Adolescent Substance Misuse—an Extremely Stressful Experience for Parents

Jun 29, 2023 | Uncategorized

Few things cause parents more stress and anguish than witnessing their child in the grip of addiction. In 2021, nearly a quarter of high school students drank alcohol during the past 30 days with female students more likely than male students to currently misuse alcohol, according to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in February. “Sixteen percent of high school students used marijuana during the past 30 days that year and again girls were more likely than boys to currently use marijuana.”

If substance misuse escalates into full-blown addiction, the impact on families is usually devastating. In a 2006 study, Jackson, Usher, and O’Brien reported that families are fractured by adolescent substance use when the adolescent has “serious and ongoing illicit drug use.” They add that substance use touches all aspects of family life. This includes parents who are feeling that the family is being torn apart while also experiencing the youth as “complex, demanding, overwhelming and highly stressful.”

In a 2015 study, child and adolescent mental health expert Peter Choate explored how parents attempt to cope after their child developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol. “Parents who experienced … clear indications of a significant substance abuse problem changed their view of the youth quickly. They became quite vigilant while trying to gain some control.”

Parents desperately try to cope with the unfolding crisis trying to find their way through the chaos, but as they seek meaning in what is going on around them, the confusion and chaos that comes with  living with a substance use disorder often prevents a clear understanding. It is a feature of Choate’s research that “families underwent fundamental, unmanageable changes as a result of these youths’ substance dependency.”

The discovery of substance misuse by their adolescent child tended to follow three typical routes, reported Dr. Choate. “The first was being faced with direct evidence that there was a significant problem. This could be an overdose requiring emergency hospitalization or an arrest related to substance use or allied behaviors such as assault while intoxicated.” 

The second route of discovery was fairly common. Parents would discover paraphernalia or small amounts of drugs or bottles of alcohol. “The third route saw parents confronted with a variety of changes in their youth that they tried to make sense of. These included changes in [grades] at school or problems with attendance. Other changes included diminished interest in a previously enjoyed extracurricular activity, increased secretiveness, less willingness to be involved with the family, and increased defiance.” Importantly, parents frequently misread these changes as part of the “normal” teenage years. 

When they realize what’s going on, parents are often in a state of shock and feel their lives begin to fall into a pattern of chaos. “The whole of the family system was impacted. Their youth’s behaviors became higher risk and family connections grew steadily weaker. As these changes occurred, parents felt more out of control,” wrote Dr. Choate in the study.  “They would reach out for help to other family members, to professionals, or both. Parents reported a growing desperation and an increased inability to effectively cope, but they found that reaching out for help could be less than useful at times, adding to the pressures to cope.”

Parents in the study typically reached out for formal help when they felt that the pressures arising from their teen’s behavior were perceived to be beyond their ability to cope. “Most parents described feeling powerless and that nothing they were trying seemed effective. When they crossed that barrier, reaching out made sense and parents often spoke about trying almost anything to find a solution.”

Choate concludes his study by pointing out that, “while there are many experiences that are similar to those when the substance dependence person is an adult, there are also unique issues when that person is a youth. Parents need support to be able to see the emerging substance dependence with their youth and how they might effectively respond.”

At Avanti Behavioral Health, we specialize in the treatment of young people with substance use issues. Our intensive outpatient program (IOP) allows adolescents to recognize their value and potential as strong members of their communities. By embracing community integration, we pave the way for our teens to build meaningful connections, gain a sense of fulfillment, and create positive impacts that extend far beyond their treatment journey.

We recognize the role of family integration as a pillar of our comprehensive treatment approach. By offering resources and education, we empower parents to effectively support their child’s journey while attending to their own needs. We believe in the parallel process of actively involving parents in the goal setting and milestone achievement process, while fostering a collaborative partnership. 

Family integration is a crucial element of our treatment program. Avanti Behavioral Health has developed an effective and highly involved method of family counseling. For more information about our IOP and family programming call us at (720) 753-4030. 

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