• Brandon Joffe, LCSW

Teen Addicts and Red Flags


There are so many levels of use, abuse, and addiction that knowing what to do and when to do it gets unbelievably overwhelming. There are so many opinions and stances that it is seemingly impossible to make the right decision. Before making any decision, you as a parent must first ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Are you being honest and can you be honest about your child?

  2. What are your honest beliefs, attitudes, practices, and behaviors regarding alcohol and drugs?

  3. What are you seeing and experiencing and what red flags are there?

  4. What do you have control over?

  5. How is their use, abuse, or addiction affecting you and others and can you protect yourself?

  6. What boundaries are you willing to set and more importantly follow through with?

The addict or budding addict brings with them inevitable chaos and hurt to the family. It affects the other siblings and is often so difficult to pinpoint. Parents spend years trying to figure out to what extent there is a problem or if there is really a problem at all. The great confusion that most families and parents experience is that it is usually impossible to tell if there is a problem and by nature the addict is an expert in manipulation, denial, excuses, blaming, and flat out lying. The addict will weave truths into their arguments and chaos and do anything to shirk blame and accountability. Often having a discussion with the teen addict, or any addict for that matter, leads to some of the most insane, irrational, and explosive moments in a parents life. Parents and the family are often left feeling like a bulldozer ran them over and sometimes even start feeling guilty. The family will begin to blame each other, doubt everyone, and then get so focused on unravelling the tidbits of truths and lies that they feel crazy. Marriages, careers, friendships, mental health, physical health, and spirituality can be completely obliterated and the family is not usually able to see it happening in the moment.

The first insanity that parents often into is trying to figure out the problem and if there is a problem. I propose that focusing on this question is in itself insanity, however I will give you what I call the “Red Flag Rule” to help you better resolve this for yourself. What many parents are going to want to do is drug test, punish, and reward. They will catch their child using or drinking and say something along the lines of “you must earn my trust back and if you pass your tests for X amount of time you can have blank and blank back. In the mean time the child beats the test, stays clean for a time, or somehow manipulates the situation. In some cases the teen will defiantly let the parents know that they are going to test dirty and then make it very clear that their defiance will blunt any control the parent tries to take. In other cases the parent tests, gets a positive test, and then gets completely stuck because in their fantasy the testing was going to be reason enough for the child to stop using drugs and alcohol. The “Red Flag Rule” in my experience of over 18 years working in substance abuse and addiction has proven to be more reliable and healthier for the family. It also gives you a more realistic basis for setting boundaries in a healthy way. The “Red Flag Rule” is that with the first red flag become aware. The second red flag become cautious and more observant. The third red flag assume that the problem most likely exists. The fourth red flag is the same as evidence and you can confidently assume that what you suspect is happening.

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