Help & Support Guide for Parents of Addicts Part II: Intervening
Intervening in a Child’s Substance Abuse
When 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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 Rehab
The 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.
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.