By Larry Fritzlan, LMFT, CAS, Director, Adolescent Recovery Services
As more teens abuse dangerous substances–and get cagier about hiding the evidence–more parents are willing to consider testing their child for drugs. Under certain circumstances, we solidly support this decision. But a parent who drug tests a child must take care to do it right. A poorly-administered test can be worse than none at all.
The following will explain how to drug test your teen and will also explain how drug testing works. An effective drug test has four vital elements: it must be random, observed, frequent, and varied. If even one of these elements is missing, a teen can fake the test. This can create an extremely hazardous situation in which parents, believing their child is now clean and sober, stop paying attention. Meanwhile, the child’s substance abuse, and possible underlying mental disorder, goes underground and remains untreated. So let’s take a closer look at the four elements of an effective test.
It is vital that a teen not know when a drug test will be administered. Kids are not dumb. Every teen who self-medicates with drugs or alcohol is well aware of retention rates (the length of time that ingested drugs and alcohol will test positive). So, if tests are not carried out randomly, the teen will simply time his or her drug use to avoid detection.
Let’s look at how this might work. Say that a parent drug-tests a teen every Monday, via a urine sample. Prior to the test, Informed Teen Drug User judiciously abstains. However, right after the test, he starts up again. He knows he can smoke pot that night, and then snort methamphetamine, pop Oxycontin and Vicodin, smoke crack cocaine, inject heroin, and stay drunk every day for the next four days. At that point, he temporarily stops using the drugs, but continues to stay drunk until 12 hours before the following Monday’s test. Result: He tests clean and starts the drinking and drugging cycle all over again.
Every regularly-using kid knows this drill, follows it, and is laughing at his or her clueless parents. So, to make testing effective, you must test randomly, on a different day of the week each week (but, of course, not in any easily decipherable order). One way to ensure randomness is to write down each day of the week on a slip of paper and put them in a hat, and then draw out two slips and test on the days specified (more on this later). Ideally, you should test first thing in the morning when the child’s urine is most concentrated and he or she is not yet fully awake and not able to employ some ‘tricky’ behavior.
This may be hard for some to swallow, but a parent must observe a teen’s drug test. “Oh, that’s too intrusive!” many parents say. But remember, a drug-using teen is highly motivated to escape detection. In dozens of cases, teens have told me that no one observed them taking a urine test, so they simply gave their parent someone else’s clean urine.
It’s also not enough to simply be in the room with a peeing teen. Some boys purchase a device that looks like a penis and contains clean urine; others use a small device that fits in the palm of the hand and contains a battery to warm the urine. There are stories of individuals that will even catheterize themselves and fill their bladders with clean urine!
We recommend that you hand your teen the bottle with the label attached, but without the cap so that they don’t switch bottles. Stand near enough to be able to smell if any bleach has been added, and so you can hear the urine going into the bottle. There is a distinct sound of a stream of urine going into a bottle that is hard to duplicate (practice peeing yourself so that you can get to know “the sound”). When they hand you the bottle it will have a number of bubbles at the top something not present if they poured someone else’s urine into the container. And it will be hot to the touch.
Testing should take place at least twice a week. Multiple, frequent tests give teens the message that they may be tested at any time. One family I worked with tested their child only sporadically. Each time she tested positive, she would promise her parents that she’d never touch drugs again, and they chose to believe her. Recently, she was rushed to the hospital with a potentially fatal .4-percent blood-alcohol level. It turned out that she had been regularly abusing alcohol, cocaine, and Ecstasy during the long gaps between tests.
Some parents are concerned that frequent testing will be expensive. Testing can be fairly economical. We recommend that parents administer tests at least twice a week, but send only one sample to the lab per week (to reduce expenses). The teen doesn’t need to know which samples, or how many, are sent in for analysis.
Since all drug-testing methods have their strengths and limitations, we recommend that multiple options be used as a urine test, a saliva test, and a breathalyzer. When just one method is used, a teen is more likely to successfully fake the test. For example, the parents of one boy we treated suspected that he was on drugs, yet he always tested clean. It turned out that he had been giving them someone else’s clean urine. When we administered a saliva test, he showed up positive for five different drugs!
- Standard Urine Test: detects presence of marijuana, opiates (including Oxycontin), cocaine, amphetamines, PCP, barbiturates, and alcohol.
- EtG Urine Test: New test that detects the above substances, and in addition detects metabolites of alcohol for up to 80 hours after use.
- Saliva Test: Detects marijuana, opiates (including Oxycontin), cocaine, amphetamines, PCP, and barbiturates. (Make sure your teen does not have water in his mouth.)
- Breathalyzer: Detects alcohol (make sure your teen blows, and not sucks, into the device).
- Other optional tests are available for nicotine, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and steroids.
The Bottom Line
Parents must take a teen’s drug use seriously. Drug use beyond “once or twice” or “never more than once a month” experimentation stage may indicate that a teen is self-medicating an existing or emerging emotional disorder. Or it could signify the early signs of alcoholism or drug addiction. If you are concerned that your teen may be abusing drugs or alcohol, consult with a qualified mental health professional for an evaluation. Don’t wait. Help your child reclaim health, strength, and hope.
About Adolescent Recovery Services
After more than 20 years of working with teens and families, we know many of the pitfalls teens can encounter throughout adolescence. We also know the signs of drug use and abuse.
If you suspect there’s a chance that your teenager might be using drugs, whether alcohol or pot or another substance, the time to act is now. We provide a full range of assessment, diagnosis, and treatment services. Let us help you figure out what’s going on with your teen and support you on the path toward returning him or her to a healthy lifestyle.
Larry Fritzlan, LMFT, CAS, Director