Trying to cope with a teen’s substance use disorder (or SUD) is one of the most difficult challenges in life. It can be mentally, emotionally, physically, and even financially taxing.
Parents of teens who are struggling with a SUD are often scared, feeling concerned, and fearful of the consequences of their drug or alcohol abuse. As a result, often the teens’ problems become the parents’ problems.
The parents begin to overprotect their child from the many negative consequences that are a result of a substance use disorder. Expenses seem to quickly multiply, as doctors’ bills, treatment center stays, attorneys’ fees, rent, food, and cars often threaten the parents’ financial security.
A familiar cycle of crisis and rescue can become the family norm. With this, parents often become guilt-ridden, frustrated, angry, helpless, and/or hopeless. It can be difficult for parents to break this cycle because of the underlying fear that, somehow, they, the parent, have caused the SUD.
Other difficult emotions that can surface for parents are feelings of grief and loss. The parents begin feeling like they’ve lost the teen that they once knew as a child, feeling disconnected or in the dark about their life, their problems, and the drug abuse.
Coping Strategies for Parents of a Teen Struggling with a Substance Use Disorder
Use self-compassion and check-the-facts: Remember, SUDs are not a result of personal failure, their’s or their parents’. It’s important to acknowledge that your child’s SUD is not due to their or their parents’ own failure.
That is, a substance use disorder cannot be boiled down to one simple cause. Whether the cause is a failure in parenting, in decision making, in morality, in “not being strong enough,” etc. it is more than one cause. SUDs are complex disorders with a myriad of factors contributing to their development and maintenance, including biological, psychological, and social or environmental factors.
Remembering this truth is essential in order to reduce the shame and stigma that can be felt by parents and the teen struggling. Shame and humiliation do not aid in recovery. They only complicate it.
Explore harm reduction strategies: Harm reduction strategies help reduce the risks and life-threatening consequences related to a substance use disorder. To put it simply, it saves lives. Harm reduction is not permission to use substances nor enabling the use of substances.
For this reason, it’s essential for parents to work closely with clinicians and medical providers who are well-versed in SUDs and harm reduction or other modalities that incorporate harm reduction principles, like Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
Practice self-care: As discussed earlier, parenting a teen who is struggling with substance use is, to put lightly, a challenge. It may be taxing in many ways, particularly emotionally, mentally, physically, and even financially.
This strain is not only felt by parents, but by other family members, friends, and loved ones surrounding the teen. For these reasons, it is critical for parents to take care of themselves in numerous ways.
This may mean that the parent needs to put their welfare above the teen’s well-being. Parents cannot serve from an empty cup. In order to best support their child (and other family members who are affected), it is essential that they tend to their own needs first.
This may include parents setting appropriate boundaries with the teen or letting the teen experience the negative consequences that may result from the substance use disorder. Parents can limit the type of support offered to the teen while connecting them with other support systems that will help meet those needs of the teen that the parents cannot.
Seek support: Part of self-care may be the parent seeking professional help in the form of individual, family, or group therapy. As a parent or loved one of a teen battling a SUD, many emotions such as anger, sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, grief, fear are experienced.
It’s vital to have a safe space to explore and process these emotions. Many loved ones find support groups such as Al-Anon or Alcoholics Anonymous beneficial, as others in the group are empathetic to their situation and can offer feedback and support to help navigate such a difficult situation.
1. Mayo Clinic. Substance Use Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/drug-addiction/symptoms-causes/syc-20365112 on March 10, 2020.
2. Dimeff, L. A., & Linehan, M. M. (2008). Dialectical behavior therapy for substance abusers. Addict Sci Clin Pract, 4(2), 39-47.
3. Linehan, Marsha. DBT Skills Training Manual, Second Edition. Guilford Publications, 2014.
4. Al-Anon Family Group. Retrieved from https://al-anon.org/newcomers/faq/ on March 10, 2020.
About the Author:
Chelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Chelsea works with individuals, families, and groups primarily from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) framework.
She has extensive experience working with adolescents, families, and adults who struggle with eating, substance use, and various co-occurring mental health disorders. You can learn more about Chelsea and her private practice at ThriveCounselingAustin.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from multiple physical, emotional, environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published March 16, 2020, on AddictionHope.com
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on March 16, 2020