When I held my infant daughter in my arms, I envisioned a beautiful future for her. I had dreams of all that she could and would do, of how great her life would be, and how I couldn’t wait to see who she’d become.
We parents know, though, that as time passes, we don’t get to decide if our dreams become reality, and we must learn how to live the reality, and not the dream. This was the case for me when I discovered that my daughter, now a teenager, had not just dipped her toe into the waters of drug use, but was fully immersed in the world of drug addiction.
Nothing can prepare you for that devastating news, I know, but there’s much that can prepare you to deal with it once you’ve become aware. I wanted to just give up and cry, but I eventually had to get up and face the problem head on. And if you have a teen who has become addicted to drugs, you do, too.
The most important thing I learned is that I am not powerless in this situation, and neither are you. However, it can be hard to know where to start as you begin the long journey of battling your teen’s drug addiction. Here are the most important things to consider as you move forward.
Make Your Love Clear
The most important thing you’ll do for your child is to make sure he or she knows how much you love them. I know that when my daughter was caught, she was angry and fearful and she expected my anger and fear. It was important for me to establish how much I love her before trying to help her address her addiction.
Here are some basic dos and don’ts of making your love clear to your kids:
- Be careful to love who they are now and not just who they were before. Your love is not conditional upon their actions.
- Don’t compare them to other siblings or friends.
- As you move forward in conversations about solutions and treatment, come back to your love for them repeatedly. They will need to be reminded again and again.
- Don’t use your love as leverage. (i.e. “I love you and do so much for you. I don’t know why you’d do this to me.”)
Deal With Anger
As I said, my daughter expected me to be angry. And guess what, she was right. I WAS angry! Anger is a natural response to discovering that your child has been getting high or wasted behind your back. You will probably be angry with yourself and your child.
The key is to deal with your anger in a healthy way so that it doesn’t hinder or hurt your efforts to help your child. Acknowledge that your anger is real, and even maybe justified. And then resolve to not let it be a part of the conversation with your child.
Don’t yell, use profanity, lash out, or act out against your teen. If you feel yourself becoming angry, calmly excuse yourself from the conversation and wait until you have control before continuing.
This will set the tone of the conversation as you move forward, and your teen will respond to your tone. If you are angry, she’s more likely to be angry. If you’re calm, she’ll be more likely to remain calm as well.
Know Your Part
An initial response for parents is to begin looking for all that you’ve done to cause this. I found myself analyzing every mistake or failure I’d ever made with my daughter, trying to figure out how I could have possibly allowed this to happen.
Hear this: You may have some things to apologize for, but you cannot take full responsibility. Your teen will not be helped if you blame yourself and spend all your time trying to figure out how YOU can fix it.
Ultimately, your child is responsible for his or her own actions and must also be ready to move forward if he or she is going to heal. You are important to the process but you aren’t everything. They will need your support and partnership, but they don’t need your obsessive control.
Drug and alcohol addiction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are factors, probably many, that contributed to your child’s addiction. You won’t find out what these factors are if all you do is talk at your child.
My daughter needed to be heard. She needed to tell me how she felt, what went wrong, and why she turned to drugs. I needed to keep my mouth shut and listen. And it was HARD. Some of the things she said were hurtful. She blamed me for some things. But she needed to be allowed to say it nonetheless.
It also took her a while to believe I would really listen to her. She was so prepared for me to lecture her, she didn’t really believe I wanted to hear what she had to say. It may take several attempts and methods to get your child to open out.
Ask your teen to tell you what would make them feel safe to open up. Show him or her that you are eager to hear them. They may do better if they can write it down for you, or speak with another adult present. No matter how you approach it, don’t leave the conversation without getting your teen to open up and talk.
Pursue Family Unity
Drug and alcohol abuse can tear families apart. The stress of facing and addressing the problem is overwhelming to parents and siblings alike. So while you’re making a plan and moving forward, you need to make your whole family’s health a priority.
Parents don’t always have the same perspective about how to handle their children’s issues. This is completely natural. But you and your spouse or partner should make every effort to have those disagreements behind closed doors. To your teen and to any other children affected, you need to present a united front.
If you are a single parent, you may want to involve another trusted adult in the conversation and the plan. Just make sure you talk to your teen about this in advance, as this will build his or her trust in you.
If there are other children in your home, be aware that your teen’s addiction has an effect on them and will continue to do so. You are responsible for their health as well and should make sure you are engaging with them and bringing them into the conversation when appropriate.
Gather As Much Information As Possible
Once you and your teen have spent some time talking, you will want to start making a plan for moving forward toward healing and change. However, you can’t do this if you don’t know what’s available to you.
As someone who hasn’t battled addiction myself, I was no expert on how best to help my daughter with her addiction. It’s ok to admit that you don’t have all of the answers. There is help out there for your teen.
Read about addiction, its effects, what it really looks like to overcome it, and what obstacles you will face as you begin the journey. What will withdrawal look like?
It’s especially important that you understand your child’s specific addiction (Alcohol? Opiates? Stimulants?) before moving forward. Not every addiction looks the same, so solutions will take on different forms.
Make Positive Goals
As you map out a plan with your teen, you’ll want to make sure that your tone and your goals are positive. Find out the good things your teen wants to see happen. Praise the positive things you see in them. Work toward the goal of those things together.
For instance, my daughter loved to swim but had quit the team as she spiraled into the various activities that led to her addiction. One of the positive goals is getting back on the swim team.
A positive goal looks at all of the good your child has to look forward to as they battle their addiction. It would be easy to think only of all there is to overcome, but having positive end results in mind will make the struggle less daunting.
Make a Treatment Plan
With information in hand and goals in mind, you will be ready to set up a treatment plan. Making a plan is important, but it must come after all of the aforementioned steps. Your teen must be proactive in contributing to the treatment plan.
Many parents are tempted to come up with a plan and then present it to their teen, demanding that he or she get on board and start obeying the rules. This is an understandable temptation. Trust has been broken, and it seems counterintuitive to let them call any shots.
However, inviting your daughter or son into the planning process reinforces your love for them, your desire to rebuild trust, and the idea that this will be a team effort, and that you are all on the same side.
Take Care of Yourself
With the anger and self-blame that I’ve already mentioned, parents often find themselves falling apart even as they try to help their child out of addiction. While it’s true that you need to sacrifice in order to help your child move forward, it does no one any good if your own health is declining even as you try and heal your son or daughter.
Make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Seek therapy for yourself if you feel it’s needed. Prioritize your relationship with your spouse or partner. Not only do you need to remain strong for your teen, you are setting an example of the very thing you desire for him or her: high self-worth and intrinsic healthy living.
Get Outside Help
I can remember feeling embarrassed and ashamed, which made me hesitant to include others in our journey as we dealt with our daughter’s addiction. This shame was misplaced, and I’m now grateful that I went against the instinct to hide and found the help we needed.
Treatment may be as simple as regular meetings with a therapist, or as complex as some time spent in a rehabilitation facility. Seeking counsel will help you determine which course is best for your child. There are so many factors that contribute to the course of treatment you will pursue, and having experts helping you make decisions makes all the difference.
Have a Plan for Setbacks
Once you’ve established a treatment plan, have gone over consequences, and are setting out on your journey of battling addiction with your child, one of the hardest things to handle is setbacks. But the hard truth is, setbacks are very common for those who battle addiction.
One of the most helpful things I learned to think is, “I hope and expect the best, but prepare for the worst.” This means you aren’t embracing pessimism, but you are realistic about how difficult this will be for your child.
Having healthy expectations for how you will handle any setbacks with your child (a drunken night, coming home high), will keep you from lashing out in anger, pushing your child away, or even pushing them toward the very thing you are attempting to help them overcome.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Why this step? Well, if you’re a stranger to addiction like I was, you may not be aware that addiction doesn’t just go away, even when you’ve been clean for a long time. You’re not looking to cure your teen, but rather enter into a lifelong journey with her that will enable her to remain clean and pursue her best possible life.
You will always be reassuring your child of your love. You are not simply fixing a problem and then moving on. You are helping your child grow into adulthood without returning to these addictions later. Being prepared to walk the long road with them is crucial to being the most helpful support he or she has.