Tough Love or Tender Loving Care? A Guide to Helping Your Teen Through Addiction

Tough Love or Tender Loving Care A Guide to Helping Your Teen Through Addiction

Helping a teen through addiction is one of the hardest things any parent could have to experience. Yet this very predicament is what a startling number of parents currently face, in the worst addiction epidemic on record. Roughly 5 percent of teens (ages 12-17) suffer from drug or alcohol addiction, according to 2016 findings by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). The number is substantially higher among young adults (ages 18-25).

From my own experience as an addiction clinician, I’ve found that many of the young adult clients I work with first began to dabble with drugs or alcohol in their teens, so that by the time they reach their young adult years, they are battling full-blown addiction. (Indeed, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 seem to suffer from the highest prevalence of substance abuse, according to the NSDUH.)

For the millions of parents who find themselves in the devastating scenario of helping a teen through addiction or a developing addiction, it can be excruciatingly hard to know how to support their loved one’s recovery. A very common parental dilemma in these situations: whether to exercise tough love or take a more tender and loving approach. In the advice that follows, I’ll propose that the most effective parenting response will be both firm and loving, combining elements of both approaches.

The Case for a “Firm but Loving” Parenting Approach

Nobody signs up for addiction. Even those with poor impulse control, a developing brain, and a bad case of acne don’t set out to get hooked on a substance. On the one hand, an isolated incident of drug or alcohol abuse might be explained as teen rebelliousness and acting out, or a desire to test boundaries or experiment. A pattern of substance abuse, on the other hand, more often indicates that your teen is dealing with unresolved emotional pain, stress, and/or symptoms of an undiagnosed co-occurring disorder like anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. (There’s a good chance that one or more of these contributing factors is operative even in situations where peer pressure and hanging around the wrong crowd have played a role.)

The strong likelihood that your child is turning to drugs and alcohol in order to cope with unresolved pain should therefore prompt solution-oriented empathy and compassion before judgment and punishment. The last thing that anyone experiencing pain needs is more stigmatization, and the more your child senses your love and support, the more motivated they will be to pursue a way out of addiction.

Recent findings from addiction science support this claim in another way, suggesting, in the words of Johann Hari, in his book Chasing the Scream, that “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety—it’s connection.” I’ve found the same to be true: genuine human connection, within relationships of love and support, can be the very thing that motivates someone to seek treatment, setting them on the road to long-term recovery. A teenaged child will be more likely to experience positive connections with Mom or Dad when they feel genuinely and unconditionally loved and supported, rather than an object of punitive wrath.

Loving vs. Enabling a Teen with Addiction

There is a critical distinction to be made, however, between a loving approach and parenting that actually “enables” or encourages a child’s addiction. A truly loving approach will not enable addiction, by setting firm boundaries. That may require:

  • Ending forms of parental help or protection that are disincentives for a child to get help for addiction or stick with recovery. An example might be cutting off their access to your bank account or taking away their cell phone, so it’s harder for them to buy drugs.
  • Allowing your child to experience the painful negative consequences of their behavior. One example might be calling the police when you find illicit drugs in the house, knowing full well that your child will be in bigger trouble. Another example might be not coming to your child’s rescue when, after binge drinking the night before, they’re sleeping in on a school day.

By communicating clear, consistent rules and expectations for behavior and disciplining your child with “natural consequences,” you’ll be setting firm boundaries that encourage your child’s recovery.

How to Help a Teen Feel Loved and Supported

Consider pairing firm boundaries with unconditional love, then, by using the following tips on helping your child feel loved and supported:

  • Look for daily opportunities to check in with your child about how they are feeling.
  • Regularly dispense hugs and say “I love you.”
  • Take part in family therapy with your child, so that you can improve your communication and address dysfunctional dynamics in your relationship that may be enabling their addiction.
  • Cultivate positive connections with your child, by spending quality time with them on a regular basis.
  • When you talk with your child about their addiction, avoid harsh, judgmental language that can amplify their feelings of shame and stigmatization, thereby pushing them away from you and potentially further into addiction.
  • Offer positive incentives for recovery wherever possible. In the terminology of the familiar “carrot-and-stick” analogy, choose the carrot over the stick.

Mandating Your Child Get Treatment

Finally, remember that your teenager is still a minor and you are their guardian, regardless of what they think. That means you have the legal right to mandate they receive drug or alcohol treatment, so long as they are 17 years or younger. You may need to exercise this right—even if your teen kicks and screams their way to rehab and won’t thank you until years later when they’re all grown-up.


About the Author: Anna Ciulla

Anna Ciulla is the Vice President of Clinical and Medical Services at Beach House Center for Recovery where she is responsible for designing, implementing and supervising the delivery of the latest evidence-based therapies for treating substance use disorders. Anna has a passion for helping clients with substance use and co-occurring disorders achieve successful long-term recovery.  

 

 

 

3 Comments

Lily

How do you do this with a spouse? What if tough love doesn’t work and they die? How do you deal with the loss? The guilt the shame? How do you let go of that? After 40 years.

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Pauline

I’m reading this from the point of view of a parent with a teenager addicted to computer games. There’s not enough out there for this.

Reply
Angela

As a parent of two grown children, I will remind Pauline that SHE is the parent! That being said, she has the authority to remove the computer, gaming system, etc. which her teen is using. And if that isn’t enough, she should remind her teen that the house is also hers. That gives her the right to enforce whatever rules she needs to under her roof. If her son does not comply, take everything from his room except bedding and a few sets of clothes. Let him know that everything he has is only out of the kindness of his mom’s heart. There is no law which states that a parent has to provide anymore that the necessities for a child. I guarantee, after a few weeks of this, he will no longer have a problem following mom’s rules, and the video game issue will be solved! Parents today are too worried about being their kids’ friend. A friend cannot effectively enforce rules or teach discipline. A parent is needed for that.

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The point of any ‘discipline’ is to teach, not to punish. (‘Disciple’ means student, follower, learner.)

Children don’t learn through punishment. They comply through punishment, but the mechanism is control and fear. 

The problem with this, is that the goal becomes avoiding us when things go wrong, rather than seeking us out. We can’t influence them if we’ve taught them to keep their messes hidden from us. 

We can’t guide our kiddos if they aren’t open to us, and they won’t be open to us if they are scared of what we will do. 

We all have an instinctive need to stay relationally safe. This means feeling free from rejection, shame, humiliation. The problem with traditional discipline is that it rejects and judges the child, rather than the behaviour. 

Hold them close, reject their behaviour. 

This makes it more likely that they will turn toward us instead of away from us. It opens the way for us to guide, lead, teach. It makes it safe for them to turn and face what’s happened so they can learn what they might do differently in the future.

Rather than, ‘How do I scare them out of bad behaviour?’ try, ‘How do I help them to do better next time?’ 

Is the way you respond to their messy decisions or behaviour more likely to drive them away from you in critical times or towards you? Let it be towards you.

This doesn’t mean giving a free pass on big behaviour. It means rather than leading through fear and shame, we lead through connection, conversation and education. 

The ‘consequence’ for big behaviour shouldn’t be punishment to make them feel bad, but the repairing of any damage so they can feel the good in who they are. It’s the conversation with you where they turn and face their behaviour. This will always be easier when they feel you loving them, and embracing who they are, even when you reject what they do.♥️
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#parent #parents #mindfulparenting #gentleparenting
Kununurra I’m so excited to be with you tonight. I’ll be giving you super practical ways to strengthen your kiddos and teens against all sorts and all levels of anxiety - big anxiety, little anxiety, anxiety about school, separation, trying new things - all of it. You’ll walk away with things you can do tonight - and I can’t wait! Afterwards we’ll have time for a chat where we can dive into your questions (my favourite part). This is a free event organised by the Parenting Connection WA (I love this organisation so much!). The link for tickets is in my story♥️
Hello Broome! Can’t wait to see you tonight. Tickets still available. The link is in my story. 

Thank you Parenting Connection WA for bringing me here and for the incredible work you do to support and strengthen families.♥️
What a weekend! Thank you Sydney for your open hearts, minds and arms this weekend at @resilientkidsconference. Your energy and warmth were everything.♥️
I LOVE being able to work with early childhood centres and schools. The most meaningful, enduring moments of growth and healing happen on those everyday moments kids have with their everyday adults - parents, carers, teachers. It takes a village doesn’t it.♥️

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