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Having problems with your teen and alcohol or other drugs? Three tips that may help parents

Hardly a week goes by without me hearing from a parent struggling to deal with their child’s alcohol or other drug use. Some of these people put on as brave a face as possible when they speak to me, while others are terribly distraught, some even breaking down in tears, desperate to find a solution to the problems they’re family is facing. I need to make clear that I’m not a trained counsellor or health professional, and those who contact me for advice in this area have to be aware of that. I’m also not a parent so it’ impossible for me to imagine what these people are going through. When I’m approached by those in this situation, I see my role more as one of referral, trying to direct them to the correct services, agencies, as well as health professionals who may be able to assist them with their problem. There are usually three pieces of advice, however, that I do give them, three simple ‘must-do’s’ that any parent struggling with a teen and their alcohol and other drug use can and should do to help them get through this extremely difficult time. They are as follows:

  • Make sure you and your partner are okay before you do anything else. By the time these parents speak to me the vast majority are not in a good headspace. They’ve been struggling to deal with what’s been going on in their home for some time and the whole family is usually suffering. Marriages are sometimes at breaking point and if there are other children (particularly younger siblings) they too can be terribly affected. Let’s be clear, if you’re a mess then there’s no way that you’re going to be able to help your teen. Don’t be afraid to get professional help. Many are afraid to do this, believing it means they’ve ‘failed’ as parents – nothing could be further from the truth. You can go to your GP and ask for a referral to a health professional who specializes in this area, or if you feel comfortable speaking to the counsellor at the school your child attends, they may also be able to assist. Whoever you speak to, you need to use the opportunity to talk through what you’re going through and possibly even get some strategies on how to communicate with your child more effectively. It’s vital however that this is all about you, at this point it’s not about fixing your child’s problem, it’s about ensuring that you’re ok. You can worry about your child’s issue once this is done
  • Before you react to anything, walk away and count to 10. Parents in this situation usually talks about the clashes they have with their teen and that these are escalating. They’re usually due to the child not doing something that was expected of them or flagrantly breaking a rule and then the parent reacting. One simple thing that’ll almost automatically reduce the suffering in the home is never, ever react immediately. You’re angry, they’ve been found out and their back is against the wall – it’s not going to end well. This simple strategy doesn’t help solve the drug issue you’re having with your teen but it does make life more bearable. When something happens, walk away – count to 10, make a quick call to a friend and vent, scrawl out swear words on a piece of paper for a couple of minutes – and then go back to them and express your concerns. Once the old pattern of reacting straight away is broken, you have a better chance of dealing with the issue in a more positive way (and you’ll feel less stressed)
  • Remember, you’re the adult and they’re the child. Parents often say “But they won’t even meet me halfway”. A key to good parenting in this area is to set clear boundaries and rules and make sure consequences are in place should they break those rules. Teens are likely to push against those boundaries and you’ll need to respond accordingly – that’s a normal parent-child relationship. Unfortunately, some teens are going to ignore rules altogether and no matter what you do, they’re simply not going to tow the line. In these cases, instead of keeping insisting they meet you halfway, you may have to go ‘over halfway’, reach over and grab them and then pull them back. You’re not going to have total control over their behaviour, no matter what you do. If you obviously have a problem and you’re losing them, you have to change tack. I’m talking about a change in attitude – no matter how mature they may think they are, you’re dealing with an adolescent who doesn’t have a fully developed brain. They aren’t able to think through things rationally and everything is based on a ‘gut reaction’. Remembering this when you’re trying to talk to a difficult teen is not going to solve the problem but it may at least lower your frustration level.

If you do have a child who you believe is having issues with alcohol and other drugs you need to remember that you’re not alone. You also need someone to talk to about it. If you have a family member or friend that you believe is appropriate – go for it – but in my experience, so often parents who go down this route end up feeling even more frustrated when the person they trusted ends up telling them not to worry and that ‘it’s just a stage they’re going through.’

If you do need to talk through what is going on in your family and you want someone to talk to who is going to understand what you’re going through, I advise parents to contact Family Drug Support (FDS). FDS was formed in 1997 by Tony Trimingham who lost his son to a heroin overdose. It’s a caring, non-religious and non-judgmental organization primarily made up of volunteers who’ve experienced first-hand the trauma and chaos of having family members with drug issues. They have a Support Line for parents that operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – 1300 368 186.

The most important thing parents need to do if they find themselves in this situation is to make sure they’re ok before they do anything else. This can involve getting professional help or simply having a great family or friend support network around them when things get tough. Remember, you’re no good to your child if you’re not coping well – when you feel good (or at least better) you’re going to be able to deal with this type of issue much more positively and effectively.

Published: September 2017

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If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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