Supporting Children, Youth, and Families in Greater Vancouver since 1990
teen drug abuse

Parents: Choose Connection over Correction When Dealing with Teen Drug Abuse

Teen drug abuse often results in parents suffering overwhelming feelings of powerlessness, frustration, and fear as they attempt to intervene. The parent-child connection is co-opted by an often desperate struggle to regain power and influence over the teen’s behaviour. As the dependency escalates, parents watch their child turn away from school, sports, jobs, family, and friends. They simply stop doing things they once enjoyed. They show signs of weight loss. Your teen stops coming home at night and no longer check-in about where they are, and what they’re doing. Attempts to stay in touch and persuade them to connect are either ignored, or met with anger and hostility.

In a state of fear parents will often start to impose more serious consequences on their teen. They kick them out of the house, impose harsher curfews, or ground them. In addition, parents often threaten to take away cell phones and other privileges. These are typical responses for parents who feel they must do everything they can to get their teen to stop using drugs. These actions are well-intended and extend largely from an acute fear of loss that has reached an intolerable level.

Trust is broken between parent and child when drugs intervene in the relationship. Respect is lost as both parent and teen engage in what often amounts to a battle for power and control. The parent may reach out to drug and alcohol treatment centres, counsellors and other professionals.  However, they discover that there’s no way to get their teen to participate unless they’re willing to acknowledge the problem. This is where maintaining connection becomes a crucial part of reclaiming their child from the influence of drugs.

Recognize your role as the parent in teaching your children about teen drug abuse and the risks and realities of addiction

Having worked for many years with teens and their parents, I’ve come to value every parent’s role in influencing their teens’ choices. I work to help parents recognize the role they continue to play throughout their child’s adolescence. Even when I’ve worked individually with teens at youth clinics and group programs, I’ve learned to use strategies that help teens maintain or restore their connection to their parent or primary caregiver.

Ultimately, I try to bring the parent into the room – both figuratively and literally. As a counsellor and a mother, I recognize that every parent faces the challenge of having their role greatly undermined by popular media and the provision of digital devices that make it more difficult for parents to mitigate harmful exposures to messages and images that overwhelm the psyche of children and teens. 

Parents of teens also lack the educational support of those with younger children. When have we ever seen a parenting magazine with a front-page photo of a tattooed, green-haired, pierced teen? Instead, parenting books, podcasts, and education programs tend to over-focus on early childhood. A belief about promoting independence (which is really about promoting critical thinking and supporting problem solving and planning) has cost too many parents their protective connection to their teen.

This connection serves to protect them from things they simply can’t manage or monitor adequately themselves. A still-growing brain should not be expected to self-monitor screen time. It’s widely known that young teens benefit from parents who work with them to establish and hold them to agreements about daily use of screens. Ideally, limits on screens should be established by parents earlier in childhood and adapted as they grow into the teen years.

Start the difficult conversations

Similarly, teens need their parents to help them make decisions about or manage their drug and alcohol use.  It is every parent’s job to start conversations with their children about their own and others’ use of drugs and alcohol. Talking to your kids before they start high school about the risks of addiction is as important as helping them succeed at school, participate in enriching activities (sports, arts, music) and learn basic life skills.

If you have close relatives who’ve suffered addiction, this increases your own, and your child’s risk of dependency on drugs or alcohol. Work to create a consistent family health message about these risks.  Talk to your kids about access. If you’re aware that drugs are easy to come by in your neighbourhood as witnessed by your own, or others use, your children need to know that this increases their own risk of addiction.

If there is a history of serious mental illness in your family, share this information with your children. Mental illness is another major risk factor for addiction. Families who talk openly about the challenge of living with mental illness will benefit from greater understanding and connection.

This is part 1 of a 2-part series  for parents about teen drug abuse. Coming next: Supporting your teens’ emotional development. This article will address avoiding dismissive responses to feelings and low mood states. In addition, it will discuss how to reconnect and undermine the influence of drugs and alcohol on your teen.

Resources that support parents to stay connected to their teens:

  • Family counselling can help to support your efforts in reconnecting with your teen. Hollyburn provides family therapy services to single parents, married parents, parents and their teens, and extended family members. Review individual counsellor bios and book a session here,  call 604-987-8211 or email email hidden; JavaScript is required. Options for both online and in-person sessions are available. Fees start at $120 per session plus GST. 
  • Watch for upcoming caregiver workshops and other parenting programs offered by Hollyburn Family Services.
  • Mental Health Foundations group of counsellors offer a wide variety of parenting resources. These are aimed at strengthening parents and caregivers’ ability to communicate and connect with their children. 
  • Contact Foundry North Shore to learn more about Caregiver Workshops focused on helping parents support their child and teen’s emotional resilience. 

Maureen Manning, MA, RCC is a Hollyburn family counsellor who provides individual, couple, and family therapy.