disapproval of drug- or alcohol use, while still emphasizing the child’s innate worth.

—Allow an abusing teenager to experience the consequences of his or her behavior.

Don’t:

—Do not overreact or become hysterical if you are confronted with evidence that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol.

—Do not assume the problem will resolve itself.

—Do not be a parent who will shield a child from the consequences of his or her behavior.

—Do not allow one child’s problems to dominate and consume the family.

—Do not allow a child’s drug or alcohol-abuse problem to drive a wedge between you and your spouse.

—Do not feel relieved if your child is using only alcohol and not drugs.

—Do not rebuke or endlessly scold a troubled teenager.

—Do not express fears about what other people might think.

—Do not become complacent once a teenager has overcome a problem—it can always return.

Signs of Drug Abuse

—Moodiness, which may include depression, withdrawal, or defiance

—Decline in academic performance

—Change of friends, peer group

—Bloodshot eyes

—Late hours and increased absence from home

—Immediate withdrawal to his or her room upon coming home

—Increased gum chewing and use of cologne (to cover up odor of drugs and alcohol)

—Evasiveness and defensiveness upon being questioned

—Increased fatigue

—Disappearance of money from the home

—Increased absence from school

—Decrease in length of time he or she can concentrate on anything

—Change in weight or appetite

[illustrations] Illustrated by Roger Motzkus

[illustration] It’s always a painful and difficult battle to watch your teenager suffer from alcohol or drug abuse. How can you as parents cope? And what can others do to help?

[illustration] “Don’t think for a moment that you can handle the problem alone,” says one mother. “You cannot, cannot do it alone.” Counseling for both parents and teenager is critical.

[illustration] Extended family, friends, neighbors, and ward members can be a great source of comfort for families experiencing the trauma of drug abuse.

Sue Bergin is a journalist who lives in Provo, Utah.