Being a parent is hard under the best circumstances. Being a parent of a child who is using substances can feel like you’re being forced to run a marathon with a lead vest on! It can feel like you’re all alone and have to juggle everything in your own life while at the same time being your child’s support. This stress can be enough to make you feel more than a little crazy, frantic, angry or so overwhelmed you just want to give up.
There is hope! There are many skills that parents can use to help reduce the difficulty and distress associated with parenting a substance using child. These tools can help you help your children change their substance use as well as help you help yourself survive the process! While there are many skills to choose from (for a concise and useful version of them, look at the20minuteguide.com), the following 5 are easy to implement and can have an immediate positive impact on both you and your child.
1. Talk about it!
The impulse for many, if not most parents who are dealing with a child struggling with substances is to keep it all quiet. The thinking might go something like this: “this is difficult enough, do I really want to involve more people, and more ideas into this?” And, “I’m really ashamed! What if they judge me? What if they judge my child? I’m better off dealing with this alone.”
This style of thinking makes a lot of sense. Often, when we bring up a “problem” with other people, they try and “solve” it, even if they don’t know all the information, so it seems easier to just keep it to yourself. Or, if there doesn’t seem to be a solution, sharing it can make you feel like your being a burden to someone else.
The problem with thinking like this is that when you don’t discuss what’s going on for you, you end up isolated and alone. And in this space many other problems can take hold like despair and depression. Parents we work with repeat over and over that the moment that they found a group of people they could talk to, the faster they felt like they had the support and strength to keep being an effective helper for their children.
2. Practice Listening
The default position of most helpers, myself included, is to try and offer help. We talk and give suggestions, ideas, thoughts, and feedback. The problem is, sometimes the best way to help is not to talk at all. Sometimes, what’s called for is listening.
When we listen, really listen, we can gather information that we would never have otherwise had access to. And, when we listen actively, meaning that we listen with no other distractions, and give visual signs that we are listening (like nodding your head and making eye contact), we encourage the other person to share more. This seemingly simple act is difficult, so you have to practice. See if you can spend 2 minutes doing nothing but listening. And, when you’re ready, try some of these listening skills to take your listening to the next level.
3. Find Alternate Behaviors
Let’s face it, substance use is reinforcing. Maybe it helps you feel relaxed. Maybe it helps you have more fun, or be more social. Perhaps it helps you by getting rid of things you don’t like, like anxiety or sadness or fear. In any of these situations, using a substance is reinforcing to the person who is using it, which makes it harder for them to be willing or interested in stopping.
If you can use your listening skills from before to help recognize what your child gets from using substances, then you can start to work on finding alternative ways of helping them get that result. So, if your child feels that substances helps them connect with friends more, see if you can find something that they can do that doesn’t have substances, like going to a game, or inviting people over to hang at your house. If it’s relaxation, perhaps helping your child find other ways of relaxing, like getting a massage. If you can find out what they are getting from their substance use, you may be able to help them find alternatives as well.
4. Catch Them Being Good
When a child is getting attention for misbehaving, it can be a major drag on them, and on you. When they are getting attention for being good, everyone’s mood and spirits rise. If you can shift your attention to what they are doing well versus what they are doing wrong, you can help change the script at home and in their lives.
For this one, you may have to start small and search hard for those moments where they are doing something well. Did they remember to pick up their clothes off the floor? That counts! Did they get their homework in on time this week? Check! Even if they are still slipping, but you can see them trying, we can point that out. Noticing that they are working towards change and doing things well can help foster an environment that competes with substance use.
5. Be Kind to Yourself!
All behavior change is a slow process. Changing substance use behaviors is especially slow. And, you’re a human being, who isn’t always going to get everything right! Be kind to yourself when your struggling, and generous to yourself when you’re feeling weak. Change takes time, and comes with many missteps along the way. If you can treat yourself the way you would treat a friend who was going through something similar, with compassion and caring, you can weather the long road ahead.
Like I said, being a parent is hard. And, being skillful can make the difficult process of change for your child and your family easier.