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5 Lessons for Parents of Substance-Abusing Teens

Having an adolescent or young adult child who abuses drugs and alcohol can be a nightmare. Not only do you fear for their health, well-being and future, but your fear may be compounded by feeling completely in the dark about your son or daughter’s problems.

Parents may have many questions: Is he using? What is she using and how much? Most people use substances in adolescence, so is this just normal teenage experimentation or is this real addiction? There is alcoholism in my family – are my children fated to have this problem too? Am I over-reacting or am I right to be concerned? If I take a strong stand against drinking and drugs will it push my child away even further? Have I not been tough enough – should I just give more severe punishments? Is this problem life-threatening? Who can help us? How can I get her to go to treatment? Of course, the most pressing and confusing question for many parents is: What should I do?

In over 10 studies in the United States and Europe, Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT) has been found to be an effective treatment to ameliorate adolescent substance use and delinquency, and to improve school performance, parental functioning and family relationships.

Here are five essential lessons for parents gleaned from Multidimensional Family Therapy.

    • Parents are not to blame for their child’s substance abuse but are critical in finding a solution. Substance abuse is very complicated, and the best science suggests that there are many intersecting factors at work. While many studies identify family factors as being critical to whether adolescents abuse substances, these findings point more to the protective power of parental influence than anything negative. The bottom line is that parents are not to blame, and blaming yourself or your spouse or your genetics will not do anything to solve the problem. Unfortunately, even some professionals blame parents for their children’s problems and believe the only way to heal the youth is to separate them from their parents and “toxic families.” There is no evidence to support this idea. In fact, science suggests that the most effective treatments for youth substance abuse involve the parents and helping families find solutions by coming together, not growing further apart.

There remains a deep connection between parents and children no matter how tense it may seem, and this is what will save your child in the long run.-Gayle A. Dakof

    • Parents are the medicine. Many parents feel completely ineffective with their teenage children (whether they are using substances or not). Parents often say to therapists: “You talk to him. He listens to everybody except me. He doesn’t want to hear anything I say!” While this may feel very true at moments, almost all adolescents are influenced by their families more than anyone else. In actuality, counselors and treatment programs cannot have the kind of influence that parents have with their children. In therapy, we often tell parents: “Look, if I could meet with your son and get him to stop using drugs and alcohol and do better in school, I would be happy to do it. But the reality is that it doesn’t work like that. I cannot do this like you can. This is because you are his parents, and although you feel like he pays no attention to you, it is not true. There remains a deep connection between parents and children no matter how tense it may seem, and this is what will save your child in the long run.”


    • Parents must parent as a united team. All parents have differences in how to rear their children whether parenting together in a solid marriage or having been separated or divorced. This is often exacerbated when dealing with a child who is abusing drugs and alcohol. Nevertheless, it is essential that parents resolve there differences in parenting, put conflicts aside, and come together for the sake of the child. Effective parental teamwork is essential to getting your child off drugs. This is particularly true with blended families in which there can be much less communication and teamwork.
      Resolve your differences away from the children. Develop a process to discuss the issues, problems, and possible solutions. The best way you can help your child is to work as a united team because you will be much stronger together than you would be working at odds. An adolescent who sees her parents working together for her sake can be influenced in ways that no one parent could have influenced her independently. Sometimes you will need to agree on one person’s idea, sometimes you will compromise somewhere in the middle, and at other times together you will come up with a completely new idea. The point is you must set aside time away from the children to discuss the issues, resolve your differences, and make an action plan that you both can agree on.
      Implement your parenting plan as a team. Present any new house rules, consequences, incentives and structure as a team. Once you have decided on the house rules and what you are going to do about the substance use and other problems, present your decision together as a united front. You will have more influence on your youth if you are a strong team and they see that you are resolved to work together.

Youth in these circumstances typically think that their parents do not love or care about them, and this will drive the youth further away from parental influence and mainstream societal values.-Gayle A. Dakof

    • Avoid harsh or extreme stances. Although you may be very angry at your teen at times because of your fear and concern, and feel you have tried everything and nothing works, it is very important not to take harsh and extreme stances you may regret later. Sometimes treatment professionals and others may suggest harsh stances such as changing the locks on the house and not allowing your teen or young adult in the house when he is drunk or high; taking down his bedroom door; threatening to kick him out of the house; kicking him out of the house. These harsh actions generally do not work. Instead, they may cause the youth to move farther away from his family and hence diminish family influence. I have never heard a youth say, “My parents locked me out of the house. I had nowhere to go. I slept on the front porch and then I was couch surfing. I learned my lesson. I will stop using drugs. Wow, this was a wake up call!” Instead, these harsh actions tend to harden the youth’s heart and make her more angry and hurt. Youth in these circumstances typically think that their parents do not love or care about them, and this will drive the youth further away from parental influence and mainstream societal values.


  • There are alternatives to extreme parental stances. When we suggest no extreme or harsh stances, some parents reply: “But what else am I to do? I’ve tried everything. Nothing works. I have other children in the house. It is bad for them. It is ruining our marriage. I am getting sick. I can’t let this continue.” Of course, parents cannot go on living this way with the fear, the lies, the stealing, the arguments, the physical aggressions, the self-destruction and so on. We are not suggesting that parents just grin and bare it. However, there is a way to take a strong stance about what is acceptable and what unacceptable without kicking your child out of your house.

    For example, if parents have come to the “I can’t take it anymore place,” we recommend that they have a serious and calm talk with their child about how much they love their child and also how the problematic behaviors cannot continue. For example, a parent may say something like this: “We cannot have you coming home at all hours of the night drunk or high. You cannot stay out all night without permission. You need to go to school every day and try your best. You cannot be using drugs and alcohol. These are the basic rules. We are not going to let you ruin your life. We love you too much. But if you cannot follow these rules or you refuse, then we are going to sit down and figure out what to do next. It will not be business as usual. We love you and want you here with us, but we are willing to take the next step if we must.” This “next step” may certainly involve legal authorities and treatment professionals who can help stabilize a teen who is out of control. In MDFT, we work in collaboration with such important influences to help teenagers and families remain safe and as connected as possible throughout these difficult crises. The point is that there are ways to handle such challenges without creating further disconnection.

When parents take a firm but loving stance as suggested above, the teen often finally understands that the parents mean it and that they are being firm because they love him. Most teens come to understand that parents implement rules and structure because they cannot let them ruin their lives, and will take whatever action necessary. This can be the motivation that helps some youth take their parents, the outpatient treatment, and themselves more seriously and start making positive changes.

Sometimes, the youth cannot or will not change and then the parents may need to place the child, for example, in residential treatment. However, if it is done in the manner suggested here, then the youth will understand it as an act of love instead of an act of rejection. Even a short stay in residential treatment is not the end of parental influence or the family’s connection. We help parents understand that the ultimate healing will take place together as a family and will continue the rest of their lives.

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