As a parent, watching your child hurting or struggling is one of the most painful experiences you can have. It’s even worse when their destruction is self-inflicted through drugs or alcohol. Parents of teenagers struggling with substance use disorder are often hurt, embarrassed and worried, but they are also a critical part of helping their child succeed in recovery.
“Your support is one of the most vital pieces of your teen’s recovery,” said Jaymes Murphy, business development assistant at Clearfork Academy, a residential, Christ-centered treatment center for boys ages 13 to 17 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Murphy often sees parents who want to help their sons get sober, but who don’t know where to start, or are misguided in how they are trying to help. Here are his tips for helping teenagers succeed in recovery.
Be prepared to do your own work.
Parents often send their children to Clearfork Academy when they feel fed up or hopeless. While they are excited for their sons to get treatment tailored to teens, they soon realize that as parents they also need to do some recovery work as well. Part of that involved letting go of blame and anger toward their son for the damage that his substance use has inflicted on the family.
“We often tell parents to recognize that their child is still good under all that junk,” Murphy said. “Even if they have gotten to the point of losing hope and frustration, their little monster still has a heart and still desires the things they once did.”
Partaking in individual and family therapies can help parents sort through their feelings and move forward in a more positive mindset.
Know when to step back.
While parental involvement is a cornerstone of treatment at Clearfork Academy, it’s also important that parents foster independence in their sons.
“The goal — or even more strongly the responsibility — of parents is to raise a child that no longer needs them,” Murphy said. “It is easy to accept this statement on a cognitive level, however, dealing with that emotionally is deeply dismaying because we want our kids to need us.”
Yet, giving teens the “Helicopter parent” treatment will lead to more strife and arguments. Instead, the staff at Clearfork Academy encourage parents to give their sons autonomy and allow them to deal with the repercussions if they make poor choices.
“If we cannot let them face consequences for some of their actions how will they deal with things that become overwhelmingly more difficult?” he said.
Let them know they are loved.
Many times teens in recovery recognize how their substance use has hurt them and their families. This can erode their self-confidence and self-esteem even more than addiction already did.
“Addiction rips apart a lot of things externally, but the internal stuff is just as bad. It shreds apart self-esteem, self-confidence self-respect and many other character attributes, making the teen almost completely unreliable to themselves,” Murphy said.
Parents can help to rebuild that self-belief by engaging with the teens and showing that they believe longterm recovery is possible.
“Encouragement and simply showing a small amount of interest in their hopes, dreams and goals rebuilds their confidence that was torn apart by the tangled web they have weaved,” Murphy said. “Love and an emotional relationship in the midst of the addiction will always go far to ensure the teen knows that there is someone that cares for them and is fighting on their side.”
Oftentimes, Murphy said, teens are beating themselves up for their actions more than they show. In these cases, their fear and sadness might be expressed as anger. Defusing that rather than engaging can help facilitate healing.
“They are confused and not in control of the situation which is a formula for chaos,” Murphy said. “But if we can maintain a relationship that does not point fingers or say, ‘look what you’ve done’ we can reduce the chaos.”
Prepare for their return home from treatment.
The transition home from treatment is a pivotal time for teenagers in recovery. While they’ve stayed sober in the confines of residential treatment, they now need to test their sobriety in the real world. Parents can help ease this transition by being proactive, including:
- Remove any drugs or paraphernalia from their space.
Pay particularly close attention to the teens bedroom, car, or other space where they spend lots of time. Check outlets and light switch panels, inside light covers, AC supply and return vents, inside toilet tanks, soles of the shoes, etc.
- Make a sobriety plan.
Before a teen leave treatment work with their treatment team to make a sobriety plan. That way you know what you’ll do when inevitable hurdles come up. Remember that using substances isn’t the only sign that a teen is struggling, Murphy said. “As time passes and confidence rebuilds, they may feel inclined to take shortcuts and even ignore the plan that has been put in place,” he said. “This way of thinking is a definitive path to relapse and if a mental relapse occurred a physical one is not far behind it.”
Recognizing that teen recovery is a process of progress, not perfection, can help the whole family heal from the effects of substance abuse.