Guide for Parents of Addicted Children and Teens Part II: Intervening and Getting Help
Intervening in a Child’s Substance AbuseWhen it comes to underage drinking or drug abuse, parents must be prepared to clarify expectations and set boundaries for their children. But it’s not always easy to supervise a child’s daily activities or to communicate with teens who have already become involved with alcohol or drugs. In order to get through to their children, parents must also overcome the barrier of peer influences. Young people place a great deal of value on the opinions of their peers, and a parent’s perspective may seem unrealistic or out of touch when compared to the voice of their friends.
For many parents, the key to intervening successfully in a child’s substance abuse is more about listening than talking, notes the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
It’s not just a matter of listening to what a son or daughter has to say, but listening to other people who might have noticed the red flags of substance abuse. School counselors, teachers, athletic coaches, or the parents of a child’s friends may notice signs that go undetected by family members. This doesn’t mean that parents have been indifferent or insensitive to their child’s struggles; it simply indicates that an outside observer has viewed the situation with fresh eyes and noticed a problem. There is never a “perfect” time to talk with a child or teenager about substance abuse. This conversation will almost always be uncomfortable for both the adult and the young person involved. However, because the effects of substance abuse are potentially so devastating, this may be the most important conversation that a parent can have with their child. Here are a few tips for engaging a child in a discussion about substance abuse:
INSTEAD OF THIS . . .
- Nagging your teen
- Making judgments
- Firing off accusations
- Using scare tactics to make a child get sober
- Preaching about abstinence
- Making threats
- Manipulating or bribing a teen to get into rehab
TRY THIS . . .
- Speaking compassionately
- Using empathy
- Sharing observations
- Calmly discussing the dangers of substance abuse
- Describing the benefits of sobriety
- Setting boundaries
- Establishing realistic goals for treatment
Many adults feel guilty, hopeless, or angry if their efforts to help an addicted child are unsuccessful. At these times, parents must remember that addiction is a disease that requires professional treatment, and that most young people will continue to abuse alcohol or drugs unless they participate in some form of rehab.
Kids who do not respond to private discussions with family members may require a professional intervention to get into treatment. An intervention is a prearranged meeting in which the loved ones of an addicted individual — often with the help of a substance abuse treatment professional — confront their loved one with the goal of getting that person into rehab. At the same time, parents and other concerned friends or family can inform the teenager of the effects of their behavior, establish boundaries, and discuss expectations for the future.
Interventions are most effective when they are arranged with the guidance and participation of a counselor, therapist, spiritual leader, or intervention specialist who can bring objectivity to the situation and help the family carry through with the goals of the meeting.
Choosing a Rehab Program for a Child or Teen
In the past, teenagers who needed substance abuse treatment had to enroll in the same rehab programs as older adults, with no special consideration for their stage of development. Today, substance abuse treatment professionals recognize that young people have special needs when it comes to rehab and recovery. While some children may require the intensive supervision of a 24-hour residential treatment facility, others may need to stay close to their parents by participating in outpatient recovery services or a partial hospitalization program. Academic obligations, job responsibilities, and extracurricular activities must also be taken into account. In choosing a rehab program, parents must consider not only the location, the length of treatment, and the availability of insurance coverage, but also the following factors:
Academic support: A long-term residential rehab program can present a significant interruption to a child’s education. To ensure that young clients continue to make academic progress, many programs directed at teens now offer continuing education or tutoring, so kids don’t get left behind.
Peer group activities: In the middle school and high school years in particular, teenagers are highly sensitive to the opinions of their peers. A rehab program for teenagers should place a strong emphasis on group therapy and recreational activities, where teens can establish friendships with other kids in recovery, sharing their strengths and coping skills.
Mental health services: Children who display signs of a co-occurring disorder, such as depression, ADHD, or generalized anxiety, need a program that offers treatment for psychiatric conditions or learning disorders as well as substance abuse.
Gender specificity: Many teens can benefit from a program that offers separate facilities or classes for males and females. In gender-specific support groups, kids can discuss sensitive issues like sexuality, assault, or teen pregnancy more openly. Gender-specific housing allows for personal privacy and makes it easier to focus on recovery activities without the social distractions of dealing with the opposite sex.
Alumni services: Comprehensive recovery programs include continued support for young clients who have finished a rehab program as well as their families. These alumni activities may include family weekends, workshops, volunteer activities, camping trips, picnics, or membership in private social media groups. Parents should feel welcome to participate and to seek help or resources from their treatment providers in the months that follow rehab.
Recreational and experiential therapies: Most young people need high levels of physical activity and creative self-expression in order to redirect their energies during rehab. Recreational therapies, organized exercise programs, and experiential therapies can be extremely helpful to young clients who need a physical outlet for the emotional challenges of therapy. Programs like equine-assisted therapy, wilderness activities, art therapy, and music therapy can provide these outlets, while teaching important coping strategies and social skills.
Supporting a Child in Rehab
Whether the family chooses a residential treatment center or an outpatient program for a child, parents and other family members must be committed to supporting the child in recovery.
This support can take many forms, including:
- Attending family therapy sessions, both as a group and as individuals
- Expressing positive attitudes toward rehab and recovery
- Removing intoxicants, including alcohol, illegal drugs, and prescription or potentially addictive over-the-counter medicines, from the home
- Addressing substance abuse issues that the parents may have
- Participating in marriage or couples counseling to strengthen bonds between partners
Just as addiction must be considered a family disease, recovery must be treated as a family process in order to be productive. Parents must actively take part in therapy sessions, educational programs, and support groups if they are to create a home environment that sustains long-term sobriety. The purpose of family therapy in rehab is not to vilify a child’s caregivers or to criticize their parenting skills, but to accomplish specific goals.
- Improving communication skills
- Reestablishing trust between family members
- Strengthening personal boundaries
- Setting goals and expectations for life after rehab
- Preventing relapse and sustaining long-term sobriety
Ultimately, the point of therapy is to create a stronger family unit and a healthier home environment. Everyone in the household can benefit from working with a licensed counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist who specializes in helping families recover from the disease of addiction.
Caring for the Rest of the Family
To be strong caregivers, parents must be emotionally and physically healthy. Therapy must address the psychological needs of the parents as well as the children. In addition to attending counseling sessions, parents or guardians must develop a self-care program that includes a healthy diet, regular physical exercise, adequate sleep, and activities that promote stress management. This focus on the caregiver’s needs is not self-indulgence; it’s a necessary form of personal care that helps prevent resentment, emotional exhaustion, and codependent behavior.
The brothers and sisters of the child in rehab also need therapeutic support and validation of their feelings. The child with the substance use disorder may be perceived as “getting all the attention,” even though most of that attention is negative. The other children in the home may feel that they are less important than the child in rehab or that their parents care more about that child’s wellbeing. It is not uncommon for the siblings of a child in recovery to start acting out or experimenting with drugs and alcohol in order to get the attention they feel has been denied them. Family therapy sessions must address the needs of those children as well as the child who is the focus of the home’s recovery.
Caring for a Family after RehabThe work of recovery does not end with rehab; in fact, in many ways, this process is just beginning. Although the family may feel stronger than before, the disease of addiction always includes the potential for relapse. Parents must be aware that if a child does turn back to drinking or using drugs, it’s not because they lack self-control or because rehab failed, but because addiction is a chronic condition that requires lifelong symptom management. Just as a child with diabetes requires continuous monitoring of diet and blood sugar levels, a child with a substance use disorder needs an ongoing maintenance program to reduce cravings for the substance of abuse and to reinforce coping skills.
In a similar way, parents need ongoing support in order to maintain the benefits of rehab. The core components of a rehab program include therapeutic services and support resources for the child and their caregivers after the program ends. The parents, legal guardians, and other concerned loved ones of a child in rehab must feel that they have a treatment team to help them in the event of a relapse or family crisis.
In addition, help is available from a wide range of community-based sources, such as:
- 12-Step programs (Al-Anon, Narc-Anon, and Alateen)
- Churches, synagogues, and other spiritual centers
- Addiction support groups
- School counseling programs
- Family counseling centers
One of the primary gifts of rehab is to teach families that they do not have to feel alone when they are faced with the challenges of addiction. If you have been trying to cope with a child’s drinking or drug use alone, it’s crucial to reach out to others for support before the problem begins to feel unmanageable.
Whether a child has just begun to experiment with alcohol or drugs, or whether they are in the later stages of addiction, it’s never the wrong time to seek help.
Al-Anon Family Groups: Parents, friends, and other family members of addicted kids can find support and strength at 12-Step groups like Al-Anon and Alateen. This website provides links and resources that can help parents connect with these groups online or in their community.
Marijuana Myths and Facts: With the legalization of marijuana and its widespread medicinal use, the acceptance of this drug is growing among kids. This online brochure from the Office of National Drug Control Policy highlights the dangers of marijuana use, including its addictive potential and long-term side effects.
National Alliance on Mental Illness: Family Guide to Adolescent Depression: Depression is not just a phase that all teenagers experience; it is a serious clinical disorder that requires professional treatment. Alcohol and drug abuse are more common among depressed kids than among the rest of the teenage population. This guide from NAMI can help parents identify the signs of depression and find the right type of treatment for their teen.
Parent Talk Kit: Tips for Talking and What to Say to Prevent Drug and Alcohol Abuse: This valuable guide from the Medicine Abuse Project can help parents approach their kids in a compassionate, nonjudgmental way when addressing the problem of illegal drug abuse, alcohol abuse, or misuse of over-the-counter and prescription medications.
Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL): This Christian-run support program was started in 2006 to help the parents and other family members of people with substance use disorders work through the challenges of living with an addicted loved one.
Principles of Substance Abuse Prevention for Early Childhood: It’s never too early in a child’s life to start the process of drug abuse prevention. This online guide from the National Institute on Drug Abuse offers information on risk factors for substance abuse, early intervention, and support services for younger children (up to 8 years old) and their parents.
Seminole Prevention Coalition Education Resources: A toolkit of online resources to alert and educate parents about the dangers of substance abuse, with a special emphasis on how to prevent prescription drug addiction.
Warning Signs of Adolescent Substance Abuse: This guide from Youth.gov discusses the red flags of substance abuse that are unique to teenagers and provides helpful links to treatment resources.