Helping Teens Safely Cope with a Family Member’s Addiction
Coping mechanisms: we all have them.
Some are healthy and others not so much. Children whose parents struggle with substance use disorders are no stranger to coping mechanisms. By the time they are teens, the mantra of their life can be summed up in three rules: don’t talk, don’t trust, and don’t feel.
According to data compiled by National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) between 2009 and 2014, an average of 3 million youth between the ages of 12 and 17 (12.5 percent of that age group as a whole) had at least one parent at home who struggled with a substance use disorder. Of that age group, 2.7 million (11.3 percent of the age group) had at least one parent at home struggling with alcoholism and 500,000 (2.1 percent) had a parent who had an illicit drug use disorder.
The teen years can be difficult for everyone and adding the stress of a parent with alcoholism or substance use can lead to dangerous consequences. These teens become more likely to develop addictions themselves, not to mention the emotional toll taken on them during these formative years.
Confronting “Don’t Talk”
The first “rule” most teens with an addicted parent live by is “don’t talk.” They have likely developed this coping mechanism for a variety of reasons. Opening communication is important, and helps get them prepared if there is going to be an intervention or if their parent has decided willingly to enter a recovery treatment center.
Maybe they are ashamed of their parent’s habit or how their parent acts while using. Maybe they worry that authorities will get involved and remove them from the home. Maybe they are staying silent thinking they are somehow “protecting” their parent. These ideas can come from experience, overhearing conversations between adults, or having a parent use imagined consequences as threats.
Whatever the reason a teen has locked their struggles inside, it isn’t healthy emotionally or physically and no one can overcome their struggles alone. Family members and friends, possibly even counselors or peer groups for teens in similar situations can often convince the teen to talk about what they are going through.
An option to start breaking down the wall they have built can be to get them to write in a journal or diary. This is someplace safe, that they know no one else will read, where they can at least put their emotions on paper. It is proven that keeping a journal can be very cathartic and help a person not only confront their struggles, but sometimes see them in a new light which leads to healing and overcoming what holds them back.
Changing “Don’t Trust”
Gaining the trust of a teen (especially if you are not a teen yourself) can be difficult even under normal circumstances. Teens struggling with the substance use of a loved one – especially that of a parent – can be extremely guarded. Like the reasons mentioned above, their lack of trust often stems from things they have overheard or were told.
Teens whose parent(s) suffers with substance use often blame themselves or try to “help” their parent. These teens need to hear from a trusted adult that addiction is a disease, and in no way is their parent’s substance use their fault. Nor is it their responsibility to “cure” their parent. Watering down their parent’s alcohol or hiding their drug paraphernalia is not an answer or long-term solution.
Hearing these important things from someone they respect and trust carries more weight than just reading them as abstract ideas online or in a book/pamphlet. Trusted adults can also play a huge part in helping the teen abstain from falling into an addiction of their own.
Research shows that children whose parents have an alcohol use disorder are at a higher risk for problems with cognitive and verbal skills, anxiety, depression, and abuse or neglect. Similar problems face children whose parents have a substance use disorder. These youth are also 4 times more likely to have symptoms of substance abuse themselves in the future when compared to those whose parents did not have an addiction.
Challenging “Don’t Feel”
Teens who have watched their parents or other close loved ones struggle with substance use and alcoholism have likely been let down by these adults in their lifetime. Quite possibly they have felt betrayed or neglected repeatedly because of the substance use. This has caused them to not only distrust people and resist communication, but also can cause them to shut down their emotions as well as eliminating expectations of others.
It is beneficial to both teen and parent in a recovery situation to find support. The entire family suffers when a parent has an addiction, so the entire family will need to heal in order to move forward. There are many resources and groups available to help teens work through the problems resulting from their parent’s substance use disorder.
If you are a teen whose parent is either in treatment currently or has a substance use disorder that you desire them to seek treatment for, know you are not alone. Their addiction is neither your fault nor are you expected to cure their disease. It can be safe and healing to reach out and talk to adults you trust. If you are looking into an intervention to get your parent the help they need, there are professionals who can assist you and your family. Don’t try to fight this alone.
If you are an extended family member of a teen who is suffering because of their parent’s substance use or alcoholism, you have an important job. Be patient with them, support them, and give them someone to trust. Their coping mechanisms may make them difficult, and they will be a challenge to unlearn, but the healing that will take place afterwards will be well worth the effort.
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