Your teen got a DUI. Here’s our advice on what to do next.
Teens drink and teens drive, and unfortunately at least some of them will do them together. That’s why it’s particularly important for parents to be vigilant about teen substance abuse before anything happens, and to make sure they have a strategy in place in case it does.
Many parents believe that coming down too hard on their teens about underage drinking will encourage them to rebel and drink more. Some parents even allow their teenagers to drink alcohol at home because they believe teens who drink at home are less likely to abuse alcohol. Unfortunately, studies show that the opposite is true—teens who are allowed to drink alcohol at home are more likely to abuse alcohol than their peers.
Instead of normalizing teen alcohol abuse, experts say parents need to talk to their teens openly and frequently about the risks of substance abuse. Attempts to “scare teens straight” rarely work in the long-term, and teens go right back to their risky behavior once their fear wears off. But frank conversations about alcohol and drug use can guide teens’ decision-making as they get older.
Once a teen is using drugs or alcohol, it’s critical to get them into an evidence-based substance abuse treatment program like Seven Challenges. In many cases, teens use alcohol and drugs to cope with life stresses because they haven’t been taught more appropriate coping strategies, or because they have an underlying mental illness. Effective substance abuse treatment programs work with teens to uncover their reasons for using alcohol or drugs, explore the possibility of mental illness, and help them develop stronger self-coping skills.
Unfortunately, parents are often resistant to the idea that their teens have mental illnesses. Shannon Battle is the clinical director of Family Services of America, an NC-based organization that provides outpatient behavioral health services. She says parents are often “blinded” by their desire to avoid their child’s mental health problems or rationalize their behavior as teenagers being teenagers. This can prevent teens from getting the help they need while creating a cycle of risky behavior in teens and enabling in parents. When alcohol or drugs are involved, this cycle can turn deadly.
Battle encourages parents to seek treatment for their teens as soon as they discover alcohol or drug use, and to be open to whatever treatment plan is suggested by their child’s therapist. Parents should establish clear rules and consequences, and explain to their child why these rules are now necessary. Be open and honest about your love and concern, but do not hesitate to establish and enforce strict boundaries with your child.
Parents of teens with moderate to severe substance abuse problems need to take their concern even further. These parents should also monitor their child’s money and comings and goings very closely, perform frequent searches of their bedrooms, and explain to their children why this monitoring is necessary to keep them safe. Regular and unscheduled drug testing is also an important tool parents can use to protect their teenagers.
If your teenager has been formally charged with a DUI, it’s important to set aside your own fears for their future and let the system do its part. Hire your child a defense attorney and let them do their job in the court-room while you focus on getting your child appropriate substance abuse treatment and ensuring their access to drugs and alcohol are cut off. It can be tempting to fight legal consequences out of a desire to protect your teenagers, but these consequences may be exactly what teens need to understand the severity of their actions.
Even if your teenager hasn’t been formally charged with a DUI, you should give them similar consequences at home. This can involve restricting their driving privileges entirely for a specified length of time, limiting them to driving solely to and from work or school, or requiring them to earn back their driving privileges through volunteer work or other good deeds in the community. No matter how you decide to handle it, it’s critical that your child understand the ramifications of their actions and that the consequences last long enough to make a real impression. This isn’t a lesson that can or should be learned in one or two days.
Above all, parents need to give themselves permission to take a no-tolerance policy where substance abuse is concerned. Never stop telling your kids you love them, but remember that establishing rules and consequences is how parents express their love for their children and help them grow into strong adults.
“Whatever it takes should be done,” Battle said. “Remember, you are a parent first.”