Drug Addiction: What Parents Need to Know

When my oldest was about a week old I remember looking down into his beautiful eyes and being struck by an overwhelming sense of fear. Icy terror washed over me as I realized the full weight of my responsibility for this tiny human. How was I going to do this right? What was I going to do wrong? I knew I’d do something wrong, would it scar him for life? I was the one who would have to teach him to navigate a world I was not sure I fully understood myself.

What parents need to know about drug addiction and teens

We are parents. We have all had this moment, and the fear stays with us……forever. These tiny beings may grow taller than us, they may move across the country and have tiny beings of their own someday – but they will always remain our innocent, irreplaceable miracles, and we will always be their parents.

Those early years we get to be their protector and gatekeeper to the world. For a short time, we are super heroes. I still remember my children’s chubby little arms squeezing my neck so hard it felt like they wanted to crawl inside me. There is no other feeling like that on earth. Simply nothing compares to being your child’s everything. Each of my children told me at some point they were never leaving home. I smiled, loving every second of it, knowing it wouldn’t last. Kids grow up.

The world creeps in. First, it’s their Kindergarten or preschool teacher becoming the new authority, “well, Miss Jones said….” Then, they don’t want to hold your hand because they feel old enough to be more independent. They would rather spend time with friends. It’s natural for them to pull away from the family unit. The question becomes how to tell when the pulling away is normal, and when it’s an indication that they are in trouble. That is the million dollar question, because there is no definitive answer.

My son is a heroin addict. Thankfully he is in recovery today. It feels like a miracle to have him “back.” He has told me the drinking began in high school at age 16, but it was in college that it really amped up. Drinking and drug use caused him to fail out of college. Eventually he found his way to Oxycontin.

For years he was able to keep a full-time job. In 2009, he told us he was addicted to the pills and checked himself into treatment. Unfortunately, after he was detoxed he was told there were no beds and was referred to an Intensive Outpatient Program. For a few years we thought he was doing well, but he was not. He tells me that when the Oxycontin became too difficult to procure, and therefore too expensive, he switched to heroin. He had been injecting heroin for a little over a year when he entered treatment at the age of 28. He has been clean since Feb 6, 2013.

Grades slipping, isolation, change in friends, moodiness, and depression can be indications of drug use. Paraphernalia you can watch out for are bottle caps, q-tips, packets of tin foil, tiny Ziploc bags and straws in their pockets. It may seem unlikely that they don’t cover their tracks, but when they are using, they forget to empty their pockets before tossing clothing in the laundry.

Missing spoons and tin foil…. My mother lived with me and would constantly turn on the disposal with silverware and other things down the drain. I watched her toss much of my silverware in the trash with an, “oops.” It made me crazy. When I was down to five spoons I blamed her, sorry Mom. I remember constantly wondering how I was going through so much tin foil. Sometimes I would question whether my memory was bad. Didn’t I just buy a roll last week? Where did it go? (Below there are links to websites listing what to look for if you think your child is using drugs.)

The bigger question is what to do if you suspect your child is using. You will confront, they will deny. You will show them plastic baggies, they will deny. Stand firm. You can purchase a urine test at any drugstore. My son tested positive once, and told me the test was faulty. They will always deny.

Opioids/Opiates make the user relaxed – they will fall asleep anywhere. Their pupils will be pinpricks, even in a dark room. Meth/cocaine/crack will cause users to have enlarged pupils and excess energy. I had no clue about the pupil thing. I still check my son’s pupils every time I see him. It’s automatic. How could I not have known about this? Hygiene is a huge indicator. When in high school my son took a shower every morning and often another one after school. When he was using he didn’t even brush his teeth.

I wish I had done more research on the science of addiction. We are all human and even the best and brightest among us make mistakes. The adolescent and young adult brain is still developing, they make plenty of bad decisions. Many people learn from mistakes. Trying to take a final while hung over is sometimes all a person needs to curb their drinking and make better choices. For others, there is no learning curve – they are in addiction – and their mistake will change the course of their lives forever.

I can’t say if I was educated about the science of addiction I could have saved my son from the nightmare through which he has lived. I can say that I may have saved myself a lot of pain. I blamed myself, I thought “if only” constantly. I wasted a lot of anger on my son. I felt like a failure as a mother, even though I have two other children who are not addicts. The anger and fear can eat you alive. I lost years of my life to his addiction.

I did not reach out. I felt shame. I isolated myself from others and began to feel that nobody cared. How could they care if they didn’t know?

My dream for the future is a society in which addiction is de-stigmatized. Where addicts and their loved ones can reach out for help and guidance instead of allowing addiction to fester because of shame. A future where addiction is discussed openly as a real possibility in every household and school. When every city and town is educating parents as well as children on the science of addiction and has resources readily available to help families in trouble we will be on the right path.

Until that day, parents need to do this research on their own, and maybe work toward getting more programs implemented where they live. We need to understand that although the initial drug use was a choice, the addiction is not. Being an addict is not a moral failing, it is a physical and psychological dependency which needs treatment and time.

Alanon tells us, “I didn’t cause it, I can’t control it, and I can’t cure it.” If you accept the previous sentence, which I do, then you must also accept this: I cannot “not” make an addict. In other words, it is truly out of our hands. HUGE leap from gatekeeper status. We are their everything, and yet addiction is out of our control. We can teach them our morals and our values and love them with all of our might. But we cannot “not” make them addicts.

We can hope and pray that the bad choices our children make don’t lead them to addiction, but be aware that a member of your family may face addiction in the future. Research where to turn if your child gets into trouble. It is much more difficult to think clearly and access resources when a family is in the throes of addiction. Educate yourself on your insurance plan and what recovery facilities are available. More importantly, know where you will go to help yourself.

In finding support right away, maybe you won’t lose the years I did to wasted anger and self-blame. Those who have already walked this path can explain how to have a relationship with a child in active addiction, one with healthy boundaries filled with love and support without enabling. A relationship free of blame and anger will hopefully leave an avenue open for your child to know he can count on you for support when he is ready to seek help.

Photo credit: Brandon Giesbrecht


Resources for warning signs:



Science of addiction:



Parents of addicts (support or resources;)

www.addictsmom.com has chapters in every state

Stop the SilencePatricia Byrne is the creator of the blog Heroin. Stop the Silence. Speak the Truth. She has three children including her son, age 29, who is a recovering heroin addict. She lives with her husband in Westminster CO.


About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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