Teens and Drugs: Helping Parents Chill Out

By Barry Lessin 04/03/13

A teen's drug use can cause parents to make bad decisions that damage their child. By tapping into what harm reduction and skilled parenting share, therapists can help parents to truly help.

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Discovering that a teen has started experimenting with drugs or alcohol is troubling to any parent. Worry can quickly escalate into fear, especially when attempts to intervene fail. Many parents often feel helpless and out of control.

Confronted with the news that their child is getting high, the first question parents often ask me is, “How can I get him to stop?” The answer is, “That is not the place to start.

As therapists, we need to be able to work with families around alcohol and substance use in an effective manner. Here I offer insights that incorporate the wisdom of skilled parenting (compassion, respect, trust, creating safety, dialogue, encouraging autonomy) combined with the wisdom of harm reduction. They can help guide our work with parents to help them regain a sense of control and effectiveness. Parents don’t need to reinvent themselves as parents in order to become more confident when drugs and alcohol enter the family circle.

Harm reduction pioneer Stanton Peele has long said that common-sense, time-tested parenting principles can be used to help parents cope more effectively with the challenge of a child’s risky behaviors. Harm reduction’s premise that everyone engages, to some extent, in risks fits with psychological theories of normal adolescent development, during which risk-taking and challenging limits and authority help children establish independence and identity.

The pillars of harm reduction can complement those of effective parenting. Harm reduction holds four important lessons: 1. people do drugs for reasons; 2. it’s easiest to connect with someone when we start “where they’re at”; 3. small positive change is still change; and 4. “hitting bottom” isn’t a prerequisite for lasting change.

Now let’s consider how the four pillars of harm reduction can guide treatment.

1. People use drugs for reasons

Our brains are hard-wired to move toward pleasure and away from pain. Substances can offer many short-term psychological benefits: reduce anxiety, soothe depression and generally cope with the pain close to the core of more serious personality issues. They help us relax, sleep, have fun, improve creativity and be more energized. (Over the long term these benefits may reveal their destructive costs to a person’s ability to work, love and function in the world.)

Parents under the influence of “tough love” may say, “Everyone tells us kicking her out is the only way she’ll get her act together.”

Harm reduction encourages us to think of substance use in these terms—and of the user’s “relationship” with the substance. This is important for parents to understand when talking about substance use with their child. 

Acknowledging a child’s drug use doesn’t mean condoning it. But rather than starting from a warning about the dangers—and avoiding the judgment that substance use is a moral failing—a focus on the child’s own experience, such as “How do you feel when you take this drug? What does it do for you?” can engage the child in a mutual exploration. Each child has her own reasons, which likely reflect common issues that most teenagers face, such as stress, depression, and pressures to “fit in.” Parents often forget that they were teenagers once facing the same challenges.

Parents should also be encouraged to examine their own past or present relationship with substances—not always a comfortable task. Often this question arises: “If I tell my child that I partied a lot when I was his age, won’t I lose my credibility with my rules about his use?” My own belief is that honesty is the best policy; it will model the openness that they want from their kids.

2. Meeting people “where they're at”

Engaging a teen in a supportive process of change by starting with her beliefs and attitudes about her drug use is meeting her “where she’s at.” This requires parents to put aside their own attitudes and beliefs in order to listen. Listening encourages dialogue.

Most kids aren’t very willing to discuss personal issues, such as their substance use, often anticipating parental disappointment (or worse). Shame and stigma associated with admitting you have a problem, plus the dreaded “threat” of being sent to a therapist, are good reasons for a teen to keep his lips sealed.

Teens in conflict with parents over drug use are often mired in distrust and defensiveness, having long ago tuned out lectures and warnings. Parents should be encouraged to save their breath when launching into lecture mode. Even when continuing to deny the extent of their substance use, many kids will admit that they want to regain fractured trust. Meeting teens at this place can be a good place to start.

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Barry Lessin is a Licensed Psychologist with a private practice in Philadelphia and almost 40 years of work as a clinician, administrator, educator, researcher and drug policy reformer. Find Barry on Linkedin or Twitter.