When a Teenager Uses Drugs or Alcohol: How to Cope …

“When a Teenager Uses Drugs or Alcohol: How to Cope …” Ensign, Mar. 1988, 15

When a Teenager Uses Drugs or Alcohol:

How to Cope …

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

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, who lives in Northern California with her husband and children. “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 from what we did 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 his 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describe the darkest periods of Sister Fisher’s struggle, intervals that recur less often now that her son has largely withdrawn from cocaine and other drugs, though he continues to abuse alcohol.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 with 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 LDS families struggling with this challenge are not left to their own resources, for gospel principles buoy them, and the Church and their communities stand ready to help.

The Problem among LDS Youth Is Real

Drug abuse among youth crosses all barriers—gender, race, socioeconomic background, and religion. It can happen in any home. The Church, however, appears to be an important protective factor: a U.S. national study shows that the rate of marijuana use among LDS youth is significantly lower than the national average—though the rate does remain significant. (See “Monitoring the Future: A Continuing Study of the Lifestyles and Values of Youth,” sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.1) These facts should not be taken lightly, however, especially since marijuana use often leads to the use of more dangerous drugs like crack—a cheap form of cocaine that induces an intense high and can cause extremely fast addiction and even death.

Parents Should Inform Themselves about Drugs

While schoolchildren generally hear repeated presentations on drugs and 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 mainstream society and thus how pervasive the temptation to use them can be. And they may be naive about the lengths to which young addicts will go to obtain money to support their habit. Without this information, most parents do not know how to help their teens resist drugs or how to recognize and deal with a problem once it starts.

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

Chris Garrett,* an eighteen-year-old from Bountiful, Utah, has made a dramatic recovery from drug addiction so severe that he is considered lucky to be alive. He first drank alcohol in the second grade, was smoking marijuana by the end of seventh grade, and by tenth grade was using anything he could get his hands on: marijuana, cocaine, PCP, LSD, opium, crack, speed, mushrooms, and many types of prescription drugs. He even grew marijuana in his mother’s houseplants. To finance his habit, he broke into 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 the stereotypical drug abuser, 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 ‘druggie’ or hang around with the ‘bad’ kids anymore to get into trouble,” says Carol White,* an experienced volunteer and community leader in drug prevention in Utah. “I know one boy who got into drugs at work, and he used drugs with his closest friends and their parents. Many of those friends were leaders at his high school.” She says parents don’t realize drugs are easier to buy than alcohol because “no one asks for ID.”

David and Shauna Bond,* parents of a formerly abusing teen in southern California, 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 substance abuse and recognized them in his son.

“When we discovered Mike* was using drugs, I got literature and told him he had to read it; then we would discuss it together,” says Brother Bond. “Mike thought he was informed, but he wasn’t. Part of convincing him to stop was educating him to the dangers of drugs and letting him know that his father was 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 share gospel values, can often be of invaluable support.

Priesthood blessings can also be a source of great comfort and inspiration. Parents as well as siblings may want to draw on this power. Even some teens with a drug problem may desire a blessing, though most troubled adolescents feel alienated from religious authority, and parents should not impose a priesthood blessing upon them.

In addition, Church leaders can call on resource people such as home teachers, visiting teachers, or LDS Social Services representatives for help and support. These people might be asked to discuss with the family the principles found in a Church-produced manual, Resource Manual for Helping Families with Alcohol Problems (stock no. PGSC6258; $3.15). This publication can help family members deal with alcohol abuse and, by extension, drug abuse. Lessons teach principles in a gospel context and give practical, realistic suggestions.

The manual also suggests other sources of help, such as “trusted community professionals (doctors, counselors, or social workers) and agencies (hospitals, schools, recovery homes, etc.).” (P. 119.) Government agencies and private, nonprofit support groups can also assist. “Uniting with other parents of your child’s peer group is vital,” says a father in Oregon. “It’s helpful to share ideas on what kinds of standards to set and how to stick to them.”

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 in need of a treatment program, or can the problem be handled without professional help? Parents may need to consult with a number of people to help them answer this question. If it is determined that the child is addicted, experts universally agree that professional treatment is crucial. One mother of a recovering teen is emphatic on that point: “Do not think for even a minute that you can handle the problem alone,” says Karen Rich* of Salt Lake City. “You cannot, cannot do it alone.”

Glen Lambert, executive director of a substance abuse treatment center in Utah, has observed that adolescent drug abusers from religious homes often face special obstacles to recovery. Any time a person defies deeply held values, he says, the potential for negative consequences is magnified. “Often, when Latter-day Saints cross that barrier the problem is more extreme. The guilt is worse as well.”

For that reason, early “intervention”—one of the steps taught to family members in drug and alcohol treatment courses—may be particularly important in LDS homes. Lambert says three basic principles—all soundly in line with gospel tenets—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 poor judgment.

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

When Mike continued using drugs, the Bonds drew on 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 scoured his room for evidence of what he was using and who was supplying him; and they set limits on Mike and stuck to them. All this was done with constant reassurance to Mike that the very reason they were willing to go to such lengths 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. 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.”

Parents who don’t follow up after giving a warning risk being taken advantage of. Dave Nelson,* who began abusing drugs in junior high, says his parents frequently caved in when he tested them, and his drug abuse grew worse. “It only takes one time of not following through, and your credibility is shot,” he says.

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 deteriorated,” says Brother Bond. But the temporary loss of rapport was worth the result: a drug-free son.

The Mitchell* family in the Chicago area 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 and 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 curtail their son’s abuse earlier if they had recognized the problem more quickly and dealt with it more firmly.

“We were probably what they call ‘enablers.’ You let yourself believe the things your child tells you that you want to hear. We paid his traffic fines; we paid his bail bonds. 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 turn around. 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. “There’s less pain in checking on a child when he’s innocent than in letting him go on and destroy himself,” says Sister Rich. “If you’re wrong, it’s so much easier to apologize afterwards than to apologize ten years later for doing nothing.”

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

“They might want to take three steps backwards and reestablish that contact—the care, the concern, the rapport,” she says. “You can’t start with a kid you haven’t spoken to in years—except to criticize—and expect him to bare his soul to you.”

Understanding the Behavior of Adolescents Who Abuse Drugs

Teens in substance-abuse trouble invariably tax their parents’ patience to the very limit. They are almost always deceptive, secretive, manipulative, and belligerent. Mike Bond, his father says, was “a different person” while abusing, then returned to his old self after stopping drug use. Abusing teens frequently minimize their problem and often claim they have stopped or that drug paraphernalia discovered by their parents belongs to a friend. They tell parents what they want to hear and often successfully dissuade them from action.

The Mitchells learned that lesson the hard way. “Our son would say, ‘I did use, but I’m getting over it. If you’ll just help me get over this one tough spot. … I love you, Mom. I love you, Dad. I appreciate your support.’ It was all manipulation,” says Brother Mitchell.

Almost always, a person’s values change as he or she becomes more and more involved with drugs. A teen 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.

“When you reach a certain point, you don’t care what anyone says to you,” says Dave Nelson, who lives in the Salt Lake area. “You just don’t care at all. All you care about are you and your drugs.”

Understanding Your Own Emotions

No parents with an errant child can help 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 peer group. 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.

These emotions are natural, and those who honestly acknowledge their feelings are more likely to reach a resolution. The fact is, all parents are human; they all make mistakes. Whether those mistakes led a child to drugs can seldom be determined.

In some cases, parents have indeed made some serious missteps, 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, dwelling on the past beyond the point of honest self-examination is useless.

The Carlisles,* who live in Florida, experienced most of the typical emotions when they discovered their son was using drugs: “I would ask myself over and over in my mind, What did we do wrong?” says Marian Carlisle. “We reviewed everything: We had family prayer and family home evening, fulfilled our church callings, took family vacations together. What didn’t we do? One plus one is supposed to equal two, and you come up with a minus six.”

It took time, but eventually she realized she could not blame herself. “You do what you can do. You pray about it. Then you realize this person has his agency. You love the person, but you don’t love what he does. You cannot blame yourself. Once you do, you become ineffective as a parent and as a person—you’re immobilized by guilt.”

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 mom didn’t put anything in my mouth and light it up.”

Parents Need Support and Understanding, Not Judgment

Extended family, friends, neighbors, and ward members can be a source of great solace or the cause of deep pain for families experiencing the trauma of drug abuse. The Carlisles, for example, found that most of their ward members had only judgment to offer, not support. “Some people told us we were too strict; others said we were too permissive,” says Sister Carlisle. “It was really hard for a while to keep it together 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 another 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.”

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 family to join in prayer for my son, and I got a tremendous response. They have written notes and have gone out of their way to speak to Jason* when he attends church.”

Jason himself says he considered suicide but didn’t go through 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 Gospel of Jesus Christ Brings 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.

“At one point I had really been down about my son’s addiction,” says Sister Carlisle. “So one day I started fasting and praying. Finally, late that night, I said to the Lord, ‘Can’t there be a miracle to save him?’ I felt a response very strongly, almost as if someone spoke to me, assuring me that He loved my son more than I could ever know and that if He could provide a miracle to change his life without denying him his agency, He would.”

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. The Mitchells maintained faith for fifteen years, and their hope was finally realized—though they recognize that constant vigilance is required to help their son remain drug-free.

“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 life-style. Still, she refuses to give up.

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

Signs of Drug Abuse

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

  • —Drop in grades

  • —Change of friends, peer group

  • —Red 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 questioning

  • —Increased fatigue

  • —Disappearance of money from the home

  • —Increased absence from school

  • —Shortened attention span

  • —Change in weight or appetite

Some Do’s and Don’ts

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


  • —Take a hard 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 open as is appropriate about the problem with neighbors, ward members, and friends who know about the problem.

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

  • —Tailor your approach to 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 peer 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 treats the entire family if appropriate.

  • —Convey love and acceptance no matter what a child’s actions may be.

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

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


  • —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 work itself out.

  • —Do not be an “enabling” parent, bailing a child out and shielding him or her 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 to drive a wedge between you and your spouse.

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

  • —Do not preach to a troubled teen.

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

  • —Do not become complacent once a teen has overcome a problem—it can always recur.


  • Names followed by an asterisk have been changed.


  1. According to the 1982 report (the latest year for which LDS statistics have been figured), 13.4 percent of LDS high school seniors in the United States had used marijuana within the previous thirty days, less than half of the national figure of 30.2 percent. To the question of whether they had used marijuana at least once in their lives, 40 percent of the LDS teens interviewed said yes, compared with 60 percent of their peers.

  • Sue Bergin is a journalist who lives in Los Angeles, California.

Illustrated by Roger Motzkus