The drug epidemic has afflicted young people in America for decades. There is no shortage of ideas on how to solve this problem. From “The War on Drugs” to the “Opioid Epidemic” there have been several campaigns started with the idea of stemming the overwhelming tide of drug abuse. While these approaches are always well intentioned they have done little to decrease drug abuse among young people. There is no magic cure for this problem. Medication may provide temporary relief but it does not change an addict’s thinking. Therapy can be helpful but the discovery of root causes does not motivate a young drug abuser to abstain from mind changing chemicals. Church attendance can lift an alcoholic’s spirits and provide a new perspective but sobriety is certainly not guaranteed. Changes in diet, more exercise, better sleep, and other physical changes are undoubtedly necessary but will not stop a young person from using. A fundamental tenet in any twelve step program is “First Things First.” In order to start the process of recovery an addict must become abstinent. This is the number one priority.
A Program of Attraction
A young addict or alcoholic uses or drinks because the chemical provides a desired effect. By the time drug or alcohol abuse become problematic the abuser knows there is something wrong. One of the primary reasons a person will not stop using is because he or she does not see a better alternative. From an outside perspective this looks insane. To the person who is using, it makes perfect sense. An addict is not concerned with “consequences” until these ramifications stand in the way of being able to get high. Drugs and alcohol affect a person physically, mentally, and spiritually. An addict must have these needs met.Fear is not a good motivator because most young drug abusers are numb to it. Sobriety has to be attractive and fun.
Young addicts and alcoholics wrestle with the temptation to use for a long time after they get sober. They are always aware that “relief” is available from their drug or drink of choice. It is imperative that they have a firm grasp on abstinence before beginning to dig into underlying issues. For young people, this process involves a combination of fun and inspiration. Enthusiastic sobriety opens the door to enjoying a life without drugs and alcohol. It also allows young people to begin coping with difficult issues in a safe and supportive environment.
No one wants to wake up one day and realize their son or daughter has a serious drug and/or alcohol problem. Most parents would rather be thinking about how to help their child navigate through more “normal” adolescent challenges. Unfortunately many families will run into this problem. An issue some parents struggle with is the recognition that priorities will have to temporarily change. The sooner a parent figures this out the smoother the recovery process will be for everyone.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Substance abuse recovery for young people is not “one size fits all.” Problems with drug and alcohol abuse among adolescents and young adults can range from periodic alcohol and marijuana use to severe opiate addiction. Some young people are relatively functional while others have no direction. What all young people have in common is that early sobriety is extremely difficult. The more a young person is able to focus on recovery in the beginning, the better. It is extremely important for parents to recognize that it may be necessary to temporarily shift priorities. The simplest example is with school.
This Is Not Forever
We are all conditioned to believe that if a certain level of education hasn’t been attained by a specified age that somehow the child and the parent have failed. Think about that for a minute. There are many things wrong with that perspective. That is not to say that education isn’t important. Obviously, it is critical to gain a worthwhile education. However, if a young person isn’t functioning emotionally it will be extremely difficult to learn, excel, or care. In fact there are some drug abusers who are able to do well in school primarily to keep people off their back. The point is that while a young person is learning to stay sober, his or her focus will not be on school. Once the newly sober person is stable his or her ability to care about work, school, and other aspects of a healthy life will change. It is vital to trust the recovery process. A couple of points to remember:
early recovery is difficult for everyone involved
once an addict is thinking clearly his/her priorities will change
this is temporary
Patience is difficult but in this case it is vital. Remember that building a strong foundation in early recovery sets the addict up for success in life.
Enabling is a word that has been used in drug and alcohol recovery circles for decades. It can be a term that is very misunderstood and misused. No loved one of an addict or alcoholic wants to be thought of as an “enabler.” To enable literally means to make something possible or easy. It can also mean to permit. An enabler is often believed to be complicit in the drug abuser’s self-destruction. The most common forms of enabling include: providing money to an active user, allowing an active addict/alcoholic to remain at home, paying for an addict/alcoholic’s legal costs, and other actions. Sometimes providing help in these ways is not enabling. How can one determine the difference?
Demonstrations of Love
The enabler will say that he or she is “just trying to help” or “what am I supposed to do, let him go broke or die?” It is never a question as to whether or not a parent or significant other loves the addict or alcoholic. The issue is always the demonstration of love. When most people think about “love” they are actually referring to sentiment. Love, as an action, is not always the easiest path to take. Sometimes love is best demonstrated through not accepting behavior that is harmful to one’s self or other people. When an active addict or alcoholic is allowed to avoid consequences of his or her behavior he or she is not being “loved.” This sounds harsh but consider the alternative. Someone actively using is not rational. His or her decisions are not made based on concern for self or others. The addict only wants to be left alone so he or she can continue to use. People are either a means to this end or are in the way. Until he or she is abstinent this way of thinking will not change.
Consider the Motives
There are some simple questions a loved one can ask when confused about whether or not a pattern of enabling is taking place:
is this going to help my loved one find sobriety?
am I doing this/providing this help because I feel guilty?
am I worried about what others will think?
am I doing this because it helps my loved one or because it will make me feel better?
These are not the only questions to ask but it is a beginning. Not every situation is the same. What one person does may be enabling while someone else does the exact same thing and it is not. There is no exact formula. Always seek the guidance of someone who is objective and has experience in this area. No loved one ever has to face these difficult decisions alone.
Substance abuse treatment for young people is full of different philosophies. New innovations come up on a regular basis. In spite of this constant pursuit of a better way, effective substance abusetreatment for young people usually comes back to some simple techniques. Problems surrounding substance abuse treatment for adolescents include:
a misunderstanding of the pressure young people feel
a lack of alternatives to the drug and alcohol subculture
failure to address the whole family
a lack of follow-up and aftercare
There is no perfect approach for all young people but there are some key elements a parent can look at regarding a program under consideration.
1. Who Is Being Served?
One issue often forgotten is that an adolescent does not think like an adult. An adult who has been abusing drugs and/or alcohol for several years has suffered a number of consequences . This person has to realize in a clear way the gravity of the problem and must have a depth of willingness to change that an adolescent isn’t capable of reaching. A young person needs to simply recognize the aspects of his life that have been directly harmed by drug/alcohol abuse.
2. What Is the Motivation
When reaching young people the carrot is almost always a better motivator than the stick. This isn’t to say that one must be permissive when counseling a teenager but a young person needs something to look forward to. Adults are often tricked into believing a substance abusing adolescent can be “scared straight.” Any young person abusing drugs and alcohol is desensitized to this kind of tactic. It never works.
3. It Better Be Real
One of the keys to helping teenagers with drug problems is to meet them where they are. When an adult tries to act like a teenager it comes off as non-authentic and condescending. Talk to a young person as a first class citizen. When seeking help make sure the counselor or therapist really understands adolescent substance abuse. It is very easy to mistake a drug and alcohol problem for a serious psychological disorder. If a young person is abusing drugs and alcohol the substance abuse issue has to be dealt with first.
Substance abuse allows a young person to feel accepted, provides a social outlet, and provides a coping mechanism. If recovery doesn’t involve an element of peer support, real social options, and better tools to deal with feelings the chances of it working are slim. Beware of anyone who promises quick vocational, educational, or disciplinarian solutions. Horses will not help a young person stay sober nor will massages, yoga, or diets. Recovery is not fast and easy.It takes time for an individual and a family to heal.
It is common for parents of kids with substance abuse problems to believe they are somehow at fault. These parents convince themselves that if certain circumstances were different, or if other decisions had been made, that somehow their child would not have a drug problem. It may be true that some parenting techniques or childhood events may have contributed to emotional factors that predispose someone to a drug or alcohol problem. However, when a young person chooses to use for the first time that decision is almost always motivated by peer acceptance and a desire to have fun.
Not What You Think
On a regular basis I challenge parents to think about their motivation to do certain things when they were teenagers. Whether they drank alcohol or used drugs is irrelevant; most young people find ways to rebel. Almost everyone who is asked admits that even though they may have been taking actions that would be construed as defiant, they weren’t thinking about their parents when deciding to cross the line. Not everyone who grows up in a difficult environment develops a substance abuse problem and not everyone with a substance abuse problem has reason to blame his or her family. I grew up with an alcoholic parent. I often explain to people that this was the greatest form of prevention I could have been exposed to. Living with an alcoholic is horrible. However, when a group of kids who I thought were cool gave me the opportunity, I drank. In spite of everything I knew about the consequences of alcohol abuse, I drank. This developed into a serious drug and alcohol problem for which I needed a lot of help.
Get Help For The Right Stuff
I understand why my parents felt guilty. In fact, I manipulated their emotions as a means to do whatever I wanted to do. But once they realized that my actions were my responsibility and let go of their guilt, recovery for me and for my family became possible. Their are certainly issues a parent needs to resolve. Any family scourged by substance abuse knows this. At the same time, there is no way to go back in time and fix past issues. Self-pity and remorse attached to past parenting blocks a person from being able to heal the relationship with the addict. There is no perfect parent and anyone can look back at the past and recognize all kinds of things that could have been done “better.” This awareness cannot change anything if the focus is not on building a better relationship today.
When there is an addict or alcoholic in the home all sense of peace is lost. Drugs, alcohol, and the emotional turmoil that comes with substance abuse take center stage. Family members either act as if nothing is happening or fly into irrational rages while desperately searching for something to control. By the time the drug abuser is discovered, in some ways it is already too late. Without intervention the problem will probably get worse. It is rare that an addict or alcoholic wakes up one day and suddenly decides to mend his ways. He may make promises along these lines but that is usually to avoid potential consequences, not because of a sudden change in heart. Loved ones are left confused and scared, having little awareness of where to turn. Parents of addicts need tools after their son or daughter enters recovery. Abstinence does not solve all the problems created by drug abuse. With the right help parents are able to become a part of the solution while healing emotionally.
By the time a young person enters treatment his or her parents have tried everything they can think of to stop the problem. It is not unusual for a family to start the recovery process armed with behavioral contracts so complicated that the most educated lawyer would have a difficult time interpreting its details. The failed attempts of behavioral control accomplish nothing more than contempt and alienation. It makes the parent crazy and has zero effect on a young drug abuser. Parents can make their lives much more manageable by taking the time to re-evaluate whatever rules are in place and let go of those that do not support recovery for the family. InBeyond the Yellow Brick Road, Bob Meehan illustrates this idea with the analogy of Six Shots In Your Gun.
Triage Ain’t Forever
A family affected by drug abuse is lost, scared, and desperate. There are a number of issues that need to be addressed. This takes time. Early on, sobriety is priority number one. Healing from the emotional pain and resentment comes next. At some point a “life direction” takes center stage. There has to be a process; no family is healed in 30, 45, 60, or 90 days. Everyone involved needs patience and understanding. Those who are willing to step back and take a longer view are usually rewarded with lasting recovery. People who struggle to let go of the idea that everything must be fixed and back on track within a set time frame will probably stay stuck. There has to be a plan of action. However, if the plan doesn’t involve poise and flexibility it will probably fail. Remember, it took time for the problem to worsen and it will take even more time for it to be repaired.
The second step in Enthusiastic Sobriety is: We found it necessary to stick with winners in order to grow. For young people in recovery, the reason for this statement to be an actual step is obvious. Young addicts and alcoholics are very peer driven. If they aren’t around other sober young people they are likely to use again. What isn’t as clear is the degree to which adults are affected by the opinions of other grown-ups. Some of the worst advice parents get on how to deal with a drug abusing child comes from other well intentioned parents.
Good Intention Is Not Necessarily Good Advice
Most people are very willing to give advice to parents who are struggling with a troubled child. This is especially true if the kid in question has a drug or alcohol problem. It seems that everyone has either experienced substance abuse issues or at least knows someone who has. These experiences can be helpful but are often a hindrance. When a family is in the midst of a crisis centered on drug abuse what they need most is sound guidance. Where counsel comes from is important. Emotionally driven anecdotal tips do little good. For a plan of action a parent should consult an expert. The combination of professional counsel and empathetic support from parents who have been in a similar situation lay the foundation for a solid program of recovery.
You Are Not Alone
Having a child struggling with drug and alcohol problems does not make a parent a failure. Asking for help can be extremely difficult. The fear of judgment or the idea that somehow you have caused the problem leads to despair and isolation. There are people who understand exactly how it feels to be in this situation. Those who have found recovery have a responsibility to share what they have done to get better. Parents in need of help don’t know where to turn. There is an endless supply of irrational recommendations available. Most people in search of help have been misguided at some point. Not everyone can be expected to understand what it is like to deal with a substance abuse issue. “Sticking with winners” is a powerful tool parents can use to find help and to not feel so crazy.