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.