What do you do, when your child is using drugs, and you can't make him stop? Let's assume you have tried to make him stop. You have tried to reason with him, explaining how he is hurting himself. You have appealed to his heart, pointing out that he is hurting you, and others who love him. You have tried to get tough, with rules, curfews, contracts, punishments. Finally, you have sought professional help -- brought him to weekly therapy sessions.
Let's assume he is now 16 years old, and has been "doing" drugs four or five years. The average age for starting drugs today is 11. Typically, parents don't suspect anything the first year, then wait another year or two in self-deception, avoiding the issue. Perhaps a year is spent trying to handle the problem within the family, with an additional year of professional counseling. Now, the cold reality of the situation is beginning to settle on you: you can't make him stop!
On the other hand, you can't let him continue, either. During these five years, he has grown progressively worse. His motivation and self- discipline are gone. His interest in school and other positive activities is gone. His moral values and respect for people have eroded. He's in trouble at school and with the police. He seldom sees his old friends, and his new friends are creeps. The household is in turmoil. Marital relationships are strained. The siblings fight and scream and cry. Drugs have affected your son's mental health, and he, in turn, is driving the whole family crazy. You suffer anguish when he's home, and anxiety when he's away. You can't let it continue.
This is not an unusual dilemma. The pervasive use of drugs among teen-agers has brought tens of thousands of parents to a desperate decision: shall I lock him in or lock him out?
Kicking a chemically dependent son out of the house affords the rest of the family some respite for recovery. Your son is not the only person in jeopardy. You, your spouse and your other children also deserve a reasonable chance at life. The "Tough Love" movement teaches that the family is a place of great value, and minimal rules and standards are needed to preserve it. Parents determine what the family should be like, not the children. If a child can't accept that, he can leave.
Another reason for expelling your son is a concept Alcoholics Anonymous calls "bottoming out." The addict, they say, will continue to use drugs and alcohol until he reaches a crises. Only when he foresees the full impact of his habits -- degradation or death -- will he make a genuine commitment to change. Only after that personal commitment can he be cured. Until that happens, protective parents, forgiving bosses or supportive social workers are merely "enabling" him to continue his habit.
Without disputing the wisdom of these concepts, a decision to lock your son in the house, instead of out, follows a different logic. A drugged mind isn't functioning right. Its synapses aren't sparking; it's not hitting on all cylinders. The thoughts and feelings and attitudes of a druggie are all out of tune. Your son won't be able to think straight or make any important decisions as long as his mind is drugged. It takes 24 hours for a body to purge itself of alcohol, but marijuana lingers for up to a month. A joint a week will keep his mind drugged permanently. Flashbacks are unpredictable. We don't understand the full effects of all the chemicals our children are taking.
Along with the drugs, your son's mind is filled with images that exert a compelling influence on him. If he's been using drugs for five years, he's probably gravitated to the drug subculture. His friends, his girl, his music, his clothing, his pleasures, his whole style of life outside the home urge him to get high. The chances of overcoming a drug habit while remaining in a culture that exudes drugs are pretty slim. Locking him in would, at least, keep him away from drugs and bad influences.
So, it's a perplexing question. Is the road to survival through a surfeit of self-indulgence or through forced abstinence? Should he suffer the full consequences of his choice or be denied the freedom of choice? Should he be locked out, or locked in?
Many readers will be horrified that such a question could even be considered. I envy them. Their children do not use drugs, or, if they did, they've stopped in time. Others are unaware of what their children are doing, and ignorant of what lies ahead for them. But there are also thousands of parents reading this article who are wringing their hands over this awful decision. They, too, are horrified, and would do anything to avoid it. They can't. They've tried.
As a practical matter, a parent can neither lock his teen-ager in nor lock him out. The house is neither a prison nor a fortress. Society would view it as child abuse or neglect. Nevertheless, it's important for parents to confront this question. We have to come to grips with the fact that our children are in a life-threatening situation. Who cares? Only parents, with a love that cannot be abrogated, will care enough. It's up to them to foresee the full impact of what their children are doing. Parents also must "bottom out." Only then will they have the courage to change from an enabling love, to a tough love.
Parents must stop kidding themselves. Many of our children are using drugs, and it's serious -- dead serious. Once a child has become chemically dependent, making him stop is extremely difficult. Talking sense to him, appealing to his love, punishing him, bribing him -- none of the ordinary methods of persuasion is likely to work.
He knows more than we do about drugs, and he knows what they're doing to him. He's painfully, shamefully, wretchedly aware of all that. He may even contemplate suicide. Outwardly, he seems defiant, but his lonely moments are filled with terror. He can't stop, and his parents can't make him stop.
Putting your son in a drug treatment program is a traumatic experience. He will not go willingly. You have to make the decision, and it's not easy: It's like locking him out. The treatment program you select must be drug free. He should be physically prevented from continuing his old ways. It's like locking him in.
A rehabilitation program for adolescents should treat every member of the family. Years of living with a druggie will infect both parents and siblings with an illness they don't understand. Healthy family relationships, based on love and honesty, must be reestablished. This family, in the long run, is the child's lifeline. The drug treatment program should bring the whole family together again. And that's very different from locking him out, or from locking him in. Thank God for that.