Testing Your Child for Drugs
Drug testing is paradoxical, said Brian Coughlin, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical director of the young adult programs at Promises Treatment Centers. “If you distrust your child to the point that you feel a drug test would be helpful, then you probably need professional advice and should find a therapist,” he cautioned. Nevertheless, he has seen cases where the mere threat to test for drugs appeared to curtail drug use, and he wouldn’t rule it out entirely. But proceed with care, he said. “We often see cases where testing creates an environment of mistrust. It forces the parent into the role of a policeman; the kids are constantly lying, and the parents are constantly suspicious.”
If you’re considering drug testing for your child, here’s what you need to know:
- Testing can deter use — When kids who are casual users know that they are going to be tested, they may be less likely to use, especially right before the test.
- Testing can provide important information — If a test is administered properly, positive test results can be difficult to argue with, and presumably eliminate endless denials. They can also serve as a starting point for a serious, meaningful discussion.
- Testing may lead to earlier treatment — If your child is using drugs, finding that out sooner rather than later can be very helpful. In many cases, early treatment can reduce or eliminate more serious problems down the line.
- Drug tests are not exhaustive — Most of the tests do not cover inhalants, LSD, ketamine, anabolic steroids or even alcohol. If you don’t test for what your child is actually taking, a negative test result could provide a false sense that there isn’t a problem.
- False negatives — Many drugs are eliminated from the body within hours, or at most a day or two, so it’s easy to miss the drug use. A false negative test may simply delay getting help for your child.
- False positives — False positives do occur. Certain cold, sinus or allergy medications, antibiotics in high doses and even poppy seeds can cause false-positive results. Ibuprofen or naproxen, for example, can cause a false positive for marijuana.
- Results can be faked — Kids who are using drugs will often go to great lengths and even find creative ways to avoid testing or tamper with the results. Some will even switch to drugs that they aren’t being tested for, to avoid detection.
- Damaged trust — Drug testing sends the message that you don’t trust your child.
Should You Consider a Home Test?
Administering a home test is tempting because it’s generally easier to administer a test at home than to make an appointment with a clinician. But home tests have a number of drawbacks. Although home tests are reasonably reliable according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, results can be affected by the way the sample or test was stored and what your son or daughter ate or drank before the test. The tests are not administered in a controlled system, so the sample can be tampered with by adding water or some other substance, or having a friend provide a sample. And home tests place parents squarely in the role of enforcer, something that most parents would prefer to avoid.
Home test kits are available online and at retail drug stores. Most drug tests analyze urine for chemicals, although saliva and hair follicle kits are available as well. Although some of the kits look for just one substance, most commercially available kits test for a panel of drugs, such marijuana, opiates, cocaine, methamphetamine, amphetamines, PCP, ecstasy, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, methadone, tricyclic antidepressants and oxycodone. Positive results on a home test usually need to be sent to the manufacturer for confirmation on a second test that is performed in a laboratory.
What Can Parents Do?
It’s a good idea to start having regular conversations with your child about drugs before drugs become a problem—by middle school if not earlier, Dr. Coughlin said. Plan on doing more listening than talking. If these conversations are friendly, two-way and nonthreatening, your child will be more likely to come to you later as problems arise. Ask your child if he or she has a plan for avoiding use. Ask how they’re doing and let them know that you are concerned about their happiness and health.
If you find that your child is using drugs, the most helpful thing you can do is to find out why. What problem or issue is your child facing that is causing drugs to seem attractive? “There’s always something behind more serious drug use,” Dr. Coughlin said. “Often, kids are exposed to drugs at a pivotal time, when they’re experiencing social and other pressures and confronting self-esteem issues, and when they don’t have a fully developed sense of identity. The best thing you can do for them is to listen and get help, preferably from a therapist who has a specialization in substance abuse.”
By Janet Cromley
Follow Janet on Twitter at @janetcromley