It’s true in this country that we do have a war on drugs. But for many parents, that war is waging in their own home with their own teenagers. According to Laurence Westreich, MD, who is an addiction expert, father, and author of A Parent’s Guide to Teen Addiction: Professional Advice on Signs, Symptoms, What to Say, and How to Help, defeating an enemy that is larger and more powerful than us will require unconventional tactics.
The first step is to know who the enemy is.
“Always remember that substance abuse – NOT your teenager – is the enemy,” writes Westreich.
What teenagers need is parents to react quickly and decisively, often long before they hit bottom.
“It may also be necessary to abandon other priorities, such as her education, athletic ambitions, social relationships, and appearance, all in the service of fighting her substance abuse,” Westreich writes.
The process can be alienating and some teenagers will rebel. They may also lie, downplay the effects of their abuse, or blame it on someone or something else. Yet if parents suspect their teen is using, the best thing for parents to do is to start talking about it with them.
“Some teenagers may argue that addiction is just a social construct: One person’s addiction is just another’s “partying” and you have no right to judge their behavior. He thinks that if drinking alcohol or using drugs doesn’t cause problems for a kid, it’s just fun, not addiction. You may have to teach your kid that when it happens, addiction isn’t just a matter of fun or behavior,” Westreich writes.
And while some kids merely experiment, Westreich defines addiction as, “compulsive use of a substance that harms a person’s health, relationships, or school and work performance.” One example he offers is of teenagers who learn to manipulate around social relationships through lying, cheating, stealing, and general dishonesty.
Denial is also a characteristic feature of addiction, and one that Westreich advises parents go around. One way he suggests they can do this is through asking their teenager how they would feel if a friend they covered for died.
“’Everyone does it’ is a refusal to recognize a problem and an attempt to convince you that there’s no problem in the first place. When your teenager tries this tactic around substance abuse, take the opportunity to open a discussion,” writes Westreich.
The questions parents choose is of particular importance and Westreich suggests avoiding questions disguised as attacks.
“You’ll have to do what therapists do, which is to ask questions designed to be as neutral as possible,” writes Westreich.
Countering an addiction can be especially challenging when the drug of choice is prescribed, or the teenager begins to “self-prescribe.”
“While your teenager may be prescribed these medications (benzodiazepines) for a legitimate purpose, if he takes them regularly, he’ll get hooked on them,” writes Westreich.
Prescription stimulants, for example, may be widely used for attention deficit disorder, but also taken by teenagers looking to function at “higher-than-normal” levels. While most parents wouldn’t want their teenager to endanger himself in pursuit of a higher GPA, this is exactly what happens when teenagers use stimulants haphazardly and without careful medical supervision.
Teenagers who experience depression or anxiety may also use substances to “self-medicate” using drugs or alcohol as a social lubricant, pick-me-up, or calming device. This however, only starts a downward slide.
“Often enough, the teen’s apparent self-medication is just part of a self-reinforcing cycle of pain, drug and alcohol use, and more pain,” writes Westreich.
The bottom line for parents is that when they know their teenager has a problem, it’s time to get them into treatment.
“An addiction clinician can be of immense assistance. He or she can help you assess the immediate risks to your teenager, ferret out problems that you may not have even considered, and put together an appropriate treatment plan,” writes Westreich.
Here, Westreich also offers some helpful tips about which programs to consider, whether to pursue outpatient or inpatient treatment, what range of services to look for, some cautions about wilderness programs, and what to do if a teenager refuses treatment.
Of particular importance is how parents respond to their teenagers in aftercare, especially if they slip or relapse.
“If your reaction is extreme, you’ll overwhelm your teenager with your feelings, while if it’s balanced, you’ll be modeling the sort of response you want her to have to stressful situations,” writes Westreich.
Drawing on his many years treating addiction and parenting his own teenagers, Westreich offers parents practical, sensible advice, critical information, and invaluable skills for responding to, and preventing, teen addiction. This book should be considered a first line of defense for any parent facing teen addiction.
A Parent’s Guide to Teen Addiction
Laurence M. Westreich, MD
Hardcover, 171 Pages