"I've just found out that my daughter's been taking ecstasy. What should I do?" One mother's call for help ...

One of the greatest fears for most parents is finding out that their child has taken an illegal drug. There are a range of reasons for this, many of them completely valid and understandable, but to respond to this situation without carefully thinking through what you should say and do can be a big mistake. A response emanating from fear or anger can have devastating and long-term implications.

I recently received an email from a mother (we'll call her Maria) who was facing this issue and she wanted my advice on how she should deal with the situation. Here is an edited version of the message:

"My daughter is 16 and my husband and I have never really had any problems with her. Her older brother was a bit of a handful, particularly around parties and alcohol, but up until a week ago we thought things were going to be relatively smooth sailing with Alyssa. We knew she had been to a couple of dance festivals but whenever we raised the issue of drugs (and we had done so a number of times) she was quick to tell us that her and her friends were not into that kind of thing. 
Last Friday before we took her to school she had left her phone on the kitchen bench and I was right next to it when a message came through. It was from one of her best friends and said something along the lines of 'All sorted for tomorrow. $25 each. Make sure you have cash today'. Alyssa was in her room and I don't know why but I knew this wasn't right. One of the conditions of her having a phone was that we would always know the password, but at the same time we promised her that we would never use it unless there was an emergency. I opened her phone and went through her texts and found a whole pile of messages that, even with my limited knowledge, I realized were obviously related to buying and using drugs. As I was reading them she walked in and saw me on her phone … She didn't make it to school that day as we had a huge argument (firstly about me looking at her phone and subsequently about what I discovered when I did) and over the next few hours (and subsequent weekend) we found out that she had been regularly using ecstasy (or MDMA as she called it) for the last 6 months. 
My husband and I are both really stumped at what to do next. The weekend was a nightmare with the more we found out about what was going on, the more terrified we became. Neither of us were drug users when we were young, not even cannabis, so this is a whole new world for us. She kept assuring us that 'everyone' took it and that it was 'harmless' (she kept saying that getting drunk was so much more dangerous). Lots has been said in anger and she's told us that grounding her is not going to stop her doing what she wants. We have no idea what to do next …"

When I spoke to the parents via a conference call, I started by making a couple of points very clear. Firstly, there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop your teen taking drugs (or drinking alcohol) if that's what they want to do ... you can lock them in a cellar and never let them out but if they want to do it, they'll find a way! Secondly, much of the fear for parents around illicit drugs is usually based on what they see, read and hear in the media. Young people are right when they say that many of the reported harms are exaggerated. That's not to say that there aren't harms - very real harms in many cases - it's just that sometimes we need to be a little more realistic about them and not rely on the media when it comes to the 'facts'. Finally, let's not forget that most illicit drug use is experimental. Many teens dabble for a while and then move out of that phase of their life with few, if any, problems as a result. The reason that parents are so terrified is that this is not always the case - some young people don't make it through the other end and that is what makes this so very scary.

Now this doesn't mean that you should just sit back, do nothing and wait for your teen's drug use to stop … There are certainly some things that I suggested that Maria and her husband should do, however, as in most cases, how the drug use was discovered complicated matters. Most parents find out either by 'stumbling on it' by accident (e.g., finding a drug or drug bag in a pocket when doing their washing or seeing something on social media) or having concerns and going and searching for it (e.g., looking through their room or accessing their computer or phone). Either way, when confronted with what has been found, teens usually respond by lashing out and accusing their parents of invading their privacy and that becomes their focus, i.e., their drug use is unimportant compared to their parent's breach of trust. Trying to navigate through that minefield can be extremely difficult, as Maria had discovered …

So do you ground your child and stop them seeing their friends as a result of what you have discovered? For many parents this is their first (and often, their only) response and, in some cases, I am sure it is effective to some degree. In others, however, if this is all that is done, you simply risk jeopardising the relationship you have with your child. You have just found out that your child is involved in illegal activity, of course you have to apply some sort of consequence. But whatever that is, whether that be restricting their movements or activities for a period of time or something else, it needs to be thought through carefully. Responding in anger and fear is risky.

As far as Maria and her husband's situation was concerned, I stressed one key point - Alyssa was living in their house and, as such, it was incredibly important that their values and views in this area were respected. In addition to applying some sort of consequence for her actions, I suggested they consider the following:
  • most importantly, make your views about illegal drugs clear. Parents underestimate the influence they have on their teens, with evidence suggesting that even during adolescence your opinions continue to matter and can make a difference. Telling your teen that you are disappointed with their choices and that they have let you down can be powerful. Is this likely to change their behaviour? Not necessarily, but at the very least it gives them something to think about
  • ecstasy is illegal - if you can't stop them using the drug, you can insist that no drugs ever come into your house. Make it clear that if you find drugs they will be flushed down the toilet - drugs are expensive and they certainly won't like that idea at all. It is important for them to understand that if they bring the drug into your home they put the whole household at risk, not only themselves 
  • drugs cost money - make it very clear to them that you will not finance their drug use. Cutting off their access to cash is not going to be something they like but can be effective - if they want to buy drugs, they're going to have to find another way to do it. This is not about punishment but rather being true to yourself and the fact that you cannot support the choices they are currently making. You can continue to pay for other things they may need but providing cash will be limited
  • if they believe that ecstasy is not as risky as you think it is - ask to be educated. Get them to spend some time showing you the research they have found and why you shouldn't be as worried as you are. If you've got evidence that contradicts this, all well and good, but make sure it's from a reliable source - teens can smell a piece of government propaganda from a mile away!
So what about ecstasy (or MDMA)? As a parent should you be more concerned about this drug than others out there? Was Alyssa correct when she said that 'everyone' was doing it, that it was 'harmless' and that getting drunk was so much more dangerous?

The greatest problem for many parents around ecstasy is that it is a drug that they simply don't 'get'. It wasn't a drug that they used when they were younger (although there are certainly a growing number of parents who did experiment with the drug in the 90s and later) and all they know about it is what they see in the media. Unfortunately, the only time the media covers the ecstasy issue is when there is a death and although ecstasy-related deaths certainly do occur, they are rare - that's why they receive so much attention! This coverage leads many to believe that deaths are common and that it is a likely outcome should someone choose to use the drug - something that simply isn't true!

Of course, it is unreasonable to expect most parents to be 'experts' on drugs like ecstasy but it is important to be informed as possible on the topic. To assist parents in this area I wrote a blog entry on 5 messages about ecstasy that they should discuss with their teen. But to assist Maria I felt it was important to respond to her daughter's statements about the drug …
  • 'Everyone' does it! According to available evidence, the number of school-based young people who report ever having used ecstasy continues to be low. Recent data, however, shows that almost one in ten 17-year-old school-based males and one in twenty females of the same age have used the drug. It is important to note that once young people leave school the use of ecstasy increases. Ecstasy is the second most popular drug after cannabis among those in their 20s. Regular use is not the norm, with the vast majority of ecstasy users reporting only using the drug once or twice a year, or once every few months. Weekly use is rare. So, no Alyssa, not everyone does it - everyone in your friendship group may be using but most 16-year-olds certainly do not use ecstasy/MDMA
  • Ecstasy is 'harmless'. MDMA is not 'safe' or 'harmless' - the fact is that all drugs, legal, illegal or pharmaceutical, can potentially cause harm. Are you likely to die when you use the drug? No, deaths are rare, but they certainly do happen. In addition, ecstasy is illegal and more people are being 'busted' for use than ever before. A drug conviction will mean they will not be able to get certain jobs and they will not be able to travel to certain countries, just because you got caught with one pill in your pocket. Once again, Alyssa, you got it wrong - ecstasy is certainly not harmless. It has caused deaths in extreme cases and is illegal. 
  • 'Getting drunk' is more dangerous than taking ecstasy. Getting drunk can, of course, lead to a range of harms, including death and injury. When it comes to comparing one drug to another in terms of harm, however, there are lots of problems. There are so many things to consider when looking at how 'dangerous' a drug is or isn't, e.g., the person taking it, where they use it, who they are with when they take it, the purity of the drug, etc. Most importantly, when you use a drug like ecstasy, you don't actually know what it is that you are taking. At least with alcohol it is a legal product and by reading the label on the bottle, you know what you're drinking and the actual alcohol content. This one's a tough one! It is difficult to compare one drug to another and although it is true that 'getting drunk' can lead to great harm, including death, Alyssa, your sweeping statement is problematic. There are so many things to consider and it's never going to be as simple as 'this drug is more dangerous than this one'
If you discover your child is using illegal drugs, as Maria did, no matter what your views in the area, there will undoubtedly be an elevated level of concern about the choices your teen is making. If it's not around physical or psychological health concerns, then it will be to do with the legal consequences of such activity. If they live with you, as well as applying a consequence for their behaviour (they have broken the law), it is vital that you make it clear that you are disappointed with their choices and then set some rules and boundaries about what will and won't be happening in the family home. Although you can put things into place to restrict their movements and activities, in reality, you can't control what they do when they eventually leave your home. That said, you certainly don't have to support the choices they make that you don't agree with …

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