1 November 2008
No caring parent wants their child to end up an addict, so to be horrified at the thought of your kids smoking dope is pretty normal - about as normal as it is for teenagers to experiment with drugs. Wanting to take a firm hand and insisting on random drug tests is an understandable reaction, but in the end, it may do more harm than good. Take James for instance.
When he was 17, James used to smoke a bit of cannabis on the weekend with his friends. When his father forced a drug test on him, he started smoking it daily, and began experimenting with LSD.
Now 19, James says his parents' decision to get him drug tested shattered their relationship.
"I was pretty much carted down to the doctor and told to pee in a cup. It was like my parents didn't trust or believe me anymore. We'd always been pretty sweet, but after that, I hardly talked to them at all. I felt totally ripped off and thought 'I'm going to take more drugs just to f*ck you off."
James' first test was negative, but after a year of smoking daily, a second test was positive.
James says he probably would have confessed to using drugs if his parents had asked him straight out. Instead, he rebelled and cut ontact with them.
He's now trying to give drugs up after moving in with his girlfriend and a few of his friends were arrested for possession and supply. Contact with his parents remains infrequent.
Cases like James' do not seem common in New Zealand. While thousands of parents worry about their child's drug use, few take the dramatic and often counterproductive step of putting them to the test.
Rod Dale from the New Zealand Drug Detection Agency, one of the biggest companies of its kind, says they only do about a dozen such tests a year, mainly on Auckland teenagers.
Dale says his company, which focuses on testing people in the workplace, does not recommend parents drug test their teens.
"If a parent cannot communicate with their child in a supportive and open way about drugs, they won't be able to deal constructively with the fall-out from a positive test."
Christchurch youth health expert Sue Bagshaw agrees.
"Parents are on really thin ice if they think drug testing their kids will stamp out drug use," she says.
"Whether they realise it or not, the test is going to give them an answer. How they deal with the answer is far more important than what the answer is. Talking to their child and being supportive is far better than pushing them into a test, which is likely to alienate them and make them less likely to communicate."
Bagshaw says most teenagers she knows whose parents contemplated a drug test were recreational or light users of cannabis.
"Young people experiment because everybody is doing it, and they want to see what they are missing out on, but that doesn't mean they are going to become heavy users. Everybody uses some sort of drug, even if it is only caffeine. It's about recognising this and helping the young person deal with it sensibly themselves."
She suggests parents who think their child is taking drugs sit down with them and say, "Okay, so you've used drugs, what was it like? What was good about it and what was bad?"
"Tell your teenager you don't want to control them or force them to stop taking drugs, but spell out clearly that you do not believe the ways drugs will affect them will be good for them.
"Focus on short-term negative consequences, such as failing memory or having trouble concentrating at school. teenagers will not respond to things far in the futrue."
But she says the most important thing is to try to foster trust because it's the only way parents will be able to connect with their child and have any hope of helping them make good choices.
Deb Fraser of Dunedin's Mirror Youth Counselling Services says it is understandable for parents to feel overwhelmed if their suspect their child is taking drugs.
"A lot of parents are out of their depth trying to understand why their child would be doing this to themselves - even those who have experimented with drugs themselves. They often feel completely powerless."
Parents oftern become concerned about drug use if they don't know where their teenager is spending a lot of time or if the young person is chewing thhrough a lot of money and has rapidly changing moods.
Fraser says in recent years she has seen a small increase in the number of parents asking about drugs testing, probably because more companies are providing school and workplace tests, which is increasing awareness. There are also drugs tests avaliable on the internet, but these are not always reliable.
Fraser says that drug testing does not always provide an accurate indication of a teenager's level of drug use anyway.
"Some heavier drugs, such as methamphetamine, leave the system quickly, while cannabis can be detected for far longer."
Like Bagshaw, Fraser suggests parents talk to their child and, if they feel out of their depth, get help from an expert, such as the family doctor or a counsellor.
Both women say drug testing can work as a way to monitor a young person's success but only if they have chosen to give up drugs.
Youth law's John Hancock says the law relating to drug testing of teenagers is not straightforward.
"Tests usually involve taking a urine sample so are viewed as a medical procedure. This means anyone over 16 years must consent before it can be done. Parents and caregivers do have a say if the child is under 16."
The biggest test would be when a teenager is challenged being tested in the courts, but so far, there has been no such case in New Zealand.
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