“Why is my child using drugs and why won’t he stop”. This is a question we hear all the time from parents who are reaching out for help. And it is not uncommon for parents to feel a variety of negative emotions about their child’s choices. They can feel personally disrespected (“using drugs is not consistent with our family values”), hurt (“why does he do this when he knows how upset it makes me), unloved (“she really doesn’t care about this family). These are all completely understandable reactions, but they are ones that can lock you in a box of miscommunication and increasing distance from your child. At a time when you are frightened and wanting to pull them closer!
When you child is engaging in behaviors that seem destructive, it can be hard to want to understand the ways your child’s behaviors DO makes sense. Your child’s choices make sense to them in some way and if you take a big deep breathe and step back from the high emotions of the moment, you can gather a significant amount of information that you can then use to change the situation. As parent, you probably know better than anyone in your child’s life what his reasons for using are, how getting high serves him (to fit in socially, avoid feeling depressed, lower anxiety). This knowledge is a powerful tool in helping change happen, because it points you in the direction of tools and strategies that can help redirect his behavior toward more positive ways of achieving those goals. Additionally, by seeing that your kid is smoking pot after school as a way to bond with his friends can help you see him as a socially awkward kid who needs to learn some better coping skills rather than a “bad kid” who is just messing with you. And that shift in perspective can go a long ways toward helping you be more likely to influence his choices. For example, it can really take some of the pressure off and maybe even allow him to speak with you more openly.
As you step back to assess what you child is getting from drug or alcohol use, you may begin to recognize there may be other issues at play, such as the complicating factor of possible depression, anxiety, or attention problems.. Sometimes people think of these types of issues as “excuses”…but in fact, recognizing what else is going on is vital to getting the right kind of help. It can also help you speak to the problem differently and offer some simple acknowledgment and understanding of what your child is going through (e.g., “I know it’s hard to say no to your friends when you feel like they will cut you out if you do”, “I see that you are feeling really down”). While it may seem like a small thing, the power of acknowledgment is actually enormous and help you child start talking to you.
And back to the beginning…“why is your child acting like this”? Remember, the choice to use makes sense to the person using. As a parent, if you have some sense of why they are using, what they are getting from it, you can start building in competing activities or reinforcing non-using behavior. It is critical to start rewarding your child for going in a more positive direction, which can be hard to do when you’re lost in the swirl of negative emotions. It can be easy to hold a grudge and notice everything that is going wrong and it is understandable to remain distrustful even when things are going a little better. As you try to support change however, it will be crucial to recognize non-using behaviors and any steps in the positive direction. They are the behaviors you want! And they are much more likely to continue and grow if the behaviors are recognized.