It can be difficult to know what to say or do when someone has experienced a loss. It is a delicate subject to approach since we do not want to say the wrong thing or come off as intruding or prying towards someone who is grieving. We don’t want to add to anyone’s pain, so sometimes we go back and forth between being present and supportive, to taking a step back and giving a person their space to cope. Both of these can be beneficial for the other person, but our uncertainty about how to respond can make us feel unhelpful or that we are adding to their pain. When it comes to offering support, however, being present and available to help or spending time with them can be healing.
What else can we do to be supportive during this difficult time? Here are a few practical ideas of how to help a friend or family member who is grieving:
- Know what “normal” grief is and how to respond – check out my last article for a primer
- Know that there is no one right way to grieve, every response and emotion is valid; people who are grieving may feel relief, guilt, anger, emptiness, sadness, etc. These emotions may be intense or extreme or they may be more mild. Be prepared for any reaction, and know that the reaction isn’t about you, it’s a response to pain.
- There is no timeline or linear process to grief; each grief process is unique. People will cope in whatever way feels right for them and will take as long as they need.
- Expressing support
- Be empathetic by acknowledging the bereaved individual’s feelings (e.g. I can’t imagine how difficult this must be for you). Showing acceptance and support of their emotions, whether it’s anger, sadness, or otherwise, can provide a safe space for the person to experience their emotions openly.
- Give them space to tell their story. The person may want to discuss the details of their loss repeatedly or in detail as a way to come to terms with what has happened.
- Reach out to the person who is grieving whether it be through a phone call or an in-person visit. Remember them as time goes on and check in. Many times, people respond immediately and then support fades quickly.
- Avoid saying things like: “Everything happens for a reason”, “They’re in a better place”, “At least…”, “It’s time to move on”, “I know how you feel”, “You can always have another child/get another job/get remarried”, “Time heals all wounds.” Avoid finding a silver lining to the loss or trying to fix what’s happened.
- Instead, say things like: “I’m here for you.”, “I don’t know what to say, but I care.”, “I’ll call you/visit in a few days.”, “What can I do?”, “I can’t imagine what you must be going through.”
- Saying nothing and just listen. It’s okay to listen or just be present with the other person. Sometimes there’s nothing at all that we can And certainly, whatever we say is unlikely to make the situation better.
- Providing practical support can be very helpful, such as offering to:
- Help with arrangements related to the loss, such as funeral arrangements, packing, finding a new place to live, etc.
- Complete household chores or run errands
- Cook or drop off meals in non-reusable containers so they don’t have to worry about washing your dishes and getting them back to you
- Watch their children or pets if needed, giving them time for themselves
- Help with insurance or other paperwork
- Answer or make phones calls or for them
- Take them out for a meal or a movie
- Watch for signs of depressed feelings or complicated grief
- We’ll take as long as we need to cope with our loss, but we do need to eventually come to terms with what has happened. Over time, we’ll adjust to a new normal and be able to move forward. However, sometimes we don’t move on and get stuck, which is called complicated grief which involves:
- Being unable to move on from the loss
- Being unable to carry out daily routines
- Isolating ourselves
- Having feelings of intense loneliness, numbness, or sorrow
- Wishing to be dead with the loved one who has passed
Depression can also occur and is often a part of complicated grief. The challenge with depression and complicated grief is they can be hard to tease apart, and often co-exist. Both can come in waves, or be constant companions.
If you’re noticing a complexity in the grief of a loved one, or signs of depression, then it’s best to encourage your loved one to seek out mental health support such as counselling. This can provide a space for emotions and thoughts related to the loss to be processed and allow for healing to occur. It can also provide an invaluable resource for depression and trauma screening by experienced professionals who can direct care most appropriately.
A loss isn’t something that can be fixed or repaired; it is something that has to be lived with. The pain cannot be taken away, so instead, we can help others by sitting with them in their pain. It is okay not to know what to say or how to help; if we can show up, listen, and be present, then that’s enough, and is valuable!
Complications of Grief. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/aa129291
Grief and Loss Resources. (2017). Retrieved from https://livingthroughloss.ca/
Helping Someone Who’s Grieving. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/helping-someone-who-is-grieving.htm
In my previous blog post, I talked a bit about what social anxiety is and the many strengths that people prone to social anxiety often show. I recommend reading that post first, but as a little re-cap, people who develop social anxiety are often highly compassionate, conscientious and creative. They tend to feel deeply which can either lead to anxiety or an ability to creatively explore their world with curiosity. What often stands in the way of the ability to creatively explore their world is an intense fear that they are not good enough. If you’re struggling with social anxiety, I’d like to offer some strategies to move past that fear while maintaining your many strengths!
How to Hold on to the Good Traits of Social Anxiety and Work Towards Growth
Get out of your own head and turn your attention outward
When we feel socially anxious, we tend to turn inward and start monitoring ourselves. Thoughts like “why did I just say that,” or “what if I just offended her,” circle around and around in our heads and take up all of our mental energy so we often then freeze and can’t think of anything to say.
When you notice this happening, turn your attention outward. Focus on who you’re talking to and listen closely to what they’re saying. This takes our focus away from what we think we’ve done wrong and frees up our mental capacity to be able to engage in the conversation with natural curiosity. Studies show that doing this dramatically increases a person’s likability, and also combats our fears.
Expose yourself to social situations and allow confidence to catch up with you
Don’t wait until you feel ready to give that toast or attend that party! Usually, when we start doing something, our mood follows – you’re more adaptable than you think. If it doesn’t go well the first time, keep practicing. If you persevere, the skill and confidence will catch up with you.
This allows you to refute the two lies your anxiety is telling you:
- The worst-case scenario will definitely happen
- You can’t handle what life throws at you
When we face social fears, we learn that we can live through it and it’s never as bad as we think.
tip: sign up for an introductory improv class. In improv, there is no script and you’re put in a situation where you’re forced to make mistakes in front of others. Sounds terrifying right? I thought so too so I tried it at the height of my social anxiety and it ended up being surprisingly safe. At first, it was embarrassing but then I realized everyone was being embarrassed too. Improv helps us to develop the skills to navigate unstructured social situations that cause anxiety in the real world.
If you drink at a social engagement, do it because you want to, not because you have to
A lot of people drink to make themselves feel more confident in social engagements; after all, it is called “liquid courage.” The problem is that if you do have a good time while drinking, the tendency is to give the alcohol the credit, not you. In reality, that person who was having a good time navigating an otherwise anxiety-provoking situation was you without inhibition. You have that confidence within yourself and you can access it with practice; in facing your fears, you don’t need the alcohol.
Dare to Be Average (Dr. David Burns)
A lot of anxiety comes from our belief that we need to be perfect in social situations. We believe that if we stumble over our words or pause in a conversation, people will see our flaws and reject us. There’s a whole list of “musts” that come with that belief:
“I must be entertaining”
“I must sound smart”
“I must carry the conversation for both of us”
Everyone pauses in conversations, loses their train of thought and says something awkward from time to time; it makes us human and it’s endearing. Dr. David Burns encourages us to “dare to be average.” He reminds us that people are attracted to people who own their averageness because most of us are average. It’s relatable, it’s honest and it’s human. As Dr. Kristin Neff says, “we’re all on this long, awkward journey together.” If you’ve experienced an embarrassing moment, a million other people have had that same embarrassing moment – you’re not alone.
Create a structure for yourself in social engagements
Simon Thompson and Ronald M. Rapee (2002) found that in structured social interactions, people with social anxiety showed a much higher level of social skill than in unstructured social engagements. Dealing with the unpredictable creates anxiety for many people so next time you’re in an anxiety-provoking social setting, create a structure for yourself. Dr. Hendricks suggests giving yourself little missions at parties such as taking to 3 people you don’t know and finding out as much as you can about them. This creates some predictability and some direction in the social interaction.
Dr. Hendrickson’s Tips for Making New friendships
a) Repetition – Show up!
It takes an average of 6 hangouts for someone to consider a person a friend. Many people with social anxiety become discouraged when they work up the courage to go to a social engagement and don’t come away with a new friend. But in reality, this almost never happens for anyone. The way to make new friends is to keep showing up and to see the same people over and over again. Some options might be joining a fitness class with consistent members, dropping the kids off at school and saying hello to the same parents each day or going to a café at the same time each day.
Many people with social anxiety have trouble talking about themselves for a variety of reasons that may feel really valid after past hurts. Dr. Hendrickson urges us to push through and to gradually share a bit about what you think, feel and do with a person you want to be friends with. Friendships are reciprocal, so gradually the other person will begin to share about themselves as well. People are generally interested in what the world looks like from another’s point of view.
c) Just be kind
Many people think they need to appear confident and competent in order to make friends. In reality, people are drawn to warmth, kindness and trustworthiness. You don’t have to appear confident, just be nice and curious.
Shame feeds social anxiety, but if you can think about yourself in the same way you’d think about another person you care about, it will help you to forgive yourself when you make a social blunder that feels so painful and isolating. Dr. Kristin Neff has an amazing website full of free exercises to help build self-compassion. My favourite is the self-compassion break which is a guided mindfulness exercise that takes only 5 minutes.
Find the exercises here: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises
Social anxiety can be completely unbearable and painful and so it can be hard to take any of the above steps on your own. A counsellor can help work with you, at a pace that feels safe for you, to remove the blocks of shame and fear that are inhibiting you from living the life you want to live. If you’re struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a counsellor who can help you with this. You’re too important to deprive the world of getting to know you!
Burns, D. D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: New York.
Hendrickson, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. St. Martin’s Press: New York.
Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What Is the Core Fear in Social Phobia? A New Model to Facilitate Individualized Case Conceptualization and Treatment. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 16, 123-124. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/sites/ca.psychology/files/uploads/files/moscovitch_2009.pdf
Neff, K. (2018). Self Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/
Richards, T. A. (2018). What is social anxiety? Social Anxiety Institute. Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety
Thompson, S., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). The effect of situational structure on the social performance of socially anxious and non-anxious participants. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33(2), 91-102. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7916(02)00021-6 ·
It’s that time of year again; the time of year where summer ends, and kids are going back to school. I find that this time of year brings one of two primary reactions from parents:
“Hallelujah! They’re back in school and I can finally get things done around the house or at work again!”
“Oh no, my babies are gone back to school! Are they going to be ok? How are they going to survive? What if they [insert any number of parental fears here]….”
Sometimes I wonder who has more anxiety during the return to school period – the kids, or the parents? Counselling for children during this time period can be very helpful, as can counselling for parents. What else is helpful as we prepare our kids for school?
One thing that’s clear, both in my personal experience (clinically, and with my own kids) is that our own emotional climate has a great effect on our kids’ emotional well-being as they return to school. If we are feeling anxious, chances are they’re going to pick up on it and join the anxiety party. If we’re calm, they may not join that party, but at least we’ll be in a position to help.
I get it. I hear your fears and anxieties as parents of young children. It’s normal to be anxious about this time of the year. So, what can we do to help our kids during this important transition? I’d like to offer four questions that we can ask our kids to open a conversation with them as they go back to school. I believe this dialogue will not only help their anxiety (which it will), but it will also build up the reservoir of empathy that is so needed, and strengthen your relationship with them.
1. How are you feeling about going back to school?
What is your greatest fear, and what are you most excited about? With this question, we’re inviting our children to share their emotional world with us, and at the same time, we’re making it explicit that it’s ok to have fears and it’s ok to be excited. We’re also introducing the idea that it’s possible to have both excitement and fear all at the same time! The psychobabble word for this validation.
By validating their excitement and their fears, we’re helping them feel known, accepted, and heard. This is the very basis of empathy, the greatest antidote to stress and existential anxiety. It’s the greatest tool we have with our children and their fight against their anxiety.
2. How do you feel when you’re in school?
What helps you enjoy the great parts and manage the hard parts? This question helps our child explore how they are doing during the school day when we’re not there. Research out of Yale University shows the importance of helping children have a “mood meter” throughout the day at school. It helps them understand their world as well as regulate their emotions. While specific techniques to manage mood are great, their research shows that simply paying attention to our emotions in a validating environment produces emotional benefits and helps students manage their emotions better in school and at home, all while reducing overall stress.
3. How do you feel during recess and lunch?
What are you looking forward to, and what might be more difficult? This question is a sneaky one. This is how we find out about their relationships at school and how they are doing with their peers. I don’t know about you, but if I ask my kids directly, “How are your relationships with your friends,” I’ll invariably receive an answer along the lines of, “Fine.” Or sometimes it’s, “I don’t know,” and finally, if I’m really lucky, I just get, “Dad! Stop butting in!”
If, however, we ask our kids how they are feeling during the times where they’re interacting socially with their peers, we’ll get a glimpse into their relationships. If they’re connecting well with other students we’ll likely get positive reports; if not, we might hear things like, “I’m bored,” or, “I’m lonely,” or, “I hate lunch.” This provides us with an opportunity to ask further questions, but now with a reason that the child has provided themselves. We can ask, “Wow, I’m sorry to hear you hate lunch and I’m curious what it is about lunch that isn’t going well?”
Sometimes, no matter how we ask, our children may not tell us what’s going on. If that’s the case, we can still get a win. Even if we can’t address that problem directly, at least we can provide empathy. If all else fails, we can still respond with, “Wow, I’m sorry to hear you’re having a tough time at lunch. I’m not sure how I can help, but I’m glad you told me.”
4. How do you feel when you get home?
What do you need after a day at school? This final question gives us a window into what our kids need after a long day of school, and believe me, the school day is long for our kids. Each kid is unique, however, and their needs after a day of school are wide and varied. Some kids need to run, some need a nap, some need a hug, some need…well, we’re not sure what. This is our chance to give our kids the opportunity to tell us what they need so we can help them get their need met.
It also provides us with a unique opportunity to connect in a meaningful way with our kids after their day and show that we’re interested in their world. It keeps us from simply yelling, “Don’t drop your jacket on the floor! Put your bag away! Take your shoes off, etc., etc.,” as our main way of connecting when they get in the door.
As parents, we can’t fix everything for our kids. We can’t solve all of their problems, but in this one question, we can at least begin to learn what they need after school so that we can help meet that need. If we can do this, we’ll help reduce their stress, which has many, many benefits for the kids.
It also has the net benefit that if we reduce their stress, give them opportunities to connect, our time with them will be less stressful, and they may actually be less likely to fling their backpacks across the room in frustration as soon as they open the door after school.
Our greatest job as parents
I hope this article is helpful as we all prepare for next week and the return to school. We all love our kids and we often feel like our job is to fix everything. I want to encourage us to focus on accepting our child’s answers to these questions and not let our own anxiety put us into “make it better mode.” If we fall prey to this, we do the opposite of what our kids need. Our kids need validation and empathy. The great thing is that in order to do this, all we need to do is listen and be with our kids. We don’t have to make it all better, because most of the time, the reality is that we can’t.
Need some help?
Parenting is tough, and this is a tough time of the year for everyone involved. If we can be of any help, please give us a call. This is the time of year is when counselling for children can be extremely helpful. We have a team of counsellors who love working with parents and kids and we’d love to be a resource for you.
Reflections on 15 years of marriage…
Today is the anniversary of the best decision I’ve ever made. This sounds cheesy, perhaps, but it also happens to be true. Fifteen years ago, I married Meg, and it’s been a wild ride ever since. Depending on how you recount history, our story either started in grade 5 or when I was 16. I went to school with her twin sister when I was in grade 5, and I remember when she came into our class for the first time to deliver a message to her sister. Now, you have to understand, I was in no way, shape, or form smooth at that age (many would argue that never changed). But, I distinctly remember turning to my friend and saying, “Wow, she could come back more often.”
Fast forward to when I was sixteen and started working at a summer camp. I walked along the boardwalk and low and behold, there was a beautiful girl that I recognized. I walked up to her and asked her, “Do I know you from somewhere?” She, thinking I was feeding her a line, literally got up and ran away. Now, I’m not using the word “literally” in the new-school hipster way, I actually mean she literally got up, moved her feet at a rapid pace, and in the opposite direction. Great start to a relationship.
Needless to say, it took a few years of work to get her to stop running away and to actually consider that I might be marriageable material. But, when I was 20 and she was 21, I asked her to marry me and, as they say, the rest is history.
As I was trying to fall asleep last night, my mind kept circling the question, over and over, “How is it that our relationship has lasted, and gotten infinitely better over time?” See, it hasn’t been easy. We got married young, and in our first year of marriage we went kamikaze with school, work, and other activities and didn’t see each other a whole lot (I definitely do not recommend this approach…). We are quite different people in many ways, and we often don’t see things the same way. And now, we’re business partners full time. Our recipe for success isn’t so simple! I also realize that we’re still in our infancy in our relationship at 15 years in – my parents will be celebrating 48 years of marriage this year, something I aspire to. So, this article isn’t definitive, because we have a long way to go!
I can’t write nearly as much as I wish I could hear, so I’ll save some for a later article. Here are three things that have been helpful to me in our marriage, and I hope will be helpful to you in your relationships.
- If you know you’re wrong, admit it. If you know you’re right, shut up.
A very close family friend wrote this on the wedding card he gave us on our wedding day. I didn’t realize that this was a quote from Ogden Nash at the time, but it’s always stuck with me. Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good argument, and I’m pretty opinionated. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but if we’re arguing, I’m going to try to win the argument.
This is not a recipe for success in marriage. If it’s simply an intellectual argument it might be ok. If the argument is about something you’ve done wrong, arguing that you were right is not going to help things. Similarly, if you know you’re right it may not be your best course of action to beat this over the head of your partner. Chances are they know you’re right (even if they don’t want to admit it), and forcing the issue will just breed resentment.
- Accept influence from your partner.
This one does not come naturally to me, at all. I’m not even sure why because I often say, and I sincerely believe, that I married up. It would only make perfect sense for me to accept Meg’s influence as a matter of course, but for some reason, it’s still challenging for me. There’s still a little birdie on my shoulder that, when I’m under stress, tells me that accepting influence is admitting defeat. Let me assure you, it’s not.
Accepting influence from your partner means that we shift from a focus on me and instead, focus on we in the relationship. John and Julie Gottman refer to this as the we-ness of the relationship and it’s something they measure in their research i. If you’re a research geek like me, feel free to have a read of this article that highlights how John Gottman has shown that relationships are far more successful when men accept the influence of their partner. It’s important for women to do this too, but the research seems to show that most women are already pretty good at it.
- 69% of conflict in relationships is due to perpetual problems.
This fact can either be encouraging or be discouraging depending on how you look at it. This statistic comes from John Gottman’s research and it’s been replicated. Perpetual problems are the issues that come up in the relationship over and over again. These problems are due to fundamental personality differences or lifestyle needs and are not going to be solved. These problems simply need to be managed. The conflict stems from the idea that we can change these things, rather than accepting them and managing them.
Part of me finds this frustrating. My brain and my passion drive me toward creating positive change and my superhero complex leads me to believe I can solve all of life’s problems if given enough time. When I’m stuck in this mode, I get frustrated and wonder why, after 15 years, we stumble through the same issues and I haven’t figured out how to solve them yet.
My more reasonable, rational self-finds this encouraging. I find it encouraging that after 15 years of struggling with the same issues, we still have a great marriage. We haven’t given up. We haven’t grown resentful. Somehow, even though we can’t change it, we find a way through it together. Over, and over, and over again.
We’re not perfect, even after 15 years of working at it
I didn’t want this article to come across as Andrew’s guide to having the perfect marriage that he has with his wife, and I hope it doesn’t come across that way. We’re not perfect, and we regularly screw it up. But when we do, we work hard at it.
Relationships are difficult. My marriage is by far the most difficult thing I’ve had to work on, and I can say without reservation, that I’ve had more work to do on myself than my partner has. She’s better at this than I am, she’s more of a natural, and Gottman’s research seems to support this.
What their research also shows, however, is that if I continue to work on this, and continue to accept Meg’s influence, my doing so is one of the most powerful forces to effect positive change in our relationship – and that’s what I’m going to work on for the next 50 years, God willing.
I love you Meg. Thank you for working on this with me and teaching me every day.
It’s ok to laugh at this. Every time I go to one of their training and they use this word, I laugh. Part of maturity is accepting that we laugh at immature things. Or something like that.
If you’re looking for some summer reading that will improve your relationships, check out this book by John Gottman. It’s a great primer for some of the principles that make relationships last!
The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both by apparent suicide has the world reeling again. There have been numerous articles in response to this, calling for more mental health support, offering advice on how to reach out to loved ones, and more. One of my first thoughts was of how devastating substance abuse can be. I don’t know directly how much alcohol or drugs factored into the deaths of these two celebrities, but both had struggled with substances throughout their lives and it seems as though it likely influenced these most recent tragedies.
When we experience the death of a celebrity, a work colleague, a friend, or family member, one of the common struggles is wondering what could have been done? What if we’d just reached out more? What if we’d asked them how they were doing more? What if we’d encouraged them to get help more? The reality is that simply checking in on someone, or offering platitudes like, “Make sure you ask for help when you need it,” simply don’t work very often.
One of our staff pointed me to this article in which a group of friends held an intervention of sorts for a friend struggling with grief. What I appreciated about the article, from the perspective of the friend being intervened upon, was the comment that this approach could have easily backfired. This is very much true – it worked in her case, but on a different day, at a different time, or for any other number of reason the approach could have backfired. Still, she was grateful that they had intervened. So, here are some ways I’m going to suggest we can succeed in supporting friends when the stereotypical “reaching out” isn’t working.
Most people struggling with mental health will tell you that it’s incredibly isolating. Isolation intensifies and worsens negative emotions and symptoms of mental health difficulties. It removes motivation, removes hope, and so much more. So, what this means is that when we ask, “Hey, how are you doing today? Have you gone outside for a walk? Is there anything I can do,” we are likely to hear, “I’m fine, it’s ok,” because giving any other answer requires motivation and hope, and effort, just like any other action on their part.
This is where we can show up. We know what our friends, family members, and loved ones need in general because it’s good for anyone: healthy food, going for walks, help with practical things in life. If we ask if we can do something for someone struggling, they’ll likely say no. If we show up and help, however, we are more likely to succeed, and more often than not, they will be grateful that we showed up and helped them.
Know Our People Well
In order to show up and be effective, we need to know what our friends, family members, or loved ones like, need, and long for. This requires us to know them well. It requires intimacy and vulnerability on both our parts, and we need to be working on this when times are good. If we rely on building this when things are bad, it will be incredibly difficult. There’s a tool I use when working with couples in therapy as we focus on building a foundation for their relationship and I think it can be helpful here. The Gottman Institute card decks are designed for couples, but they could easily be used for building interpersonal knowledge and intimacy in any relationship. The Love Maps and Open-Ended Questions card decks are particularly helpful for this – know that the language is geared for couples, but I’d love to see more of us using these in our other relationships. The more we know each other on a deeper level, the more we’ll be prepared to respond when someone is having a difficult time with mental health. We’ll know their wants, needs, desires, hopes, without even having to ask.
Be Willing To Take The Risk
Sometimes what we do as we try to help someone might backfire. If we show up unannounced to take someone for a walk because they can’t get out; if we show up with food and conversation when they can’t bring themselves to cook or to talk to anyone; if we show up and clean their house for them, these all may backfire. We might make them mad, we might embarrass them, we may even get the door slammed in our face.
We also might, just maybe, make the difference needed to help them move the next step forward, and they didn’t have to do it alone.
I often get asked the question, “What if I make things worse?” The reality is, it’s hardly possible to make things worse by showing empathy and love. For the sake of argument, even if we do, what then? Are they more depressed or more anxious? That’s a risk we need to be willing to take, and I can tell you that from my experience, it simply does not happen that way.
Get Help Yourself
Finally, if you try everything, you show up, you do for someone what they can’t do for themselves, and it’s not working, this is where a professional’s help can be a great asset. Trying to care for someone is difficult, especially when we don’t see results. It wears on us, it causes us distress, and we are now at greater risk for mental health difficulties ourselves. Sometimes we also just need an outside perspective from someone with experience with these issues. This is where a Registered Clinical Counsellor can be helpful in supporting you and providing outside insight into how you might help someone. RCC’s can also be helpful in connecting you or the person you’re concerned about with appropriate resources that may be helpful.
Don’t Give Up
Caring for someone who is struggling is hard. Don’t give up on them – try some of the strategies above, get some help for yourself if they won’t let you help them, and in case you missed it the first few times, don’t give up.
Feel free to contact us for help or counselling related matters. Our doors are always open.
Having a child with an addiction can be one of the most terrifying things as a parent. Depending on the level of the addiction, it can mean different things. Sometimes our kids start with curiosity and dabbling in marijuana. Sometimes it’s a harder drug like cocaine, ecstasy, MDMA, or even heroin. Sometimes it’s all of the above. You might notice the subtle changes – maybe their grades are slipping a bit, or they’re staying out later with friends, or they’re not as interested in hobbies they used to enjoy. Sometimes it takes a more significant turn and they stop their hobbies altogether, stop going to school, or even stop interacting with the world on a grand scale and isolate themselves in their room, hardly ever coming out.
I hate to say it, but this isn’t going to get any easier with the legalization of marijuana coming in July. I’ve spent a great deal of time in the past months speaking with various agencies about this, and although it will still be illegal for minors to consume marijuana, the legalization is most definitely going to change the landscape, and in significant ways. While I’m not going to go into that today, what parents should know is that this isn’t going to get easier; it’s going to get more difficult.
So, how can you help your teen? That’s a huge question and we’ll be writing more about it in the weeks and months to come, but here are three things that I think parents should know that will hopefully help.
You are right to be concerned if your child is using substances.
I’m often surprised by how nonchalant people are with alcohol and marijuana and teens. It’s not uncommon for teens to try these two substances, but I am concerned by how unconcerned many parents are that their teens are using these two in particular. In my experience, they have almost been filed in the “benign,” category of substances. While they are potentially better than crack cocaine, MDMA, or heroin, they are far from benign and I want to highlight one particular reason: brain development.
Our brains are constantly changing and developing, even into adulthood, but the most crucial time period is from the time we’re born, until approximately 25 years old. Yes, our brains are still developing up to the age of 25. Even more important, as highlighted in the article I just linked to, is that the part of the brain that controls rational processes is one of the last to develop, and doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20’s. This means that the part of the brain that might help a teen work through whether drugs are a good idea isn’t fully functional until well after high school is over.
The take-home message here is two-fold: using substances as a teen has the potential to negatively impact brain development, and the part of the brain that might help them understand this and make good choices isn’t fully functional until they’re 25.
What you do matters.
As parents, one of the most important things we can do is help educate our children on the impacts of substances, and this needs to happen before there is a problem. Now, I get it. It’s an awkward and even scary conversation for some parents. It’s not totally dissimilar to having the “sex talk,” which is equally awkward and equally important. However, it’s also our responsibility as parents to have the discussion. If we want our kids to make good choices, they need the information in their repertoire before they need it, not afterward. If you don’t know enough to educate your child on substance use, please start by educating yourself. There are many resources online, and many community groups that can help. Most importantly, make sure your child knows that if they run into difficulties with substances, they can come to you for help and make sure that they know they will not get into trouble if they ask for help.
An equally important thing to know is that our kids watch what we do and are impacted by the example we set. If we aren’t using substances responsibly, we really can’t expect our kids to and we can’t expect to have credibility when we’re speaking about it with them. To push this even further, we may even be using substances in what we feel is a responsible way, but our kids may not understand that – this goes back to the brain development part. I’ve worked with many families who bring teens in with concerns about their substance use, and when I speak with the kid, it comes out that the parents likely have substance use issues that aren’t being dealt with. As parents, we need to lead by example. This increases the likelihood that our kids will make good choices, and if they run into trouble, that they will seek appropriate help.
Finally, if you’re in a situation where your kid is using substances and you’re having a hard time dealing with it, get help for yourself. It’s heart-breaking, it’s stressful, and it’s lonely because often we feel the need to hide our difficulties as families and hide what our kids are struggling with. Even more so, it’s hard to see our kids in pain. If that’s the case, reach out to get some help. There are community resources available, and it’s something we do a lot of work with and we’d love to help you if you’re in this difficult place.
Focus on the relationship.
Sometimes it’s all we’ve got. It’s also where we get any foothold and any credibility with our kids when they’re struggling. Remember, if your kid is struggling with substances, there is always a reason, and it’s not as simple as “peer pressure.” Peer pressure is a misnomer. Sure, sometimes it happens but in my experience, it’s rarely the reason kids are using substances. People use substances as a means to manage pain, and teens are no different. Be it mental, emotional, or physical pain, this is most often the reason and we need to be sensitive to that.
If your kid is struggling and they won’t get help, be there for them. Sit with them, express your love for them, express your concern for them and your desire to help. Avoid condemning them, shaming them, or anything that resembles this (and this is hard). Your kid will not turn around and stop using substances because they hear you say that drugs are bad. They may turn around, however, if they hear you say that you love them, and you’re worried about them, and you’re there to help when they’re ready. And, as I mentioned above, until they’re ready, I’d highly recommend you seeking help for yourself while you’re waiting for them to come around. It’s a tough road, and sometimes a long one while we wait for our teens to be ready for help.
If you’re on this journey with your child, whether they’re a teen or an adult, know that you’re not alone. You’re not alone in your suffering, and you’re not alone in feeling lost, and maybe even hopeless as you watch your child suffer. We’re here to help.