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.