If coping with a personal drug addiction is tough, learning that your child is addicted can be terrifying. Your first impulse may be to ignore the signs and hope the problem is “just a phase.” Or your first impulse may be to apply a heavy hand, giving your child a “how dare you” lecture ending with “don’t ever let me hear of you touching drugs again.” Unfortunately, both impulses rank high on the list of approaches likely to make things worse instead of better. If you have a drug-addicted teen, here’s what to do instead …
Before you Confront your Child, Confront Yourself
… and be honest about any role you may have played in enabling the addiction to gain a foothold.
No, I’m not suggesting it’s “all your fault,” so calm any defensive reactions to the “confront yourself” idea. Don’t let guilt swallow you alive, either: neither throwing all the blame at your child nor taking it all on yourself will be much help to anybody. What you need to do is ask yourself these honest questions:
- Have you been a parent who’s impossible to talk to—either constantly preoccupied, or reacting to every hint of trouble with anger or a deluge of free advice? If kids don’t feel you trust and listen to them under normal circumstances, they won’t trust you—or your advice—in tough situations.
- Are you setting impossibly high standards for your children (or yourself) and making a big deal over minor mistakes? If kids don’t feel they have “permission to fail” at anything, they’ll be afraid to confess their mistakes and more prone to seek chemical stress relief.
- Is there any chance you yourself may have an addiction, or at least a problem with seeking chemical relief too easily? It doesn’t matter if your substance of choice is legal or hasn’t noticeably affected your everyday functioning: if you feel you “need” a drink or pill to cope with everyday stresses, you’re toying with trouble—and reinforcing by example the idea that life is too difficult to handle by healthy means.
Even if you can honestly answer “no” to all the above, you’ll have a start on being ready to face tough facts and make hard changes, both of which are inevitable aspects of dealing with addiction in the family. And if you have to answer “yes” to anything, you’ll actually be better prepared to confront the problem once you’ve been honest with yourself. (If there’s any room for your child to argue “But you drink all the time,” or “You never cared what I did anyway,” be assured you will hear these responses. Better to be prepared for them in advance than to be caught off guard with only defensiveness to fall back on.)
Note: If you have to admit that you, personally, need alcohol detox, cocaine detox, benzodiazepine detox or any type of illegal or prescription drug addiction treatment, get immediate professional advice on dealing with the special challenges your family will face. Especially if you’re a single parent short on support from responsible and sober fellow adults, handling your own problem and helping your child will require extra resources.
Put Yourself in Your Child’s Shoes
One reason not to demand that your child “just stop” is that it could lead to an improperly managed—and dangerous—detox attempt. Another reason is that it will increase “nobody understands my problems” stress, which only encourages further retreat into addiction. Try to understand that in this situation, cutting out drugs means more than breaking a bad habit: it means giving up a close “friend,” making major lifestyle changes, and going through physical and emotional hell along the way. If you’ve never had a detox experience of your own, think about how anything-but-easy it was last time you had to change jobs, move, lose weight or give up a favorite food on doctor’s orders.
What to Do If Your Drug-Addicted Teen Needs Detox
If your child needs detox, look for a center that has a good reputation, has a specialty or subspecialty in treating adolescents and, when possible, is conveniently located.
If your child has a serious addiction, don’t even think about letting your child detox at home: any withdrawal can have potentially lethal effects or cloud the mind to the point of life-threatening actions. In some cases, a person may need benzodiazepine or alcohol detox drugs—the kind available only by medical prescription—just to keep withdrawal effects from turning fatal. At best, your child won’t get the long rest and follow-up therapy important to staying sober.
It’s a good idea to allow your kid some say in the final decision, but it’s even better to have one or two options in mind (investigate them personally in advance) before broaching the subject. The more immediately you can have your child treated after the initial conversation, the better.
What if Your Child Fights Treatment?
If your child fights the idea of detox treatment, exert your parental authority, but not in an authoritarian fashion.
Yes, you have a right to say “you’re going whether you like it or not” if it comes to that. But you’re not likely to influence your child toward long-term sobriety by adopting an “I’m the boss and I don’t care what you want” approach. Be a kind-but-firm mentor who’s more concerned for your child’s best interests than for your own convenience or reputation. Stay calm yourself; letting emotions take over increases the chance you’ll do or say something to make things worse.
Learn to Be a Good Listener
It’s important to listen to your child — during the initial confrontation/intervention, whenever you and your child have contact during the detox treatment, and during long-term family therapy.
The first rule of resolving a tough situation in any relationship: no matter how wrong you think the other party is, give an empathetic ear to their side of the story—and remember, there are things you don’t know.
Don’t be too proud to see when the situation calls for apologizing or even making major changes in your own habits. At the very least, just helping your child feel understood will create a major influence toward staying sober for the long term.
Support your Child Throughout Long-term Recovery
Attend therapy and support groups as a family. Stay ready to offer a sympathetic ear, especially in times of temptation or discouragement. Do whatever it takes to help your child make sobriety-friendly lifestyle changes, even if it means moving, changing your job or giving away your favorite wine cabinet.
A quick P. S.: Even if addiction isn’t currently a problem in your family, but you think your child may have a problem, stay informed. Knowledge is still your first and best defense!