Parents who know or suspect their child is using drugs or alcohol are often at a loss for what to do next. Do you take a hard-lined punitive approach? Confront your child? Approach your child as you would a friend?
Molly Bobek, a Senior Research Associate here at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) and a licensed therapist who specializes in family therapy, provides some suggestions for what parents can do when it comes to this difficult situation and explains her approach to helping families concerned about their teen’s substance use.
Center on Addiction: If a parent comes to you after discovering that his or her child is using drugs, what do you say or how do you handle it?
Molly Bobek (MB): I am a family therapist, which means I focus on relationships. If parents discover their teen is using substances, it presents an opportunity to take a look at the relationships within the family.
I have a belief that problems exist between people and not within people. Therefore, building a collaborative and transparent approach between a teen and his or her parents is critical. I also use a spirit of what I call “nonjudgmental curiosity,” an approach that emphasizes asking questions while keeping an open mind. I invite parents to do the same.
My role is to make room for the multiple perspectives of substance use that each member of the family holds. Lecturing teens is not effective, but helping them understand why they may choose to use drugs or alcohol and the impact that substance use has on them can be meaningful.
I also aim to explore how parents are interpreting the substance use. For example, are they considering it a medical problem, a conduct problem, a personal rebellion against them, etc. I look at what emotions it elicits for them, what efforts they may have made to attend to this problem before coming to therapy, and what they are most worried about.
I am not there to tell teens they have a problem with substance use. However, the fact that they come to me with their parents saying they are worried, or that they think there is a problem, is a problem.
Center on Addiction: How do you help improve parental responses in family therapy?
MB: I try to support family members in reducing the behaviors that don’t help improve their relationship with their teen and each other, while increasing the behaviors that are effective, particularly by identifying new skills. Then, I coach them in the practice of these new skills. Anxiety, anger, frustration, and a deep worry often interfere with parents’ ability to change their approach to family interactions in light of a teen’s substance use. I want to validate each family member's emotional experience.
I also try to put the substance use in its proper place by attending to other challenges the family is facing, as well as speaking about the resilient aspects of the family. For example, I encourage parents to understand what is working in the teen’s life, or asking, “If we weren’t here to talk about Jr.’s substance use, what would we be talking about?”
Center on Addiction: What advice would you give to parents for how they can address teen substance use in their family if they are not in therapy?
MB: I would say to be curious about your teen’s life, but not in a judgmental way. This boils down to thinking about what your teen is thinking and feeling, and what he or she is hopeful or worried about. If your child is using substances, try to ask questions like:
What does your teen think is good about using drugs?
Is there anything he or she worries about related to drugs?
What does your teen know about the risks of drug use?
What does your teen imagine parents do not understand about drug use?
If your approach related to substance use is based on punishment, your teen is less likely to talk to you about it. This does not mean that there shouldn’t be consequences, but rather that parents should position themselves as resources for their teens and not as their probation officers.
Center on Addiction: What other things can a parent do to help steer their kids away from alcohol or drugs?
MB: Boundary-pushing, sensation seeking, and being pulled towards peer relationships are all developmentally normal. A parent can encourage safer activities that still meet these needs: rock climbing, skateboarding, and making music with friends are just some ideas.
Remember: The relationship with your teen is the most important thing to attend to and not lose sight of when you’re concerned about substance use. Effectively preventing or stopping teen substance use over the long-term cannot happen in the absence of a strong and caring family relationship.