As a clinician working with the families who have a child using substances, I get a lot of questions about a lot of things…“should we send her away”? “what is the MATTER with him”? “what did we do wrong”?. The most painful one, which is often unspoken, is…”Do you really get how brutally scary and humiliating this whole thing is”?
And when families refer to “this whole thing,” they mean “my child is using substances, and it’s somewhere between a chronic worry and an all-out disaster in my family”. They understandably want to know who they can turn to to help them figure out some answers to the most important problem in their life.
The reality is that when a child is struggling with substances, there are practical problems that come along for the ride (school suspensions, legal issues, scary friends hanging around). These problems all cause financial and emotional strain on the family surrounding the child. In addition, people who care for the child are typically in a lot of pain, the kind that comes out in the form of guilt, anger, frustration, shame, sadness and hopelessness.
When a family is trying to help a child (no matter what the age), they are desperate and frantic for answers.
Unfortunately, instead of getting answers, they often get a LOT of opinions, mostly of the black and white, tough love sort, that are actually less helpful and sometimes very harmful. There are however, some very helpful answers out there, with a lot of evidence behind them (as we often say, there are many paths and many options). Some of the most important, scientifically proven answers are:
- you can stay involved and help
- you can also take care of yourself at the same time (this is vital!)
- these are not mutually exclusive.
As far as families are concerned, these three points are possibly the most important and most under-valued facts in the world of substance abuse treatment right now. And, they are your key to finding a loving, connected, and effective way to help your kid deal with their substance use.
But this is not what you as a parent have heard, right? The “tough love”, “let them hit bottom” ideas most parents hear about are rampant in our culture, our media coverage of substance issues, and in our professional ranks as well! So we understand the fact that a different, compassionate and “stay connected” message comes as a surprise. But it’s a surprise based on evidence and research data, not just our desire to encourage you to “be nice”. CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) and motivational approaches have been demonstrated in multiple studies to help families navigate these struggles with less anxiety and depression, and with a greater ability to be helpful to their child or loved one.
The information about these effective ways of approaching family substance issues, which have been actually been available for the last 15 years or so, are still not widespread. Just turn on your TV and watch a re-run of “Intervention” to see the old style in all its glory. In an effort to help our industry come out of the dark age, we wrote a book, “Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change” and a workbook “The 20 Minute Guide: A guide for Parents about how to Help their Children Change their Substance Use”. Both of these resources are designed to provide families with a roadmap of the treatment world, as well as exposure to the tools and strategies that we would otherwise have to do one by one in therapy sessions.
But these efforts are not enough. Our belief is that the conversation needs to change at a more grassroots level, with a change in attitude being driven from the “bottom up”. And this is where the power of parents comes in…in fact, we think the answer is parents. Parents talking to other parents. Parents learning how to stay involved and take care of their children and themselves. Parents coaching other parents how to survive and thrive while they help their children. Parents offering hope based on their own experience and using tools like those in the 20 Minute Guide. We think that if you give parents tools that are proven to work, and let them help, guide, coach, and support other parents who are in the thick of it…things might really start to change. Because when a parent, who has gone through an experience with their child, answers that question about “fear and humiliation”, it helps in a way that no psychologist could. The most powerful person to listen to a struggling, scared, frustrated parent is another parent who has walked that walk. That is who the parent in pain wants to hear from!
And…parents care in a way that is unending. It’s a well that never runs dry, whether it’s about your own kid, coaching another parent, or advocating in the world for a system that makes more sense. On a practical level, there are millions of parents struggling with their kids…and there will never be enough professional assistance to deal with this mountain-sized problem. Parents talking to parents is a huge, powerful and motivated force to offer informed, clear, and useful support to other parents.
We at CMC have initiated a project with the The Partnership for Drugfree Kids (1-855-DRUGFREE or 855-378-4373) over the last 3 years to train parents to be coaches, utilizing these evidence-based tools for change. We hope to continue this work both through in-person trainings as well as through online resources, so that the conversation can be helped to change more quickly. So, if you are a parent who is reading this, maybe you can do your part by sharing this article or any post from CMC’s Blog for Families (you can find on our website) as a way to start changing this conversation and letting the world know that you can love your kids and care for them even while they are struggling to make change. And that no one in your family should have to “hit bottom” in order to change.