The most important thing parents can do for their adolescent with a substance problem is to maintain a positive, warm and loving relationship with him or her because this is the most important tool parents have to shape their child’s values and future directions.
This doesn’t mean parents seek to become a buddy or a new best friend. It means consistent communication — both in word and deed — that parents love their children whether they’re using drugs or not using drugs, whether they succeed or fail, whether they are gay or straight, whether they are healthy or unhealthy, whether they’re making good grades or failing every course. We’re talking about unconditional love here — but that also doesn’t mean you have to be happy about, like or agree with all of the choices your child makes. It just means you love your child no matter what.
While maintaining communication, parents should monitor friends and whereabouts and create a drug-abuse-free home. They also must create boundaries and limits that provide guidance by communicating values and expectations. They must clarify absolutely nonnegotiable offenses.
All of these efforts to prevent drug use and addiction are also the steps that can be taken to prevent substance relapse — but let’s also consider the everyday decisions that actually make parents accomplices, or enablers, of their child’s drug use, often unwittingly. Before getting into the nitty-gritty, common sense tells us two things: negative consequences may result from poor decisions and behavior. Logical consequences help us learn, and they include embarrassments, scoldings, punishments, failures and hurts. When parents move to shield their children from reasonable negative consequences, they’re not only giving them a pass to continue making the same mistakes, but they’re also stymying their abilities to choose between right and wrong. Children must be allowed to make their own choices and to feel the gravity of them. That is just a part of growing up.
The treatment provider’s perspective: Father John Bonavitacola
“There is a real aversion to the idea of suffering in our culture in general and a general misunderstanding that some of the suffering we go through makes us better people,” said Father John Bonavitacola, whose church in Tempe, Ariz., offers significant support for families struggling with addiction. “We can learn something in those times and come through them stronger, kinder and more compassionate, more understanding and smarter. That’s a part of life. So don’t shield your child from every single negative consequence and pain.”
Love and permissiveness are not synonymous. Loving someone doesn’t mean you have to accept their misbehavior or agree with their actions. A parent’s love offers time, wisdom, personal conviction — and guidance through the establishment of limits and boundaries. Permissiveness accepts bad behavior. Parents are often afraid to impose limits because they fear making a problem worse. However, if they do nothing, chances are good the problem only will become more serious.
The treatment provider’s perspective: Frank Szachta and Amy Weiland
“Parents do their children a great disservice when they accept wrong behavior,” said Frank Szachta, director of the Cornerstone Program in south suburban Denver. “It’s important for parents to ask themselves what is motivating their permissiveness. Is it that they want to respect their child’s space? Do they fear their kids will perceive them as a tyrant who pushes views and values down their throats? Maybe they think kids should be able to do their own thing and make their own way in the world.
“All of those lines of thinking are common, and they’re approaches that definitely help kids grow up on their own, but they still don’t actually explain a parent’s permissiveness — or willingness to accept bad behavior. Permissiveness is instead motivated by three things in part or combination: parents want to be liked. Parents want to like themselves. And being a parent who stands up to wrong behavior and provides the guidance the child needs in a particular situation takes too much time and energy.”
“You have to parent, and parenting is hard,” said Amy Weiland, a substance abuse counselor at the Cornerstone Program in Missouri. “It means saying no. It means having your kid yell at you and call you a jerk. But that’s okay, because they’re testing boundaries and limits and deciding which side of them they want to be on. That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re teenagers and young adults.”
How parents enable their children’s drug use
Enabling is a difficult concept for many parents because practically all parents want to give their children good things. The problem is that sometimes parents give in a way that supports unhealthy behaviors. Parents in substance recovery often share the moments they first realized something about their actions enabled their child to continue using drugs. Among those pitfalls:
– They give their teen “lunch” money that gets used to buy drugs. Avoid giving teens more money than they need for a day or two — and know how their money is spent.
– They give computers and cell phones, which are used to connect with drug-using friends and drug sellers. Mobile communication is a privilege, not a right. Adolescents should earn access to mobile technology through good behavior, which includes not using substances.
– They leave town, and their teen throws a party in their home. It is a good idea to avoid leaving your adolescent — especially when he or he is early in sobriety — without a chaperone.
– They allow their teen to spend too much time that is unaccounted for. Prosocial activities — such as sports teams, after-school clubs, social causes and volunteer organizations — help your child build confidence and skills, make friends and spend time focused on something other than drug use.
– They take their teen out of treatment early because the teen complains about it. We’re not talking about suspected cases of malpractice. We’re talking about the kind of complaining many adolescents use to wear down their parents until they get what they want.
– They allow teens to use or keep drugs in the house.
– They keep alcohol and other drugs in the house. “If my son has an allergic reaction to strawberries or peanuts, I’m going to lear my house of those foods right down to the pictures of them on the wall,” said Mike Weiland, who works alongside his wife at the Cornerstone Program in suburban St. Louis. “I am strong about this one. This is a show of solidarity with a child who needs a parent to protect them, not confront them every day with temptation.”
– They pay for expensive lawyers to get their children out of trouble. There is time and place for paying for lawyers and springing for bail — but parents also need to ask themselves if they are doing so in a way that enables continued substance use and criminal behavior, such as drug dealing, driving under the influence, stealing or vandalism.
– They pay for a car used to go to parties, buy substances and hang out with friends who are using substances. Parents should periodically monitor their child’s vehicle and limit access to it until their adolescent has earned the trust required to use it.
– They make excuses for their children when they know they’re making excuses.
– They gauge too much according to school performance — or general performance. “As long as our daughter was making good grades, we thought we had no reason to ask about drug use,” said Rino S., a Colorado father who is helping his daughter in early-stage recovery. “Boy, that was a big lesson. Good grades ultimately mean nothing if your child has a drug addiction. I can now see how people with drug problems tell themselves their drug use is okay as long as they’re a good student or they’re fine at work.”
– They permit the consumption of drug-glorifying media. Yes, media are practically everywhere, but we’re not powerless to reject them. We can say no to music, movies, software applications, publications, television and any other programming that promotes drug use. Parents can certainly prohibit these media from entering their home — and enforce consequences when their rules are broken.
This post is adapted from the book, Clearing the Haze: Helping Families Face Teen Addiction. It is available for sale online here.