Connecting with Your Addicted Child

Contributor: Saarah Waleed, LMHC, CASAC, NCC, Director of Addiction Treatment Services at Villa of Hope

Article - Connecting with your Addicted Child Photo of Saarah WaleedElaine welcomes the newcomers with a bright smile. Her soft eyes make everyone who walks in the door feel comfortable. This Alanon meeting is dedicated to the family members of the children struggling with addiction. As the meeting starts and introductions are made, it is easy to tell the seasoned members apart from the newcomers.

As the meeting progresses the spirit of the room starts to shift, the difference between the two groups slowly melting away. It is incredible to see how much these family members have in common with each other, whether it’s their first time or their hundredth time coming together.

For some, this is the very first time that they have felt validated, understood, and acknowledged. They come to realize that they are not alone.

Research on Teen Addiction

Research shows that 90 percent of addictions start in the teen years. (2012 CASA Columbia). When your child is held hostage by addiction, as a parent it is a very lonely and dark place. Addiction does not just affect the addicted individual but deeply wounds all parts of the family unit and beyond.

Feelings of anger, shame, guilt, frustration, resignation, and hopelessness can take over and drive a wedge between family members.

“Why me…why my child”

Heavy use of marijuana among teens is up 40 percent since 2008 (Partnership attitude tracking study, Metlife Foundation,“PATS”, 2013). Almost half (45 percent) of teens do not see great risk in heavy daily alcohol use. (SAMHSA, 2003, NSDUH). As parents try to make sense of it all, it is easy to move further away from your child.

Addiction is a complicated disease that has many physiological, psychological, and environmental variables that are interwoven. For some individuals, recreational drug use and alcohol use progresses over time to become a chronic compulsive disorder, while others can maintain this recreational use through their lifespan.

For family members it is helpful to connect with other families who might be going through this struggle. As parents connect with different support systems such as Alanon, the question of “Why me, Why my child” becomes easier to understand. As you start to see the world through your child’s eyes, building the connection becomes easier.

“I try talking to her/him but I feel that I am talking to a wall”

diving-455765_640Many parents complain that their child is not opening up to them. Effective communication within the family affected by addiction is not easy to practice. There is already a lot of damage done by lies, blame, manipulation and denial.

Although it may be hard, parents will start to see a better connection with their child when they control their anger and frustration and utilize active listening skills:

  • Be present and tuned in, this is not the time to multitask
  • Show understanding
  • Listen with respect, avoid judgment
  • Be interested, ask questions
  • Give encouragement

When Extreme Emotions Appear

It is perfectly normal for adolescents to experience an emotional rollercoaster without addiction issues, but with addiction added to the equation they often display extreme emotions which can be difficult to deal with.

Although illicit drugs and alcohol add to emotional instability, it is advisable to seek professional help to fully understand the role addiction plays in a youth’s unstable moods.

It is not uncommon for people to use mood-altering substances to self medicate various symptoms of a preexisting problem, such as untreated depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, ADHD, etc.

“He/She is so manipulative; I can’t trust her/him”

Setting limits is an important and difficult skill to practice when your child is gripped in the claws of addiction. Sometimes parents’ guilt and self blame can become a barrier in establishing appropriate limits.

They might be haunted by thoughts such as “What did I do wrong? Could I have done something different?” One must remember that setting boundaries helps parents teach self control and responsibility while showing compassion.

While establishing guidelines, remember to make them clear and simple; make sure that the child understands the rationale behind them. It is equally important to make it clear to the child what the consequences are should a rule be broken. Whenever possible, ask for their input when establishing these consequences.

This empowers the child and will result in a greater willingness to comply. Parents should also make it a point to follow up when consequences are given to ensure that the message behind the punishment is understood and internalized.

Acknowledgement and Encouragement

night-224885_640It is essential to acknowledge and encourage the youth when they are following expectations. It is a natural process of development for children to test limits and push boundaries, but a youth who is struggling with addiction has the added element of trying to manipulate their environment, including family members, to get their needs met.

It is important to separate the child from the disease of addiction. Some of the negative behaviors exhibited by the youth in addiction are just the symptoms of the disorder and do not represent the youth as a person.

While setting these boundaries, it is important to keep this in mind and remain steadfast in your efforts. Yelling, screaming and any type of mental and/or physical abuse towards the child is not only harmful but counterproductive.

Don’t react. Be consistent with your rules.

Remember that you are not alone, and that finding support for yourself and your family is crucial in maintaining a relationship with your child. There are many resources locally and on the web that are dedicated to families who suffer from addiction.

Please see below for some of the resources:

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

What is your experience in connecting with your addiction child?

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 12th, 2014
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About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.