Discovering your child is abusing alcohol or drugs has got to be one of the most frightening parenting experiences of all. It’s also one most of us are probably unprepared to face. To help parents figure out how to distinguish between normal teenage experiments and addiction Ã¢â‚¬â€ and to learn the best way to intervene when your child is at risk Ã¢â‚¬â€ I turned to an expert in helping young people recover their health and their lives.
Today’s Questions & Parents feature, or Q&P for short, is with Adrienne Marcus, executive director of the Lexington Center for Recovery. The Lexington Center treats people Ã¢â‚¬â€ including teens and adolescents Ã¢â‚¬â€ with alcoholism and other drug dependencies. In Westchester, the Lexington Center has programs in Mount Kisco, New Rochelle, Yonkers, White Plains and Peekskill. Adrienne, a resident of Mount Kisco, is also the mom of Rachel, 20, and Emily, 13.
Q: In your experience, how surprised are parents when they learn that their child needs help with substance abuse? Why didn’t they know?
P: Most parents are in denial. They donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to know, or even admit, that their child has a substance-abuse problem. Although they may notice behavioral changes Ã¢â‚¬â€ like their child not coming home at night, school grades slipping or not meeting responsibilities Ã¢â‚¬â€ they donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know to what to attribute that. But when parents are told by a professional that their child has a problem Ã¢â‚¬â€ when thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a label put on it Ã¢â‚¬â€ they feel a sense of relief, because now they have something specific to address and help with.
Q: What symptoms of substance abuse should parents be on the lookout for?
P: When a childÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s behavior changes drastically, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s usually a sign that the child is abusing substances. Substance abuse is very evident if you know what to look for: Severe mood swings, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, lying, diminished interest in hobbies or friends, avoiding family and overreaction to criticism are just a few signs of a problem.
Q: How can you decipher the difference between teenage experiments and addiction?
P: There is a very clear difference between experimentation and addiction. Experimentation does not prompt severe behavioral changes like addiction does. If you notice those signs, and if you have to ask yourself if your child has a problem, he probably does.
Q: What’s the best way to intervene if you think your child is abusing drugs or alcohol? Where should you do it? What should you say?
P: ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a very simple answer to this question: Ask yourself what you would do if your child had a debilitating physical disease. YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d do everything in your power to help, right? Addiction is also a disease, so you should seek out as much help and support as you can. Ask your clergy person, a school guidance counselor or your childÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s physician to provide support, too. They are all professionals who can help you develop a plan for intervening. Both parents must be on the same page about their childÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s problem so that they can address their child from a united front. Parents also need to look at their own behavior and addictions, because theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re models for their children. In talking to their kids, parents should address the issue in the same manner in which they would discuss anything else. They should use the same kind of language they normally use to communicate. The conversation should be kept open and comfortable so that the child does not feel as if he is under attack Ã¢â‚¬â€ rather, he should feel loved and nurtured, because an intervention is not an inherently comfortable situation.
Q: Can parents help children themselves, or should they look for a rehabilitation program? And, how do you choose a program?
P: I canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t reiterate enough that an addiction should be addressed like a physical disease Ã¢â‚¬â€ with all the help possible. Unfortunately, though, the first step should be to check your insurance policy to see what it will cover. I am also a firm believer that recovery comes with a loving circle of support, which is part of Lexington Center for RecoveryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mission statement. It is so important for parents and families to be involved. Therefore, I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t believe that sending a child away to “take care of the situation” themselves is a healthy option. Outpatient programs, such as those we offer, begin with evaluations. The evaluation will determine what the core issues are, what the addict needs to work on and how the recovery counselors are going to help. If you donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like the results of the evaluation, or if you donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t like a particular approach to that programÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s recovery process, seek out the help of another program. In Westchester County, there are many options. You can begin your search at the Department of Community Mental Health.
Q: How can you develop a trusting relationship with your child in the context of substance abuse?
P: A trusting relationship has to be developed over time, but when confronting a child about his substance abuse, do it in a loving, caring manner. To prevent your child from feeling attacked in the case of a confrontation or discussion, make sure you express concern. Children donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t want to be patronized, so tell them that you expect them to get help and make suggestions on how they can. That will empower them, enable them to feel more comfortable knowing that they have parental support, and work to overcome their addiction.
Q: When did you start teaching your own children about avoiding drugs? What did you say and how did the language of that message change as they grew up?
P: My philosophy is to be honest about everything with my children, including the nature of my work. I started educating them at a young age about alcohol and substance abuse. My daughters practically grew up at Lexington Center for Recovery. They were always here, interacting with our clients and our counselors. They were exposed to the dangers of substance use and saw firsthand the damage it causes. Of course, they learned about it in school, as well, so the message was coming from a variety of different sources. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s an important factor in educating children: Repetition. If they receive information from a variety of trusted sources, they are more likely to heed advice.
Q: What’s the one thing you wish parents would do to help their kids avoid ending up in a program like yours?
P: Parents really need to look at their own behavior. One of the hardest things for parents to understand is that their behavior is mimicked by their children. It might be one of the hardest things theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll ever do, but if a parent has a drink at dinner every night with their child, they need to strongly consider how their child is going to view alcohol consumption. At the end of the day, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s about behavior modeling.
Thank you very much to Adrienne for sharing her knowledge by doing a Q&P. If you would like to be featured, or you know any parents who have expertise to share, please comment here on the blog or send me an e-mail at email@example.com.
And, in case you missed them, here are links to earlier Q&P features. There are interviews with more than a dozen moms and dads, including a dog trainer dad, financial planner mom, writer mom, mathematician mom, baker mom and pediatric dentist mom.