When a parent finds out that their loved one is abusing substances, they are often flooded with feelings of helplessness, overwhelm, fear, embarrassment and anger. Parents usually feel unprepared to navigate the challenges of helping an adolescent who is abusing substances. Often, there is little support within communities and families to openly discuss the challenges with substance abuse, which leads to isolation and feelings of powerlessness. These feelings are normal and expected. The first step in seeking help for your loved one is to speak to a professional with experience in dealing with substance abuse.
Teens abusing substances are more likely to be struggling with additional mental health issues like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and eating and learning disorders. In addition, they are also navigating relational challenges with peers such as making and ending relationships, sexuality, and bullying. The developmental changes they are undergoing are as significant as the first 5 years of life. Adolescents struggle with decision-making, understanding consequences, impulse control and critical problem solving because the pre-frontal cortex is going through the process of maturation. The brain is under construction. When substances are introduced and used on a regular basis, it may influence the stages of adolescent social and emotional development. The substances they use can impact their ability to regulate emotion and can impair decision-making. The paradox is that the same substances can also help manage their intense emotions by numbing them out.
Here are some tools you may want to consider if your loved one is abusing substances.
- Start where you are.
Begin gaining knowledge about substance use and developing your own coping strategies (managing your emotions and building a support network), and building tolerance to handle distress (having patience with your adolescent as you learn to look after yourself and strategies to help your child) (Foote, 2014).
- Learn skills to help your child’s change process to decrease or stop substance abuse whether they go to treatment or not by:
- Managing your own emotions and teaching your child to manage their emotions (e.g. anger, fear).
- Communication skills: listening, validating and empathizing, using open questions, reflecting, affirming, asking permission to provide feedback, providing options, avoiding conversational traps, etc….
- Setting limits and boundaries with realistic expectations and allowing natural consequences to occur (e.g. failed grades, a cold supper, and missed social events).
- Utilizing rewards and positive reinforcements. Your love matters. The best reward is attuning and attending to what your child is doing well, even if it seems insignificant to you.
- Meeting your child where they are. Change is slow and hard, and substances are powerful. Start empathizing. Invite change rather than demand it. Stop arguing and fighting. Criticism is counterproductive to the discussion a parent wants to have with their child.
(Adapted from Foote, 2014).
- Practice! Practice! Practice! Experiment and learn. Developing your coping skills requires patience and time.
Remember, you are not alone! There are people who understand what you and your loved ones are experiencing. Reduce your isolation by building a community of support for you and your loved ones. This may involve reaching out for professional help with someone who specializes in substance abuse, talking to your family doctor, attending self-help groups such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, or Parent’s Lifeline of Eastern Ontario, and involving friends and family members.
If you would like support and information on how to help your loved one reduce their use of substances, please feel free to contact me or Sandy Botham at Kanata Psychology and Counselling Center.
Foote, J. et al. (2014). Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change. Scribner: New York.
The Parent’s 20 minute guide: A guide for parents about how to help their children change their substances use. (2014). Center for Motivation and Change: New York.
-Written by Barbara Wendlowski, M.A. CCC, Registered Psychotherapist