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Your Child, The Addict

It is unquestionably every parent’s worst nightmare: your child is sick or hurting, and taking the pain away is beyond your parental abilities. When your child is wrestling with drug or alcohol misuse, the nightmare is compounded by the co-occurring attitudes, behaviors, and almost inevitable resistance to acknowledging the problem and getting treatment that your child displays.

Identifying the Problem

Nobody wants to believe that their child has a problem with drugs or alcohol. For many parents, the idea that addiction has gripped their child makes them feel like they are somehow to blame. They will attribute unacceptable behavior or a change in their child’s personality to “growing pains” or convince themselves that all adolescents and young adults behave strangely around their parents.

Warning Signs of Drug or Alcohol Abuse

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), several warning signs can indicate drug or alcohol use:

  • Physical or mental problems: memory lapses, low concentration, bloodshot eyes, lack of coordination, or slurred speech
  • Changes in mood: short temper, touchiness, and defensiveness
  • Problems at school: cutting classes, lower grades, and discipline problems
  • An attitude of defiance when it comes to rules at home
  • Changes in who your child associates with and an unwillingness to let you meet new friends
  • An apathetic attitude: lack of attention to grooming and hygiene, not participating in things that used to excite them, and an overall impression of low energy
  • Finding drugs or alcohol in your child’s bedroom or smelling alcohol or other unusual smells (such as smoke other than cigarettes) on their breath or clothing
  • Physical issues: forgetfulness or lapses in memory, bloodshot eyes, low concentration, slurring of the speech, or lack of physical coordination.

While some of these signs may be attributable to typical growing pains, you should be concerned if they come about suddenly and if there are several occurring at the same time. You should also be worried if any of them are extreme.

How to Talk About Substance Abuse With Your Child

After going over this list, if you have determined that your child may be misusing drugs or alcohol, remember that you aren’t a bad parent if you didn’t know right away. Very few parents believe that their child might be using drugs or alcohol; it’s not your fault that you didn’t recognize the signs until your child was in trouble. Your priority now is to help your child get the help they need.

Bringing your child on board for this will probably not be easy. You may have heard that people “have to want help,” or that they “need to hit rock bottom” to get better. For many people, however, that is not the case. All that you need is the smallest sign of willingness. Listen for “change talk.” Change talk can be as simple as your child saying that they are dissatisfied with some aspect of their life (“I wish my grades were better,” for example). Once that willingness is evident, you can start a dialogue.

Tips for Having a Productive Conversation With Your Child About Substance Abuse

To keep the conversation calm and focused, there are a few things you should–and should not–do:

  • Work to remain open-minded and non-judgmental; you want to invite dialogue.
  • Do not criticize or dismiss what your child has to say; it’s essential that they feel heard.
  • Try to limit yes or no questions and use open-ended ones instead.
  • Do not try to start the conversation at the wrong time, especially if they are under the influence.
  • Provide options. Rather than saying, “You have to stop,” try offering a reasonable incentive (“We can help with a deposit on your own place if you get help and maintain your sobriety,” for example).

Keep in mind that formally staged interventions, as depicted in pop culture, are risky when dealing with adolescents or young adults. In these scenarios, the individual is surrounded by people who essentially tell them to get treatment–or else. While this type of intervention may result in getting your child to go to treatment, there is no evidence that they will succeed under these conditions. Evidence-based approaches, such as CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training), tend to have better outcomes than ultimatums and threats.

Taking Care of Yourself

As a parent, it’s hard to create time for yourself. As the parent of an addicted or alcoholic child, it can be almost impossible. And while it may be the last thing on your mind, finding that time for self-care is vital for you, your addicted child, and the rest of your family.

CRAFT can provide you with a host of ways to change how you interact with your child. You can do many other things, just for yourself, to help keep you sane and centered during this trying time.

  • Every day, do something you enjoy. Taking a bath or a morning walk, as simple as it sounds, will help keep you grounded. Make sure it’s a want, not a should
  • Learn the value of walking away. Caring for someone you love, especially your child, is expected. Sometimes, however, caring may mean letting go and learning not to enable their use. It doesn’t mean you don’t love them and you’re not abandoning them. You’re only telling them that you won’t participate in their unhealthy behavior by giving them money or ignoring unacceptable behavior. This “detachment” may save their life. 
  • Seek professional help for yourself. Addiction and alcoholism are family diseases; this means that everyone in the addict’s family is affected by their substance use. Treatment professionals agree that this is a vital component of your child’s treatment. Having a place to voice and process your feelings will help you better communicate with your child.

Set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely) for your self-care and try your best to stick to them. The oxygen mask analogy is undeniably relevant here; you can’t help your child if you don’t help yourself first.

If your child is wrestling with drug or alcohol misuse, approaching them with care and concern will help them recognize the need for treatment. Talking to them in a composed, non-judgmental manner will help them see that their life can be infinitely better. Cornerstone Healing Center’s staff of highly qualified and compassionate professionals genuinely care about your child’s recovery, as well as your health and well-being. You can call us at (800) 643-2108 and speak to one of our staff about helping your child recognize the need for treatment. It’s important to remember that you are not to blame, but you can get direction to help them get well. Taking care of yourself, setting boundaries and sticking to them, and keeping the lines of communication open are all steps in the right direction. And remember, you are not in this fight alone. There are people in your corner who are willing and able to help.

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