We want to thank Dr. James DiReda for offering this excellent guest post for us! Dr. DiReda has over twenty years experience working with individuals, families, and organizations to address alcohol, drug, and mental health issues. He holds a dual Ph.D. in Sociology and Social Work from Boston University. He is currently Director of Counseling and teaches at Clark University in Worcester, MA.
Kids, Drugs, and Parents: What to do?
I recently received a call from a former client saying, “My 15 year old son is out of control, and I don’t know what to do. He’s drinking alcohol and smoking a lot of pot, he’s disrespecting his brother and me, he’s breaking all rules and ignoring any curfews I try to impose, and I’m afraid he could get physically violent because he’s so angry and enraged.” So we spoke about her situation and what was happening, not just with her son but with her family. We spoke about how to address the issues (alcohol/drug abuse, anger, unhealthy family relationships) they were struggling with, and how to change some of the dynamics that were allowing the “out of control” behavior to continue. I sensed my suggestions were not what she was hoping to hear. She was looking for an answer, the solution to fix her son and stop his behavior. It’s a parents’ nightmare when situations with their children are out of control. It can be scary, threatening, and extremely stressful, especially when parents aren’t really sure what their child is using. So, what do we (professionals, experts) tell them? Often it’s not what they hope or expect to hear.
I can’t count the number of calls I have received from parents, loved ones, friends, and even employers regarding someone they know who is in trouble and struggling, but they don’t know what to say or do to help. It’s a difficult position to be in, to watch someone you care about spin out of control and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop or change it. This position really can make a person feel powerless and helpless; but are we? That depends. There are times and instances where you simply cannot protect or save a person from themselves and their self-destructive actions no matter what you do. That is a very bitter pill to swallow, and often the only option is to keep stay healthy yourself and set clear boundaries in the relationship. There are other times though, which you can do something effective in bringing about change and help get things back under control. This usually entails examining our role in the family drama that is taking place and making changes in places that we do have some ability to control.
Educating parents about alcohol and drug use is good information to have, and very useful in helping them recognize and label the condition. It helps them see warning signs, identify suspicious behavior, and know the differences among various drugs and their effects. It’s a good start, but it isn’t enough. Remember, if nothing changes, nothing changes. So what will help? What do we tell them? It’s more than what we tell them to do; it’s a change in thinking and behaving on the part of the parent or loved one. It’s a different mind-set in looking at or trying to manage an out of control situation. I’ll share something that I learned from a Family Therapist I worked with early on in my career about working with individuals and families struggling with alcoholism, drug abuse, and dependence. It’s affectionately known as the “3-C’s,” and they were pasted on his office walls to share. He would simply explain to parents and loved ones that 1. You didn’t cause this condition. 2. You can’t control it, and 3. You can’t cure it. This might seem like strange advice in some ways, especially after reading my comments saying you (parents/loved ones) do have some control in this. It probably seems confusing, and it can be. But, using rational and logical thought processes when dealing with irrational and illogical behavior (alcoholics, substance abusers) and out of control situations doesn’t usually work very well. So here’s a different way of looking at it, thinking about it, and managing it.
A common scenario in working with individuals and families around alcohol/drug abuse and dependence looks something like this: The person abusing substances, regardless of which ones, usually ends up in trouble at school, work, legally, in relationships within the family and outside the family. Due to their drinking and drug use, and their out of control behavior they become the focus of attention and labeled as the “problem” or “troublemaker.” In the treatment world they are called the identified patient. To the family and loved ones these individuals need fixing so the family can get back to being “normal.” Much of the energy and attention (and blame) is put on those individuals to change their “crazy” behavior. The problem is that often times they aren’t able to at that point, so you’re asking someone who is out of control to take control. It usually doesn’t work, and continues to worsen until finally the court, police, families have to take control. So if the 3-C’s say “you can’t control it,” what do you control? Well, if enough pressure is exerted upon an individual (jail, job loss, divorce, eviction) they might agree to go into treatment which will, hopefully, begin the process of change. However, entering treatment can be used as an escape from the current situation and once it ends the individual quickly returns to their prior behaviors and lifestyle. Treatment is useful, even vital, but it is limited; it’s a beginning. If all the pre-existing conditions (stressors, relationships, etc) in a persons’ life remain unchanged, returning from treatment and maintaining change can be very difficult. Many families I’ve worked with believe that by sending someone to treatment “cures” them and they should never want to use again. That has not been my experience over the past twenty two years working in this field. What I have seen is that families get sick together, and families recover together; if they change.
In speaking with my former client about her son I couldn’t help but think about the entire family and also ask her, how did he become so “out of control?” It’s unusual that one particular family member would be out of control for no reason. As we spoke, she told me about what had been going on in their family since I saw her last. After hearing her story, it was not surprising that he was acting out, what surprised me (again) is that all the emphasis and focus is on him and his behavior, not the family. Understanding families and family dynamics is difficult enough, but adding alcohol and drugs takes it to an entirely different level. Many families have little or no understanding of alcohol and drug abuse or addiction, and are scared and confused by it. It’s difficult to figure out without help. What do I do? What do I say? And, how do I say it? These are the questions I get asked by parents, spouses, and concerned others who are at their wits end, struggling to make sense of their situation and in fear that a tragic ending is on the horizon.
I find myself returning to the 3-C’s time and again when trying to offer advice, or guide others in this situation. I start by validating for them that they are not the cause of this condition, nor can they control it, or cure it. But, that doesn’t mean they have to sit around and wait until their loved one decides to change, which could be a long wait or something that might never happen. The choice is a hard one to make, but it can be very effective in jump-starting the change process with those who are out of control, or not interested in changing their behavior. I also help them identify and label what changes within their power and control they can make. I emphasize that any changing has to begin with them, and that will vary depending on their relationship with the IP or out of control individual. Often times when we change, those around us change as well if they want to continue in the relationship. Seeking treatment is often the beginning of this change process which, hopefully, leads the individual and the family into lifelong Recovery.