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.

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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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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