How You Can Help Your Addicted Teen

Help your addicted teenWhether your teen is addicted to alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, shoplifting, sex, or a relationship, you can help your addicted teen in his or her recovery and healing. Here are some things that you can do.

Understand the nature of addiction and recovery.  Addiction is any behavior that is an obsession, compulsion, or where there is excessive physical dependence and/or psychological dependence.

According to the criteria of American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, an addict has at least three of the following criteria:

  • Tolerance and increased use over time
  • Withdrawal symptoms when one stops using
  • Difficulty controlling use or behavior
  • Negative consequences to one’s mood, self-esteem, health, school, job, and relationships
  • Significant time, thought, or emotional energy obtaining, using, concealing, planning, or recovering from the behavior
  • Stopping or neglecting relationships and social, recreational, school, work, or family activities
  • Unsuccessful attempts to stop or control one’s use or behavior

The desire to be free of the addiction is the first step in recovery. Taking the next step of actually stopping the use or behavior requires learning about addiction and recovery, staying away from high-risk situations and unsafe people, building a support network, learning new ways of coping and social skills, and replacing those feelings, thoughts, and behaviors while in the addiction with ones that are based on the principles of sobriety, recovery, and spiritual growth.

In recovery, the addict learns how to have a healthy and balanced lifestyle, while facing his or her past and unresolved issues (such as grief or abuse), forgiving others and self, and repairing friendships and family relationships. The goal is to be free, to love and be loved, to be emotionally healthy, and to live a happy and satisfied life.

Be accountable for your own behavior.  People who are accountable seek the truth about themselves, others, and the world around them.  They want to know what reality is and they have a firm commitment to live in that reality.

The truth is that a person does not become an addict in isolation.  Addiction belongs to the family ― not just the addict. Many addicts have grown up or live in an unstable family environment or have suffered from emotional trauma (such as death of a friend or family member, being bullied, dating violence). Physical abuse and sexual abuse are not uncommon. Almost all addicts have suffered from some type of emotional abuse and/or neglect. It is also well established that addiction runs in families (read The Genetics of Addiction).

It’s easy to place the accountability of addiction’s turmoil all on the addict. But, addiction belongs not just to the addict, it belongs to the family. You ― and each person in the family ― are part of the dance of addiction.

Take accountability for your own emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. Be honest about those behaviors that do not support healing and positive growth for you and your family. What do you need to learn about yourself? What issues are you hiding from? What secrets do you keep? Do you hold yourself back from deep, close, and intimate relationships? Do you have addictive behaviors? Does your behavior match your words? Are you creating a safe and secure home? Is your communication honest and loving?

If you want your teen to be responsible and honest, then you must be too. Your teen’s addiction brings you the opportunity to make positive changes in your own life and transform your family through your own healing.  

Realize that you can’t trust an addict.  Lying and manipulation are part of the addict’s self-deception that also leads him or her to hide from others. It isn’t that the addict wants to let you down or betray you. It’s because the substance or behavior has become his or her god that takes priority over everything else ― and the addict’s denial of this truth. The feeling of shame and fear of being discovered drain the addict’s energies even further. Trust will be earned back when, over time, the behavior of the addict consistently matches his or her words. 

Don’t lose yourself in codependency.  When trying to help someone recover from addiction, many become addicted to saving the addict, fixing things, or being needed by the addict. Show your love and support by saying and doing what the addict needs ― the truth and what is right.  Not what the addict wants to hear and not to “keep the peace.” 

Set solid boundaries.  Stay true to yourself and your principles. Total Transformation, an at-home program for parents and professionals, gives strategies on setting limits,  communication, implementing consequences, and teaching teens to take responsibility for their actions, attitudes, and emotions. Healthy boundaries are the bedrock of good relationships, maturity, safety, and growth for teens and the adults in their lives. To learn more, read Boundaries with Teens: When To Say Yes, How To Say No by Dr. John Townsend

Get support.  Healing and recovery can’t take place in isolation. The addict needs support from others and you do too. Al-AnonFamilies AnonymousCo-Dependents Anonymous (CoDA), and other support groups help bring insight, comfort, strength, and community to the families and friends of addicts. Counselors and therapists help in working through unresolved issues, traumatic events, and past wounds. Life coaches, such as Confidence in Parenting and Accept, Allow & Believe support you in reaching your personal and family goals while dealing with your present situation. Find a place of worship where relationship is preached and community is formed. Reach out to those people who are safe ― those who are there for you, who love and accept you with no condemnation or shame, those who you can trust for truth and loving confrontation. We were created for relationship. It’s healthy and necessary to need others, to connect with others, to have community. It’s how we learn, love, and grow.

Understand what you can and cannot do.  Reality cannot be changed. Your teen is an addict.  You can accept this reality, support your teen in his or her recovery, set clear boundaries, work on your own personal growth, be honest and accountable for your own behavior, make responsible decisions, and show your love in words and action. You cannot make your teen ― or anyone else ― change or want to change. You are not God ― there’s just so much that you can do.

The Serenity Prayer, powerful and beautiful in its simplicity, expresses this balance between acceptance and change. When you realize that you cannot control everything, trust it to the one who can.

Serenity Prayer

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