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We Thought Things Were Better—Then We Found Paraphernalia


saddeneddeeply thought his son had gotten control of his various vices, until some paraphernalia came to light. Yet he continues to go to therapy, has a new job, and has made other signs of progress. Dad doesn't know what to do…confront his son?

"So we discovered our 18 year old son is vaping again. We think it’s nicotine but we are not sure if it is marijuana. I suppose marijuana can be vaped too? He stopped nicotine vaping 3 months ago after I threatened to kick him out of the house. He agreed to let us block his laptop and iPhone for video games and over use of technologies 2 and a half months ago. He is seeing 2 therapists for a total 3 sessions a week. He started work 5 weeks ago at chipotle for 30 hours a week. He even did a hour or two computer programming to prepare for going back to Cornell last week with a lot of “encouragement “. We let him driving our car a month ago. Yet we found he was vaping yesterday.

We don’t know what to do. Should we confront him. Should we tell his therapists? But we are afraid that would reveal how we discovered it. Why would he let that relapse? Anxiety due to doing school work or going back to Cornell? Just becoming bold thinking he can do substances and Cornell? He was not very motivated to do programming or anything else for going back to Cornell. Yet he said he wants to go and even went to Cornell to visit his ex-schoolmates 2 weeks ago. He said he wants Cornell but don’t feel he can do say to day school stuff which is why he only does 1-2 hours a week programming. How can he get really inspired to go back to school? He seems to have mixed feelings about school: pain and pleasure. But what pain?"

Your son has come a long way since you last wrote us. He reduced/stopped the nicotine, the gaming, and the pot. You don’t mention his drinking but he almost certainly is not drinking under your roof. He is ambiguous about going back to school but he did get a 30-hour-a-week job. He is seeing two therapists.

You are concerned because you found out he is vaping either nicotine, marijuana or both. (Yes, you can vape marijuana.)

It is very unlikely that your son is totally abstinent from everything. Finding the vaporizer would confirm this. Becoming abstinent is usually a process of trying and failing, one or some of the things that are problematic, usually in some sequence. “The marijuana maintenance plan” a term coined in AA, for instance, is a method used by some problem drinkers, in which they first stop drinking yet continue for some time longer to smoke pot. Your son has a number of potentially problematic foci of addiction: gaming, technology, nicotine, marijuana, and alcohol. He has stopped doing these things in your presence and in your home.

This is a good start. Home is where you should have some control over his behavior. You’ve rewarded him by letting him use the car and by continuing to let him live with you. Well done.

Your control however in how your son behaves in his life is limited. It is for him to figure out. He is seeing two therapists. Again, well done. Let the therapists work with him. Let the therapists address the relationship your son has with these addictive behaviors and their importance in his world. Let your son figure out when to go back to school. Let the therapists help tease apart what is motivating your son to use OR not to use. Let your son figure out what is motivating.

Your son knows where you stand with regards to his addictive tendencies and his returning to school. You don’t need to remind him. Finding the vaporizer is useful information for you. It suggests the picture I just laid out above. In rereading your past posts, it is still not clear that your son has to abstain from everything. He may be able to moderate some things. This is for him to decide along with his therapists. Certainly, the use of technology for one, will call for moderation rather than abstinence.

Now that you have a more accurate picture, what do you do next?

Perhaps you can say something like this…

Son, your mom and I are very glad you are seeing the therapists. We are also glad you found a job. This isn’t an easy time for you or for us. It’s hard for us to step back and let you make your own decisions. You are an adult and we have to try to step back. We appreciate that you’ve cut back on those things that are addictive to you. This is huge. (We did come across a vaporizer so we know you’re not completely done.) When you’re ready, we’ll help you get back into school. If you need more help with addiction, we are here. We love you.

Your son may not follow the path you would wish for him. He is struggling. It will take time for him to work out what is bothering him along with the behaviors that are causing problems. It’s going to take patience on your end. He is drawn to drugs that make him more social or that numb feelings. School may be delayed, or not happen at all. Therapy can help him figure out action steps.

You are creating a clean and sober home for him, providing him support with housing. He is reciprocating by getting a job and going to therapy. He is also not using drugs or technology in your home. Perhaps you speak to him along the lines of what I wrote above. He needs more time though. Perhaps 9-12 months of therapy, the steady job, and the chance to become motivated in his own life, whether it is school or something else for the near future.



In your comments, please show respect for each other and do not give advice. Please consider that your choice of words has the power to reduce stigma and change opinions (ie, "person struggling with substance use" vs. "addict", "use" vs. "abuse"...)

  1. So my son is having a relapse on video games. He went back to school this fall. I went to Cornell about a week ago and caught him playing video games in the library because we blocked his laptop and iphone. I confronted him and threatened that I would not pay his room and board (tuition is already paid), he has to quit school immediately and come home for treatment per our contract. He vowed not to come home, would not quit games and if he fails school again he will commit suicide. In the end, since we can’t get a major part of the tuition back, he is not agreeable and we don’t really want to yank him out of school, we decide to let him promise us to get good grades and we paid the room and board. We also made him agree he is fully responsible for his schooling. If he flunk again like last year, we will not pay for next semester and he will have to come home for treatment. That seems to be a good agreement, except he plays video games in the library regularly for 4-5 hours every other day till about 1 am and missed a few classes since the agreement about 5 days ago.
    His hypothesis is he can play video games and if he starts school assignments early and asks TA when he has questions, he can succeed school while still playing video games. We basically gave him this semester to prove it. If he fails there will be a lot of natural consequences: loneliness at home and can’t have fun mingling with his school friends. However, knowing how much game he is playing, we are very concerned he will fail again. But we don’t what else to do.
    The good part is he does not seem to be doing any drugs: e-cig, alcohol, pot, lsd… We test his urine every week.

    1. This is such a richly textured post. I offer the following short TED talk as something to watch and think about.
      Trying to control behavior is at the core of the video game world, both from the perspective of the gaming industry, that clearly is intent on creating games that keep people involved, and the perspective of parents who see this behavior as “addictive” – note the opening of the post – “My son is having a relapse on video games” – and want their children to dis-involve themselves.
      There is much current research that indicates that the same brain mechanisms are triggered by drugs and video games. Both trigger our reward systems. I am always mindful of the idea that it is not the drug/substance that distinguishes addiction per se … it is the behavior. Confronting addiction is largely about changing behavior. Sometimes, threatening consequences elicits defiance that perpetuates the behavior. And then, what do you do when the threat is ignored? Perhaps your son is really saying that he would prefer to play games instead of engaging in academic work. Cornell is a demanding place, perhaps a community college would be a better choice? So be it. Sometimes allowing people to engage in a behavior will result in consequences that are often the best teachers. Until he asks for help, not much you can do. That is the most difficult thing to accept, but perhaps the most valuable stance to adopt. The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

      1. Dear 25 Coronet, thanks for reading my post and your input. We did offer him to go to community college or play video games as a career. He turned both down. Rationally he knows gaming is not a career path although the industry wants young people to believe otherwise by giving out big rewards. It’s like playing tennis can make big money but how many people can get there? Most tennis players end up with doing something else for living or teaching club tennis. The glory of winning big in tennis would never come for almost all of us. For community college, he thinks he can do better. We know he can do better and we believe lowering the standard may not be the solution. Last summer, we had him taking an online Stanford graduate class at home without any drugs (nicotine, alcohol, marijuana….) or video games. He passed it w/ flying colors. His problem is video games or iPhone or nicotine or alcohol… if he goes to a community college he will just end up doing more games or other stuff because classes are less demanding so he has more time and get the same lousy grades as at Cornell. Our hope is his love for Cornell would gradually overpower his love for the games etc. Yesterday we noticed he did not play games in the night after many days of binge playing, possibly because he has a big exam today. He may have developed some fear that he will be kicked out of his cherished school again if he keeps going.

    2. The video gaming can be a serious problem. 4-5 hours at a clip does suggest it. Is it addiction? You will find people on both sides of the argument. I would say it is problematic because it is causing problems with school attendance. It is also a virtual world that takes him away from face-to-face relationships he could be forming. His friends were fellow pot-smokers; this virtual world of gaming is likely another group of friends. Now that he is not using pot, the virtual world of gaming may have become more important.

      It’s important to point out that gaming is also about relationship—a group of peers—so asking him to stop gaming is also asking your son to walk away from feelings of belonging and friendship.

      Read Dominique Simon-Levine’s full response to rlabib here:

  2. So I have a little bit good news to report. My 18 year old son who failed his first semester at Cornell last fall went back to Cornell 8 days ago. When he failed last year, he played a lot of video games and vaped nicotine. He might also do marijuana, LSD and other stuff. But we are not sure.
    He is still on a very shaky ground. 3 weeks before he went to Cornell, he quit vaping nicotine again for the fifth times (I lost exact count). But he is too lonely at home. We had him signed a contract that he will not do any addictive activities including video games, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana and other chemicals or we will stop paying his tuition and bring him home for treatment immediately. We did 2 drug tests after he went to school. Both are good. There is no way to test games. So we blocked his computer and iphone using Qustodio software. We are holding our breath. We really don’t know if he can make it work this fall but we are hopeful.
    Assuming this will be a successful story, we found what really helped him to quit is his desire to go back to Cornell which he worked hard for during his high school years. That is an investment on his part. He did not want to go to local colleges. We told him we can’t pay for his tuition/room/board unless he quit all addictive activities and I will drive 254 miles one way weekly to drug test him. A lot of technique you shared with me really helped too. For example, the reflective listening made him want to communicate with us. When we blocked his computer/iphone, threathen not to pay tuition when addiction is found and told him we want to drug test him, we emphasized to him at the same time we are at war with addictions not with him.
    In the end there are still a lot of arm twisting. He is still not happy with us. We are not sure if this is going to work long term. But we are happy it’s working at least for now.
    Thank you so much for your caring and the expertise you provided. We would not know what to do with him without you.

    1. Dear saddeneddeeply. Thank you for sharing the good news. I so hoped your son would make it back to school. It sounds like you were able to reach him and to work a plan he agreed to follow. He sounds motivated and you sound relieved.

      The bar you set may be unrealistically high in terms of your expectations. Individuals don’t stop all addictions at once. They test out reducing use in different contexts, thinking it is easy, but finding it actually a good deal more difficult. Chances are, your son has the best intentions but will find it very difficult to meet the goal of total abstinence from all his subject issues, all at once. The drug test will probably dictate how he moves forward, avoiding the marijuana, but perhaps drinking some and playing video games, since neither of these will show up in a test…..Read Dominique Simon-Levine’s full response to saddeneddeeply here:

  3. Thanks Isabel. So I am going to talk to him with the points you gave me. I am thinking of adding “if you have to vape, please do it outside of the house or you have to move out. We also going to not let you drive our car because you are not ready.” He may try to buy his own car and get insurance which is not going to be cheap since he is not a student in good standing any more. Does that sound ok?


      Here are two posts that talk about the car. You should also read the comments associated with these posts.

      The car is a complicated issue. It is a reward but can run afoul if driven while under the influence. If you can be sure your son isn’t using or will use while borrowing the car, it is a nice reward. Any reward should be something you give without stress, and something you can take away if necessary. A car can be taken away easily but may cause you worry.

      The module on rewards describes how to use rewards, ideally giving and removing things you can give easily, when your son appears not under the influence, and can take away easily, when the next day he is using. It’s a daily decision…..less a global long-term strategy.

      Yes, he can work to earn the money to buy a car and the insurance. This will take time and may be a motivator to stay working. Time is what you want right now; the time for therapy to work and for some successes to build his confidence.

      1. Dear saddeneddeeply,

        I have some thoughts about your situation. Please know that I am not officially qualified as a CRAFT facilitator, but having worked for AiR for the last 3+years I have been immersed in CRAFT, and I am a wholehearted fan.

        You and Dominique have had an ongoing exchange over many months. You are concerned about your 18-year-old son, and what you and his mom can do to steer him away from the substances and addictive gaming that were starting to become an alarming problem.

        What stood out to me in the last couple of comments you posted is this: feelings need to be explored, and expressed. But not just by your son, who is doing hard work — 3 hours of therapy a week! He is making quite the commitment to his own wellbeing.

        The username you chose when you joined this site says a lot. You are both deeply saddened by the situation, by where your son is, by where he isn’t. These feelings are yours. They are real (if not permanent). You are entitled to everything you feel.

        Rewards — granting and rewarding things, privileges, attention, etc. — is indeed a huge piece of the CRAFT approach. But it’s only one piece.

        Two other essential pieces of making this approach effective are: bridge building and self-care for the family member.

        For more explanation on the Bridge concept, you can watch/read Learning Module 4. Some of the key components of this process of restoring trust and faith are:

        · Moving away from a position of judge or prosecutor and moving closer to the position of Ally — you want his happiness/health/safety, even if you both may have different ideas of how to get there.

        · Coming in with encouragement and presence whenever it’s merited (whenever there is no use; but also when they’re doing something productive, or something you’ve asked them to work on, or something that supports their recovery, or competes with use…)

        · Being real, and being the kind of person you would turn to if you were in trouble.

        As for self-care, this is not simply a question of eating enough vegetables and getting exercise (although those are always good, too!). This is a serious underpinning of CRAFT and it’s about the family member doing pretty much the same stuff they’re asking their Loved One to do:

        · Taking an honest look at themselves, including the parts that aren’t fun to look at

        · Getting help from a professional for the above if it’s not happening alone

        · Looking at what feelings are present for you, now

        · Expressing those feelings (externalizing them) in as many ways you can

        · When appropriate, on occasion, expressing some of your feelings to your Loved One. This is not about guilting. Allowing yourself moments of vulnerability is also key to building bridges—someone is more likely to trust and respect you if they can see you as three-dimensional and as someone who struggles too.

        · Practicing stress-relieving techniques (go to the Resource Supplement and scroll down to Self-Care for the Family member) so that you can be grounded and centered for your Loved One

        This is perhaps a lot to digest at once. And of course it can’t be learned or applied at once either. I know you’ve been through the modules but it may be time to watch again with the experience you now have. Pick out modules that address the stuff that’s more difficult for you. I’d suggest you check out Learning Module 4 on Communication and Learning Module 7 on Difficult Feelings.

        Let us know how you’re doing. If you have any questions about this, or feel like you’d like more specific examples, don’t hesitate to “reply”.

        1. Thanks for the tips. While I am handling it reasonably well by not too emotionally involved with his situation or him except for anger, my wife is having a tough time focusing on what she has to do. I will share with her.