Adolescent addiction and the parental distress syndrome
They walk into my office. They are quiet, but not because they are nervous about the therapy. They tell a familiar story: abuse, anxious days and sleep-deprived nights, drug deals, street crimes, chronic and unending stress, and never knowing if their loved ones will live to face another day. I search for a description and finally settle on shell shocked.
Parents sit stunned, numb and muted. They tell their stories and describe how they feel little except what can be described as an emotional winter.
Note: This article is not a substitute for Therapy, Counseling or reputable and professional education on the subject. Resources are included at the conclusion of this article. Consultation with other health professionals to support your own mental health is recommended if you experience moods that include stress, anxiety or depression that will not lift.
Originally, shell shocked was used to describe soldiers returning from the battlefield after experiencing the trauma that endlessly tortures their minds. Does the term really fit parents of teenagers who use drugs? I debate even using it because is it fair or even realistic to compare parenting to being a soldier?
With each story that I hear, the drug names change but the overall risks from the substance using behavior are remarkably consistent: Crystal Meth, Ecstacy, Alcohol, Cocaine, Heroin, Oxicontin and more recently Fentanyl and Carfentanil. Parents and family members tell the story of how their once-innocent teenagers now use illegal psychoactive substances in doses that could end their lives. They describe their lives as if they are in a twisted movie, replaying the tense and traumatic parts but never reaching a satisfying completion. Parents live and re-live the stress, anxiety and gut wrenching fear as they hear and sometimes witness the stories of their adolescents’ being threatened, beaten, abused, sexually assaulted by other teens or adults. And sometimes, parents themselves are literally dragged into the hell and threatened, assaulted, beaten and stolen from.
Can we re-frame the blame?
I hesitate to tell their story because it sounds as though everything that parents experience can be blamed on their teenagers. Some will tell you that yes it’s true that teens are completely to blame, but in reality parents themselves can contribute to their own un-wellness. They drink and use drugs, they rage, they control, they scream, they demand and sometimes threaten, they over-act and try to save their kids from the consequences of their actions, they walk out or threaten to kick out and “wash their hands” of their broken adolescents.
Truth, no one is to ‘blame’ because assigning blame would mean that one person alone is responsible. Family relationships are always inter-linked. What you do effects me and then I respond, sometimes in healthy and other times in unhealthy ways. You respond, I respond back. Who started it? You did, no… maybe it was me?
Blame is unhelpful, unhealthy, and it can be an unending cycle. No one wins with blame. The reality is that no one person alone is solely responsible for the emotions and the burdens that are faced, just as each person involved can do something to improve or become more healthy.
The important thing to remember is that NO, the stories below are not by any means what every parent or family will experience. Drugs are harmful, but in most cases they do not end in death. And most teenagers recover and will move on to live better lives. NO, not every teenager who uses drugs is a lost cause. The only lost causes are last year’s political parties and the latest fad-diet gone bad. And NO, parents are NOT to blame for their teen’s bad behavior. Parent’s behavior may contribute to their teens drug use, but adolescents’ also make their own choices.
Traumatized by their adolescents’ experience
Many times, parents are left in the dark as to what is really happening or the reasons why their teens are using drugs. They are often powerless to stop, or limit the risks to their adolescents. Their children can disappear for extended lengths of time and parents have no idea when, or if, or in what condition they will see them again.
Parents can face flashbacks or intrusive thoughts. The phone rings and they jump, hoping it is their teen reaching out for help. In the car, they drive by groups of teenagers slowly, wondering if their still-too-young teenager is lost somewhere in the midst of the group. They react with fear at every news headline that involves any teenager using drugs, being at risk, being harmed or dying. Every story of a stranger’s pain is felt deeply, as if it is personal, reopening your own pain.
Parents face the real and ever-present pain of not knowing whether their teenager will be okay, may die or may simply disappear forever.
The parents can never escape the fears that have become a living nightmare. They invest money trying to get help for their teen, they pour their hope into treatments, they divulge their hearts to other people, they put their own health and relationship on hold with the goal of reclaiming their teenager. Weeks of fear turn to months and to the agony that only years can bring.
They may begin to pull back, withdraw and avoid because the pain becomes too much. They may begin to avoid driving by schools, a former workplace or hangout of their teenager. They pull away and may engage in their own unhealthy behaviors or use substances because they can not cope.
Sleepless, they replay fearful dreams and rehearse their stresses. At times, their experience mixes with their own personal (and at times painful) history: Parents now have to grapple with their own mental health and un-wellness. They may need to take medication and see Counselors because of their own emotional responses to the chronic anxiety and emotional pain.
Parents and families live with what feels like terror that their teenager will never be well again. Drugs, alcohol, violent circumstances, and tormenting mental health conditions can put the entire family on continuous high alert. Often these situations are unrelenting and return in cycles.
And for some families, this can go on for years with no end in sight.
Some parents carry their emotions like a heavy burden. They live with self-imposed emotional penance, feeling vague feelings of shame and responsibility. They wish, they bargain, they blame themselves that they did not do more. Other parents respond to the trauma with numbness and blank stares. Others feel little else but pure anger. They lash out at their kids, the system, the drug dealers or their exes.
These are real experiences that I hear every week in my office. Teen substance use is a family problem. Each person in the family responds in their own way to the crisis that has become a chronic way of life. Normal has been turned on it’s head.
Some teens grow out of their problems. Other’s find treatment that helps. Some hit what is a terrible ‘rock bottom’ and begin to change, but never become healthy again. And other teens are lost.
What can families do?
“Some things just can’t be fixed.” Dr. Strange
Some parents may have to come to grips with the reality that things may never get better or that it may take many, many years before they see improvement. They may have to walk a long and difficult road. But they do not need to be alone.
One of the risks of offering advice is that it ignores the context, the resources and the needs of each parent or family. Advice can be one-dimensional, overly simple and unhelpful. But I am going to offer it anyway because it is vital that parents take an active part in lessening their own pain and becoming more resilient. Remember that written advice cannot replace medical care or the presence and skilled insight of a Counselor or Therapist.
Parents who find a way to lessen their pain:
- Get their own therapy because even if their teens never reach out for help, parents may face their own pain in ways that cause other problems. They don’t wait until the teenager is ready. They begin now.
- They are honest and they take responsibility. They go for help to therapists, they attend counseling with their teenagers, they acknowledge their anxiety and tell their own stories of how they can sometimes contribute to things not working at home.
- They don’t blame: the system, each other or their kids. Blame eats away at your spirit and consumes your hope. Parents who are resilient recognize that they need to be healthy in order to be part of whatever solution can be created.
- They are vulnerable and that is powerful. In sharing their pain, they bring the helping system to a place where it must ask difficult questions and grapple with how to help. Parent’s stories can become a form of activism that may bring change to a psychological, psychiatric and treatment system that is at times outdated and resistant to change.
- They find a way to practice regular self-care. The risks from giving up on your own health are too great to ignore. Self care is not selfish.
- They don’t worry alone. They don’t give up on hope. They find other parents who have faced their own pain. They find support in giving support.
- They talk to their partners rather than blaming them.
- They take the time that they need to heal.
- They set boundaries and know that sometimes love means saying NO. Holding onto hope may mean asking a young adult to leave home because of their drug use. And at the same time, never giving up on offering love and support if the youth is ready.
- They learn that there are no programs, expensive treatments or silver bullets that work for everyone. Sometimes finding what works may mean trying many, many things. No system is perfect, no solution works for everyone.
- They do what they can, and they respect their own limits. They set boundaries because their needs are important too.
- They let their teenagers face the real and even stressful consequences of their own behaviors: Legal realities, failing grades at school, being fired from a job, or having to repay debts.
When they walk out of my office, they seem a little lighter. Therapy is not magic and my ideas are not any different than they have already tried. Often what helps is just being heard and knowing that other people are working to help even a little. The important thing is that parents do something to support themselves in their often long journey to family health and wholeness.
If you are facing your teenager’s substance use, there are resources available:
Talking to addiction professionals can be a lifeline. They can support you with counseling, education and advocacy. However, local states or provinces each have varying resources.
Consult the Psychology Today therapist locator for personal, family or addiction therapy.
David Sheff shares his story of his son’s use and attempts at treatment from Crystal Meth.
Be wary of unregulated, uncertified and unscrupulous individuals or organizations that lack valid credentials. Ask for proof of their credentials. Look at the websites, and follow the links to whatever certification they claim to have. In the US, NAADAC is then most well recognized certifying body for Addiction Professionals and they keep a list of recognized affiliates by State. In Canada, the CACCF is the premier certifying body and you can find a therapist by following the member link tab. Expect the best, but know that good salesmanship is not the same as professional skill at treatment.
What about you? Do you face parental stress or strain because of your teen’s drug use? Have I described it adequately or are their parts to your story that are unique? Maybe it is time to reach out and share your story? I would love to hear from you in the comments.
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