What Should Parents Do if Their Teen has an Alcohol or Drug Problem?

Overcoming Alcohol Problems

If your teenager does drugs, drinks too much, suffers hangovers, experiences blackouts, or has other drinking problems, you are understandably worried and want to do whatever is necessary to protect your child.

Helping anyone, especially your teen, who abuses a substance requires knowledge, compassion and patience. Some actions are helpful and others are not.


  • Try to remain calm, unemotional and factually honest about how your teen’s actions hurts you and others.
  • Discuss the problem with someone you trust
  • Try to maintain a healthy, normal atmosphere in the home and try to include your teen in family life.
  • Encourage new interests and participate in leisure activities that your teenager enjoys.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Set a good example.
  • Be patient and live one day at a time.


  • Over-react.
  • Punish, threaten, bribe, preach, or try to be a martyr.
  • Be an enabler by protecting your teen from the negative consequences of their substance abuse.
  • Stop loving your child
  • Take over your teen’s responsibilities.
  • Argue or try to reason when your teen is high.
  • Drink or do drugs with your child.
  • Accept guilt for your teen’s substance abuse.

Changing behavior is difficult, as dieters and those attempting to stop smoking know. Setbacks are to be expected. Try to accept them with calm understanding and don’t become discouraged. Remember that you are responsible only for your own behavior.

In over-reacting, many parents consider getting their children into Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). That could be a very bad idea. There is substantial evidence that AA does more harm than good. It’s success rate at the end of one year is about five percent. However, without any treatment of any kind, about 36% of people who have been diagnosed as alcoholic will completely recover (abstain or drink in moderation) on their own without any program or treatment, according to nation-wide research by the U.S. government’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

It appears that AA may be doing things, such as teaching powerlessness and “loss of control,” that actually impede the natural recovery process. In short, it appears that those few AA members who recover do so in spite of AA.

More important, your teen is almost certainly not actually an alcoholic or addict and shouldn’t be treated as one.

Many parents consider putting their alcohol-abusing or drugging teens into treatment or rehabilitation (“rehab”) programs. It’s easy to fall into this trap, especially when encouraged by treatment providers who have a vested financial interest in providing such services.

Going into unnecessary treatment can be very damaging to young people, as the following letter illustrates.

I was put in several different treatment centers during 1985-1986 at the age of 14. Although I drank alcohol only three times and used marijuana twice. My denial of further usage was a Catch-22 for me. It ensured my place in treatment, because the “professionals” were operating under the belief that if I denied using I must be an alcoholic.
After being discharged unsuccessfully from one center because I would not admit that I was an alcoholic, I was admitted to an in-patient facility to help break through my denial. An interesting sidebar to this is that my parents were in a twelve step based treatment center at the time, so they had complete support for forcing me to find recovery.
At the last treatment center I was told that I could not go home until I admitted that I was an alcoholic and agreed to go to AA meetings.
At the age of 14, unsure of my identity and place in the world, I began to believe that I was wrong, maybe I was an alcoholic. I began to think that maybe the reason I couldn’t remember using was because of “blackouts.” So I agreed to attend AA. This began a 12 year membership in AA, from the age of 14 to age 26.
My identity as an adolescent developed with the belief that I had the disease of alcoholism and was different from everyone else. I dared not question this because my parents were in recovery and I was encouraged to spend time only with recovering people. All through those years was a nagging doubt that I was not an alcoholic, but I had grown up believing that I was.
It was not until my mid twenties that I began to have the courage to question what had happened to me and probably countless other adolescents during the 80’s. In AA asking questions is not tolerated so I began to “sneak” and do some research of my own about diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence.
At this time I was working in a treatment center. I also received my degree in psychology. Upon researching the diagnostic criteria, I found that I met none of it. I began to do more research and left AA in the fall of ’98.

Virtually all young people “mature out” of alcohol abuse, especially when they go to work and support themselves. Most experts agree that taking the least aggressive approach that works is the best.

However, if your teen’s substance use problems are clearly out of control, there is an effective option. It’s the Cognitive Behavioral Education program offered by the non-profit St. Jude retreats. Independent, outside research organizations have repeatedly found that former guests of St. Jude have a long-term success rate of at least 62 percent in achieveing and maintaining a drug-free lifestyle.