February 08, 2016 —
It’s hard to find a family that hasn’t been impacted by substance abuse in some way. And even though we know the prevalence of teenage substance use is high, denial is often stronger. “Not my teen,” we think. Or we minimize it: “Kids experiment. What’s a little beer or cough syrup?”
The problem is many kids aren’t just experimenting. I’ve counseled hundreds of addicts and every single one began as an experimenting tween or teen. Years ago when I was working at a shelter for homeless and runaway youth, I had a 15-year-old client tell me he was getting high on Triple C. I was used to kids telling me they were using weed, alcohol, even meth, but this was new to me at the time. It was cheap, easy to get and kept his mind off his problems. He came to see me because he thought he was “going crazy”. He’d experienced some hallucinations and confusion, most likely from huge quantities of this cold medicine. Ultimately, he wasn’t going crazy, but he was extremely depressed and causing harm to his body and mind due to cold medicine abuse. Cough and cold medicines containing the active ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM) are safe and effective when used according to labeling instructions, but can cause dangerous side effects including hallucinations.
So, what do you do when your teenager is abusing medicines or drugs?
- Trust your gut. If something seems “off” with your child, it probably is. Parents often get hung up on wanting to know what, how much, and why. Teenagers often lie to their parents, but teenagers who are abusing drugs or alcohol almost always lie to their parents. It’s an integral part of abuse; People will do whatever they have to do in order to keep using. You don’t need all the details and facts about their abuse before getting help.
- Manage your own feelings. Start by acknowledging that parenting is extremely stressful. You may be experiencing overwhelming feelings of anger, guilt, shame, sadness, or worry. I know it can be tempting to yell, bury yourself in work and drink or eat too much. However, these approaches aren't going to help you and certainly aren't modeling the kind of coping skills you want your teenager to use. If you need to vent, do so with someone other than your teenager.
- Don’t take it personally. Self-blame and hurt feelings can stand in the way of seeing things clearly. I want to assure you that if your child is using drugs or acting out, it doesn't mean you have a bad kid. And it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. Kids act out (including substance use and abuse) because they’re in pain. It's an unhealthy way to ask for help, but it’s a cry for help none the less. Try not to take the lies, disrespect and disobedience personally. They may feel like personal attacks, but in reality, are symptoms of a bigger problem.
- Seek help for yourself and your teenager. Abuse can affect the entire family. However, I often see parents label substance abuse as their child’s problem. They want their child in treatment, but see little need to participate in getting help themselves. If your child’s in treatment, I urge you to also get your own counseling or find a support group. These can provide education, support and break down stigma and shame. Communication with your partner is also very important, but you may find that he or she isn’t the best source of support. Sometimes a spouse is too close to the problem to be an objective, nonjudgmental listener.
- Find compassion for yourself and your child. I know that finding compassion when you’re hurting and angry is a tall order. However, compassion for your child is possible when you believe there is pain underneath his or her substance use. It doesn’t help to berate your child or shame and humiliate your teen by pointing out every little mistake he or she has made. It’s possible to hold your child accountable and be compassionate at the same time.
Self-compassion is possible when you recognize you are worthy as a person and as parent regardless of the mistakes you’ve made. Self-compassion can occur in the form of activities such as: exercise, prayer, therapy, seeing a friend, a quiet walk, savoring a cup of tea, or pursuing a hobby. It also means that you speak kindly to yourself, don't blame yourself and don’t compare yourself to other parents or other families.
A crisis like substance abuse is an opportunity for growth and change. Eventually, when things have stabilized a bit, you may find ways that your child's drug use can lead to healing for your child and family. You can't undo what's already happened. But you can choose to have this experience change you and your family for the better.
Sharon Martin, LCSW, is an emotional wellness speaker, writer and licensed psychotherapist. Her practice specializes in helping over-stressed, anxious teens and adults create balanced, peaceful lives. She has extensive experience working with substance abuse and trauma in teenagers through her work with runaways and juvenile offenders. Sharon is also a busy mom to two teenagers and a tween. Please visit her website for more information. You can also connect with Sharon on Facebook and Twitter.