In part 1, we discussed the problems of the traditional parent/child relationship and how it can increase rather than decrease the anxiety of your adolescent child. Here are some suggestions on how to change the parent/child dynamic to decrease your child’s baseline anxiety which will decrease the perceived benefits of taking drugs. This is vitally important as the decreased benefit will lower the risk for addiction to all drugs if your child experiments with mind altering substances.
The first step in changing the dynamics of the parent/child relationship involves having “The Talk”
For most kids, at an age between 10 (for girls) and 12 (for boys), the parent must clearly explain how they are going to change their parenting style to help “coach” their kids from childhood to adulthood. Start the conversation with something like this:
“You are no longer a child, but you are not yet an adult. For the next 10 years of so, you will be going through a lot of physical and emotional changes that can be difficult. To help you, I’m going to change how I parent you. Since the goal is to teach you how to be a responsible adult, I’m going to start to give you more responsibility. As we go through this together, I expect to gradually give you more autonomy for making your own decisions. The goal is by the time you are 21, you’ll be absolutely independent. As I give you more freedom to run your life you will need to take more responsibility for your decisions. It’s important for both of us to realize that there we don’t expect you to be perfect and it’s all right to make mistakes. My priority is to protect you from severe harm and from harming others while allowing you to figure things out. Etc, etc.”
This parenting style goes against what most parents feel they should do to “protect” their children from harm. The traditional parenting style is to restrict and attempt to control our teenage children’s behavior. Although, this style works from preventing pre-adolescent children from harm, it is ineffective for the teenager. The younger child is unaware of the dangers of crossing the street or keeping out of harms way. The adolescent child, on the other hand, is usually aware of the dangers of drugs, unprotected sex, drinking and driving, etc, but think they are “immune” from harm. When considering which areas to provide freedom, a good strategy is to allow more autonomy in areas that are not dangerous, such as finishing schoolwork, bed time, diet, etc. As the child demonstrates success with their new responsibilities, the parent can gradually provide more autonomy with activities that are potentially dangerous such as driving, etc.
If is important to set boundaries and expectations for both the parent and the child. This is an opportunity to openly discuss and establish an agreement on the details of the changing parent/child relationship. Topics could include grades, family chores, allowance/money, cell phone/social media, curfew, driving privileges, auto insurance, parties, dating, etc.
I learned this by my interactions with my own children. My thought was that I was older, more mature, and had helpful information that would help my child through the “maze” they must negotiate leading them from childhood to adulthood. To the child, unsolicited advice can be interpreted as, “my dad/mom doesn’t think I’m capable of making my own decisions, or my dad doesn’t understand what I’m going through and thinks what they did when they were my age is relevant to my situation. etc.”
The importance of changing the parenting style from one of control to one of empowerment is the goal of self-sufficiency. A parent using more controlling style may also have unrealistic expectations for their kids. The kids feel they must be “perfect.” which will predictably increase the anxiety, stress, and situational depression that is common in adolescence. When you combine parental induced stress with unsolicited parental advice, it is predictable that the child will stop meaningful communication with the parent. In this situation, it would be natural for the child to attempt to hide things from the parent and maybe act out in defiance. Both behaviors would predictably increase the risk of drug use.
In order to allow a healthier maturation process, suggested parenting style would include:
Gradual increased autonomy and responsibility (and consequences)
Taking the time to understand your child’s experiences without judgement
Practice doing a lot of listening instead of talking
Only offering advice when your child asks for it
Setting and agreeing to expectations for both parent and child
Periodically reviewing and making adjustments to the agreements regarding both responsibilities of the child, but hopefully increased freedom and autonomy
By using this parenting style, the teenager’s angst will decrease as will the anxiety, stress, and pressure that often leads them to experimentation and self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. A lower baseline anxiety will also decrease the perceived “benefits” the teenager receives from their experiences with drugs or alcohol.
Adolescent with controlling parents and little autonomy
- John/Jane's parents are super controlling and have extremely high expectations regarding their grades, friends, socializing, performance, social media, computer gaming, dating, chores, work, money, etc.
- They give unsolicited advice and don’t take the time to really “listen” to their child’s challenges without judgement.
- John/Jane is struggling with their identity, the changes their bodies and minds go through in adolescence.
- From the outside, it looks like they are thriving to their parents, friends and teachers/coaches
- Inside, they are anxious, stressed, and sometimes have situational depression.
- Even though they have hundreds or thousands of Facebook “friends” or Instagram followers, etc, they ironically feel isolated and no one really understands them.
- In this situation, John/Jane is apt to have an extremely high anxiety level.
- They are attempting to be perfect to meet their parent’s expectations but also be accepted by their peer group. The pressures associated with balancing those challenges can be overwhelming.
- When the anxious child experiments with opiates or alcohol, their anxiety may be reduced from an 8 or 9 to a 3 or 4 (on a 1-10 scale).
- In this situation, the drug or alcohol helps them feel “normal.” They feel so much better after taking the drug, they believe it’s something they cannot live without.
- Their risk for becoming addicted to a substance that makes such a dramatic improvement in their anxiety is huge.
Adolescent with a “mentoring” parent and increasing autonomy
- John/Jane's parents allow appropriate and increasing autonomy and responsible,
- The anxiety and pressure of being a “perfect” teenage will naturally drop.
- With a lower baseline anxiety, when the child experiments with drugs or alcohol there will not be such a significant decrease in their overall stress and anxiety level.
- If the baseline anxiety is average, or 5 (1-10 scale) and the drug lowers the adolescent anxiety to the same level 3 or 4, the drug will not be perceived as something they cannot live without.
- With a lowered perceived benefit, their drug experiment will be less apt to turn into an addiction. They don’t need a mind-altering substance to feel "normal".
- Since the parent/child relationship is more open and accepting, the child may even share their experience with the parent without fear of punishment.
- The parent can listen, validate, and avoid giving lectures about “Just Say No,” which has statistically been proven by the incredible increase in drug overdose deaths in the last decade.
This information is based on many discussions with Mike Speakman (https://speakmancoaching.com/). Mike is a life coach and the founder of Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (www.palgroup.org) and the author of “The Four Seasons of Recovery for Parents of Alcoholics and Addicts.” Mike’s newest project is Raising Adolescents Drug Free. This program will incorporate the ideas highlighted in this article and is a work in progress. The goal of the program is to help guide our kids through the “Rites of Passage” known as adolescence and to help them avoid the dangerous and deadly addiction to opiates and fentanyl. “Prevention is the Best Cure”