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 shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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