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These 4 Addiction Experts Have Advice Every Parent of an Addicted Teen Needs to Hear


What do you do when your teen child is addicted to drugs?

That’s exactly the question I asked these 4 addiction experts. Learn from the best and the brightest in the addiction treatment industry, and hear from a variety of perspectives, as we dive deeper in to the issue of teen addiction.

Denise Connelly, LCSW-C, MAC, CAC-AD at The Retreat at Sheppard Pratt

Being the parent of a teen with a substance abuse problem is challenging to say the least. The personality and behavior changes that occur make your child seem like a stranger. Tough love, and allowing natural consequences to occur are necessary when dealing with a substance abuser. Entering treatment is a natural consequence for someone abusing substances, and mandating treatment for continued emotional and financial support is good leverage for parents.

Know that treatment works and recovery is possible. Searching for a treatment center, however, can be overwhelming. Recommendations can be obtained from friends and family. Primary care physicians may be able to recommend a treatment center, and sometimes help with the admission process. Insurance companies can be contacted for a list of treatment centers in network. In addition, treatment centers that accept insurance are adept at obtaining benefits for out of state and/or out of network providers. Local health departments, core service agencies and/or local addictions authorities can be a source for recommendations.

Searching the internet will provide a list of local and national treatment centers.

I recommend using SAMHSA’s Treatment Locator at www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov because it offers a number of filters for narrowing the search. Some treatment centers offer a “young adult” track that focuses on issues unique to their age group.

After treatment, the best way to be supportive through the recovery process is to become educated about the disease of addiction and recovery. Addiction is a family disease, so family members should seek their own recovery. Nar-Anon and Al-Anon are self-help organizations for family members of those who suffer with addiction and alcoholism. Some treatment centers offer family education programs and there are numerous books and online resources for education and support…

Another way to be supportive is to maintain a “sober home.” Get rid of, or lock up, all alcoholic beverages.. Keep all prescription medications, especially opiate, benzodiazepine, barbiturates, and stimulants secure. Properly dispose of medications that you are no longer using. If possible, do not drink or use substances around the person in early recovery. Minimizing the availability of drugs and alcohol in the home reduces the probability of an impulsive relapse.

Finally, recovery is a process, not an event.. Know that relapse is a possibility and that many people experience the need for multiple treatment encounters which may include inpatient, outpatient, and self-help groups. These are not a sign of failure, but an example of the recovery process. This is why it is crucial for each family member to have their own recovery. Think of recovery as a journey. Stay on the path because there are benefits that expand beyond anything that can be imagined when taking those initial terrifying steps into treatment.

Beverly Sartain, M.A., CADCII Recovery Mindset Coach and owner at Recovery Life Management

“I was someone who suffered from a lack of self-worth as a teenager and into adulthood. My lack of worthiness manifested through many maladaptive behaviors, particularly substance abuse.

I perceived my worth through accomplishments. Therefore, others thought I was doing great when I really I was deeply depressed and anxious. During that time, I would have loved to been taught how to love myself unconditionally.

Parents have the opportunity to be the demonstration of healthy behaviors and talk through self-love with their teenager so that their child starts to learn and practice healthy tools that will sustain them into adulthood.”

Jane Hammerslough, LMFT, Family Therapist, and author

One of the most important things parents can do to help teens struggling with addiction is to check in with their own feelings and patterns of behavior surrounding the situation. They may feel shame, self-blame, anger or sadness—or all of the above.

But they may behave in defensive ways that aren’t constructive to helping their children get better—or helping themselves heal. Processing these feelings and developing compassion both for their own experiences and those of their children can help parents become less “reactive” and develop more conscious and constructive ways of being supportive.

Tina Muller, LCSW, LADC, Family Wellness Manager at Mountainside Treatment Center

In working with parents to help an addicted teen, I recommend implementing a boundary-setting approach. What does that look like?

First, I encourage parents to ask themselves:

What do I need to do in order to support my own self-care and help my addicted child?

What do I need to achieve in order to feel safe in my environment?

Once those questions are answered, you can approach your addicted child in a softer way. Instead of declaring, “If you continue to use you can’t live in this house,” you reframe it as, “I don’t feel comfortable with you using drugs and alcohol, and I want this to be a safe and sober home. What can I do to help you stop using or support your recovery?” It’s a gentler approach that might encourage more openness between parent and child. Being “tough” with your child doesn’t necessarily mean they will obey your requests; they might, in fact, react more angrily or rebelliously.

I also encourage parents to help their child identify what they are doing well, and uncover what they enjoy about being sober. It puts the situation into a lens that separates what is working for them and what is not, what makes them happy and what doesn’t bring them joy… and then together you emphasize those things that are working and bringing positive emotions and behaviors. It’s a strength-based approach. The “do this or else” threat isn’t effective. But utilizing strength-emphasis and examining what your child needs to come up with a recovery plan, is.

What are some other important ways that parents can support their addicted teens?

Parents should continuously ask themselves the question:does this support recovery for my child? Parents should frame their interactions with their children and the actions they take in their day to day life through that lens.

Being open with your children and assuring them that you want to support them and help them. Establishing open lines of communication is key, as is letting your child know that he or she can come to you to talk and feel totally comfortable doing so.

Being involved in some way with their activities and day-to-day life. Through this you can help your child identify what they value – in life, in friendships; help them identify what their long- and short-term goals are, and discuss how you can help them achieve those goals.

Setting up proper expectations. If parents are helping their child get sober, they need to model that behavior as well. Keep alcohol or drugs out of the house – show your child that you live a healthy, positive and active lifestyle so they have something to look to. Also, allowing your children to know what YOU value (beyond sobriety) so that your children are encouraged to adapt to some of those values (think: hard work, honesty, integrity).

Actually getting children to counseling or rehabilitation can be difficult, but necessary, in some cases. It needs to come from a place of love and support, not an ultimatum. So instead of saying, “You need to go to rehab immediately or you’re cut off,” you can gently say, “I see you’re struggling, here are some resources, let’s look at them together and see how they can be helpful.”

It’s also important to point out that the more your child or teen can think that seeking treatment is coming from their own decision, the more likely they will follow through with it and have success with the programming. Nobody wants to be forced to do something against their will. Try to put the decision-making process into their own hands by asking them what is working their life right now and what is not. You can even present some treatment options to your teen – but frame it as asking them what they want to do in order to get where they want to be in life. In doing this you are giving them the power to make their own choices.

In some cases, this gentle approach doesn’t work, but we still recommend trying it first. You can always add more firmness to the boundaries you set, though still showing them constant love and support. To add that “firmness,” you can let your child know that you’re fearful for them, and communicate what you expect them to do (go to school each day, not using the car if they’re using drugs or alcohol, etc.).