If you are a parent, you may endure overwhelming pressure from other parents to start drug testing your teens at the first whiff of pot smoke. If you haven’t taken their advice, you may have been accused of bad parenting. You may have been warned of serious consequences.
Teens — and adults who were drug tested as teens — consistently tell me that home testing damaged their relationship with their parents. The scientific literature confirms this.
In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a clinical report on drug testing youth which warned against the practice due to a lack of efficacy at reducing drug use and consequences to the parent-child relationship.
“The AAP does not endorse home drug testing because of concerns about the complexity of testing with significant potential for parents to misinterpret test results, limited evidence that home drug testing reduces drug use, and theoretical concerns about a negative effect on the relationship between parents and their children.” - The American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014
Drug use is a serious matter that can have grave consequences. But it’s counterproductive to indulge in nightmare scenarios or cave to unscientific suggestions.
Here are a few reasons drug testing your teen will backfire and what to try instead.
Drug testing damages your relationship in a way that will be difficult to repair.
Teens perceive drug testing as invasive and infantilizing. They do not come to see it as a “necessary evil” that kept them safe during their formative years. Instead, adults who were tested as teens often share with me that their parents’ decision to test them drove a wedge in their relationship.
This rupture between child and parent is particularly dangerous at a time when trust and collaboration are critical to their safety. As they learn how to be a responsible adult, they need to have a trustworthy caregiver who can step in when they cross a line. Research shows that harsher parenting puts children at higher risk of developing a substance use disorder, as does neglectful parenting.
If your teen feels safe talking to you about their risky ideas or behaviors, they are more likely to tell you if someone overdoses or has a mental health crisis or if they have suicidal thoughts. Be someone your child calls for help.
I talk about this issue in a few popular TikTok videos and received countless comments from teens and adults about how being drug tested by their parents impacted their relationship.
One commenter said: “After I got drug tested I hid from them for the next year cuz it made me feel like they hated me.”
Another commenter said, “That’s 100% true my friend ran away from home because of his parents doing stuff like that.”
And the most heartbreaking of all, “being constantly insulted and berated and accused when I just need to clear my mind [and] she keeps giving me reasons to get more [drugs] to numb the pain.”
Drug testing doesn’t teach teens how to be sober, it just teaches them how to pass drug tests.
Teens are known to make reckless decisions, but they can turn into problem-solving, trouble-avoiding geniuses under the right pressure. Parents who make their teens take at-home drug tests should be unsurprised when their teen gets drug-free urine from a friend, buys fake urine online, or uses additives in the sample to void the test results.
Teens and adults who follow me on social media confirm this point.
“I’ve gotten so good at passing them because my parents do it so often.”
The teens who are most vulnerable to substance use disorders are the least likely to respond to drug testing and punishment. Meanwhile, the teens who stop using immediately as a result of punishment or drug testing are the least likely to develop an addiction. In other words, the kids who really need help are not going to get what they need from drug tests.
This is because drug addiction is compulsive drug use despite negative consequences. In fact, drug testing and other punitive measures can make drug use worse because these strategies create feelings of disappointment, fear, disconnection, self-loathing, sadness, and anger. Without the right tools to process these emotions, they can fuel drug use and exacerbate addiction.
Drug testing teens makes them more interested in other drugs which cannot be detected by tests.
MDMA (“ecstasy” or “molly”) processes through the body after a few days, so the consumer would have to be tested within about 48 hours. LSD and psilocybin mushrooms are undetectable without a special test and unless the test is administered during intoxication. Same for DMT, mescaline, and other psychedelics.
Nitrous is accessible to teens and undetectable on tests.
Paint, glue, and other inhalants are extremely toxic even for first-time users, and can be purchased in a hardware store. None of these show up on a drug test.
Most research chemicals or “novel psychoactive substances” (NPS) don’t show up on tests. Some NPS are relatively benign, but others are lethal in low doses.
You might be thinking, “My kid isn’t going to snort random powders he finds on the ground.” Think again. Let go of the idea that you have any clue what your child would do when you’re not around. I don’t say any of this to scare you; it is to encourage you to be realistic.
More relevant comments from TikTok:
“As my addict friend once said ‘if they find the legit stuff, I’ll just get harder stuff they can’t find.’ “
“Drug tests just made me do drugs that wouldn’t come up.”
Instead of drug testing or punishment, build a relationship with your child that is worthy of their trust.
Your teen wants to be close to you, even if they act like they hate you. Teens usually want you to understand them, even if they make no effort to be understandable.
Teens are still learning how to express their feelings. From the outside, their fear, hopelessness, or anxiety might look like rage, disinterest, or disassociation. Come to them with an open heart and mind. Be ready to listen especially when their words make you uncomfortable.
Don’t take their emotions personally. See beyond their outbursts and into the pain underneath. Help them find the root of what’s bothering them. Practice mindfulness together. Learn how to deal with unpleasant experiences and emotions with dance, sports, art, journaling, meditation, music, and other forms of self-expression.
Create rituals around spending quality time together. If you have an old hobby, try reconnecting with it. Show your kids what joy looks like.
Nobody responds well to the old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do.” You can’t expect your child to trust you if there’s a disparity between your words and your actions. This means leading by example. If they see you using drugs — including alcohol — every time you have a hard day, you are teaching them to use drugs as a coping strategy. Take an accounting of your relationship with all legal and illegal substances.
Quality time will improve their trust in you. Better trust will improve communication, which opens the door to talk about how they’re feeling. This creates the necessary space to talk about how to deal with difficult emotions without drugs. And the time you spend together models healthy habits and creates connection without “telling them” how or what to do.
Don’t expect them to stop using drugs right away. The more serious their drug use, the harder it will be. And the more they’ll need your support and understanding. Recovery is not fast, linear, or simple.
Take it slow. Patiently building a healthy relationship with the person your child is becoming will have a better impact on their future than any drug testing regimen.