It’s understandable that one of the scariest issues a parent has to confront is the reality that their son or daughter is abusing drugs or alcohol. The immediate desire to minimize it or even deny that it’s a genuine problem is a defensive response that may often be rooted in feelings of fear or being overwhelmed. If their teenager really does have a problem a cascade of questions ensue: “How did it happen?” “Why are they using?” “What’s the next step?” “Should parents attempt to resolve the problem by themselves?” “Who else should become involved?” “What are the treatment options and what do they cost?”
Sometimes, the questions alone can create a kind of paralysis that stops families in their tracks or encourages them to continue downplaying or “not seeing” the problem. Rationalizations take over. “It’s just a phase.” “My kid will outgrow it.” “They’re just experimenting.” “As long as they do it in my home I can monitor it.” It’s also possible that the parents themselves have addiction issues with either drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, caffeine, nicotine, sex, or the Internet, so their take on what constitutes addictive behavior may be skewed or embedded in denial about their own problems. And in some cases, there may be genuine ignorance about the warning signs that indicate drug and alcohol abuse. For this reason, psycho-education is critically important. The more informed parents are the more difficult it becomes to ignore or deny the problem. The “red flags” of addiction manifest in several different arenas. There are physical and psychological signs as well as behavioral ones. Walking parents through these indicators can actually assist in making an accurate and timely diagnosis, setting in motion the steps towards intervention, and enabling kids, teenagers, and their families to get the help they deserve.
Physical signs might include bloodshot eyes, pupils that are abnormal in size, an increase or decrease in sleeping or eating habits, unusual body or breath odors, sudden weight gain or loss, impaired motor coordination, slurred or pressured speech, or an overall decline in hygiene and physical appearance. Psychological indicators might include increased irritability and volatility, sudden mood swings, lethargy or hyperactivity, increased anxiety, unwarranted paranoia or presenting as detached or “spacey.” Behaviorally, parents should look for sudden academic decline, social isolation, a dramatic change in friendships or where their kids hang out, increased secretiveness, the sense that money or other objects have been stolen from the house, chronic lying, getting into trouble at school, fighting with friends or family members, or getting into legal trouble.
“…the first step is being able to accurately identify what is going on.”
A cluster of any of these signs and symptoms should be taken seriously and rigorously pursued, particularly with the help of trained professionals. So often the first step is being able to accurately identify what is going on, and when parents are equipped with an awareness of these red flags it allow them to more confidently move forward to advocate that their child get the level of treatment that best meets their needs. In addition, many of the aforementioned symptoms can also be indicators of other mental health issues including depression, anxiety, or bi-polarity. Doing a differential diagnosis with the potential of uncovering other untreated issues might offer an explanation as to why the teen is self-medicating, and allows those equally debilitating diagnoses to be addressed as well.
What has been your experience in treating parents of children with addictions; and, what are your suggestions to parents who have downplayed the problem?