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Parenting the Teen Addict

How to deal with a teen drug addict

Parenting a teenager—any teenager—is tough. Really, really tough. Teenagers are hard-wired to test the boundaries and the patience of saints, but the vast majority eventually emerge the other side as whole, loving adults. But what if addiction visits your home and your world is shattered by discovering that your teen son or daughter is involved in substance abuse?

For most parents, the enormous shock is initially followed by anger, and then swiftly by fear. Your child—your baby—is not only flirting with illegal behavior which could cost them their liberty, but is also using substances which could eventually cost them their life.

It will be a long and emotional haul, but there are key things you as a parent can do to support your child’s physical and emotional recovery from drugs or alcohol.

Love Your Child

A teen in the grip of addiction may bear little resemblance to the child you once knew. Aggression, rudeness, a lack of respect and a lack of communication are all par for the course, so don’t expect it to be an easy ride. Of course you still love him or her anyway, but now more than ever it’s important to show it. Be as affectionate as your teen will permit, and never miss an opportunity to tell them that you love them, no matter how bad their behavior. Stay calm, stay loving.

Reassure Your Child

Beneath the swagger and the underneath the aggression, your child is scared and in way out of his or her depth. This is not the time to be a friend; your child needs you now to be a parent and to take charge of the situation. Reassure them that you will figure this out, together, and that you will find a way through.

Talk With Your Child

Notice we said “with”, not “to”. Communication may be difficult, but take every change to talk with your teen. Don’t accuse, complain, scold, or rant—the anger only serves to escalate the situation. Instead, ask open ended questions that encourage them to tell you about why they’re involved in drink or drugs, what drove them to it, and what they feel would help them get clean again. Try to make the communication as natural and unforced as possible—teens often open up more during innocuous shared activities such as a walk or a during a TV ad break.

Play to Your Child’s Strengths

Addiction is sometimes caused by self-esteem problems, and almost always destroys self-esteem while it is ongoing. A critical part of your role as parent is to help your child rebuild that self-esteem. Rather than criticize them, find ways to compliment them on good behavior and notice the small steps in the right direction. Go out of your way to encourage new hobbies and interests, or to develop existing ones. Find something your child is really good at and enjoys, and help him or her find meaning in that activity. Giving your child something to do will also help to break the addiction cycle, so it’s a great time to persuade him or her to get involved with community or voluntary initiatives. Perhaps you could do them together, as a family.

Set—and Enforce—Rules and Boundaries

Children can fall prey to addiction no matter how strong or laid back your parenting style has been in the past, but now that they are in trouble, they need the stability and certainty of knowing the rules. Lay down your limits for where they may go, who they may see, what they may do, and be explicit about the consequences for breaking these rules. Stick to your guns: check that your child is where they say they will be, and that they are safe and well. They’ll rail against you for babying them or invading their privacy, but it matters now more than ever before.

Get Help

It’s never too early to seek help from professionals experienced in teen addiction. Find a therapist or counselor in your area, and get in touch. Many families like to think they can help their child on their own, but most under-estimate how long and hard this journey can be. Get professional help on your side as quickly as possible.

All of this is easier said than done, of course, but you will find a way. Don’t underestimate your own strength and resilience as a parent. You would move heaven and earth to help your teen, and you will get there. In the meantime, be sure to get enough rest, and make time for your own hobbies, friends and the rest of the family. You cannot be strong for your teen if your own needs are being ignored or sidelined.

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