Most parents of teens have wondered at some point or another if their teen is using drugs (including alcohol)--or if they have tried them. They have reason to wonder: 70 percent of US high schoolers have tried alcohol at least once, and 40 percent have tried marijuana. While the percentage who have tried things like heroin is lower (3 percent), teens are known experimenters.
You could always take your teen to the doctor. But...it's a bit embarrassing. Not to mention the fact that drugs are illegal (including alcohol for underage drinkers). So why not do it in the privacy of your own home?
That's what the home drug testing companies hope parents think. And there is a real appeal to getting immediate and private results. But there are real problems with drug testing of teens in general, and especially home testing, which is part of the reason the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their policy statement entitled "Testing for Drugs of Abuse in Children and Adolescents."
Here's why home drug testing isn't a good idea:
There can be false positives. Some common medications, like certain antibiotics, can make someone test positive for drugs when they aren't taking them. And if a child is taking medications for ADHD, that will make the person test positive even though the medication was prescribed by a doctor. It's not always easy to interpret results.
There can be false negatives. First of all, home drug tests don't test for everything. They might not pick up drugs like Ecstasy or LSD, they don't usually pick up anabolic steroids (the kind you take to bulk up or otherwise make you better at sports) and they might not even pick up alcohol. Second, it's not too hard to mess up the results by doing things like adding water to the sample or adding other things like soap. Teens have also been known to get their friends to pee for them, and switch the samples.
There can be ramifications that are hard for parents. These are tough waters to navigate. If your teen isn't abusing drugs, and has told you so, they may see drug testing as a lack of trust (which it is, but it's one of those things that is easier seen in hindsight). It can end up damaging relationships in ways that are hard to make right again. If your teen is abusing drugs, and needs help, that can be really hard for parents to manage without professional help.
So what should a parent do?
Starting early (by middle school, if not earlier), talk with your child about drugs (including alcohol). Do your best to create an ongoing and open conversation. Make sure your child really understands the risks of drug use, and has a working knowledge of the various substances he or she might encounter and what the risks are (which might involve doing some homework yourself). Make sure your child knows that you are there for support, information and a ride home. Come up with a code word that your child can text you if ever they need a way out of a situation. When you get the text, you call them and tell them that they need to come home immediately. You get to be the bad guy, and they get to escape.
Keep in touch with your teen, too. This sounds silly, I know. After all, they live with you. But that doesn't mean you spend time with them--so make the time. Get to know their friends. Talk with them about their daily life. Be part of their daily life and activities. If something doesn't seem right, talk to your teen about it...and most of all...
Ask for help. If you think your teen may be using drugs, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help you figure out the best approach--and if testing makes sense, can help you sort though the results. Don't go this one alone.
That's what we pediatricians are here for. Let us help.