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Connecting With Your Substance-Abusing Teen

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

James and Tammy are parents of Liz, 17, who routinely hangs out with a “party crowd” at school. She’s been caught drinking during lunch hour in the parking lot and was suspended from school from three days. She refuses to obey her parent’s rules of a midnight curfew on weekends and frequently stays out all night.

Both James and Tammy recognize there is a serious problem, but each have their own method of trying to solve it. Tammy wants to approach Liz with literature on the dangers of drug use, while James wants to ground her for several days and user physical force if necessary.

Drugs and Alcohol Abuse Among Teens

When a teen begins experimenting with substances, it inevitably starts to complicate family life. Communication gets confusing, there is more conflict and parents often are at a loss of how to intervene. These stressors can put an enormous strain a marriage, but how parents respond to this crisis usually determines whether the situation moves toward stability or more chaos.

Both James and Tammy are well intentioned, but fail to ask the underlying questions: Why is Liz making these choices? What is she really communicating by her behavior and refusal to comply with their wishes?

Because they are both focused on correcting Liz’s behavior – not on tuning in to her real needs – they are not getting closer to a possible solution.

The Real Problem

The underlying question in this situation is why Liz is making these choices. What is she really communicating by her behavior and refusal to comply with their wishes?

The core of the problem is that Liz doesn’t feel she can open up to either parent about her struggles because she often feels criticized and judged by them. As a result, Liz confides in friends who seem to accept her unconditionally. When she is drinking with her friends, she feels free to speak her mind. The drinking is ultimately a means of relationally connecting with people who accept her.

In order to stop the ever-widening gap James and Tammy feel in their relationship with Liz, they must put less emphasis on the substance use and more energy toward tuning in to their daughter’s inner life. It won’t be easy, but it’s never too late to improve the process of communication in a family.

Take Action

Here are three practical ways you can begin tuning in to your teen’s inner life and send a powerful message that you care:

Listen with an emotional ear: As parents, we are great at giving advice. Unfortunately, our sage counsel can shut teens down emotionally if it’s poorly placed. They just want someone to listen without offering judgment or advice. In order to do this, you must be willing to defer your own perspective and listen attentively. Listen carefully for the feelings embedded in their stories. Do you hear anger, sadness, mistrust or confusion? Make mental notes as you listen.

Reflect and gently probe for feelings: After listening for a bit, choose the emotion you think is most prominent in your teen’s story and reflect it back to them. The idea is not to be a therapist, but rather to send the message that you hear the core emotion in their story. This will help them feel understood.

Validate the emotion: End the conversation by validating your teen’s emotion (whether you agree with them or not). This can be accomplished by saying something as simple as, “I hear you. It’s okay to feel the way you do and I thank you for sharing it with me.” In validating their emotion, you send the message that what they feel and struggle with matters to you because they matter to you.

These are skills that take practice. If it doesn’t go well the first few times you try, keep working at it. Teens are less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol for relief if they feel emotionally connected to you. Nothing soothes the soul more than feeling secure in a loving relationship.


Image Courtesy of iStock

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