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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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