WHEEL Council, Inc.
What do you do if a teen tells you he or she is using drugs?
I was in a western city in the Rocky Mountains. A wonderful organization, the Callister Foundation, had funded the WHEEL Council to deliver our flag ship substance abuse curriculum. the Storytelling PowerBook. We had trained a number of teachers in a middle school to use the book, and I was making a follow up visit to see how the implementation was going. I came into a teacher’s class, she was very pretty with blond hair and tailored clothes. Her class had a nice hum, with students finishing work and the students who were diverse racially and ethnically working well together. She didn’t have time to meet with me, and called me aside. I asked her how the implementation was going. She said that she liked the books a lot, but she had to stop using them. I asked why. It turned out when she started the activity in Skill Power which defined different drugs like marijuana, methamphetamines, alcohol, and inhalants, one of her students said he had snorted inhalants. She had decided to stop the activities in the book, since she didn’t know what to do. I was a guest at the school and didn’t feel I could say anything. But I was thinking that this is a situation where the kids need to do the activities in this book, not only about the drugs and their physical effects, but how to make decisions, how to find inner strength and role models and how to set goals for the future.
This incident made me wonder if this was a common occurrence, that people don’t know what to do if a teen reported using drugs. It is difficult to talk about sensitive topics with teens, and also teachers may feel that they are going into dicey territory of possible illegal actions by their students or potential problems with parents who don’t want teachers to talk to kids about drugs. But, if teens tell an adult they are using, that certainly is an opening to say something. How does one go about this? It depends on who you are and the relationship to the teen be it teacher, peer, parent or family friend.
There is couple of things to keep in mind. For example, judgment can shut someone down, but simultaneously one needs to deal with the seriousness of the situation. Maybe a lesson from how psychologists deal with suicide threats gives some advice. The first thing to assess is if the behavior is possibly life threatening. With suicide threats the question to ask is, “Do you have a plan?” This will tell if it is a serious threat. For the inhalant use situation, the question could be, “When did you use? Where are you using? Who are using with? How often are you using?” Not so many questions at once, but maybe one to get the teen talking. tthis will be a good way to find out what is actually if the teen is experimenting or abusing.
It is also important to use the old communication technique of “I statements.” It is a little obvious, but sometimes it works to not judge another person about how they are or what you think of them, but instead say what you think, believe and care about. For example, “I care about you and don’t want you to hurt yourself. I don’t want you to use. Is there anything I can do to help, get you someone to talk to, give you more information about this drug.” You may want to give information on legal and physical consequences. The main thing to try to figure out is what is the teen trying to tell you and asking for.
Another issue is the legal one. Is the teen reporting something illegal to you that you need to report. This would be a judgment call on your part, unless you would have first hand information of something like seeing the possession of an illicit drug. Certainly if you were a parent, you would need to make an assessment as to whether an intervention is necessary. If you are a peer, you may want to decide, after you tell your friend your “I statements”, “I care about you, I don’t want you to use.”, is whether or not you want to break contact. “I don’t want to be around this.”
Just some ideas, what do you think? Have you had an experience like this, what did you do?