“My neighbor’s son died the other day. He was a beautiful kid only twenty-one years into this world. Police and ambulance sirens blared as they raced up our street in an effort to revive him, but the sirens served only as an alarm that a life had been extinguished much too soon.”
Steve Straessle, principal at Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock, wrote these moving words about a young student’s death several years ago, and we ask ourselves, “How on earth are we to respond as parents to tragedies like these?”
It’s certainly not from lack of trying by Straessle and Central High School principal, Nancy Rousseau.
“We compare notes, trade stories, and try to inspire each other to carry on in the face of adversity,” Straessle says.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “we know what we’re up against. Drugs and alcohol are waiting for your children. Like predators, drugs and alcohol wait until your son or daughter feels depressed. They wait for your son to get angry and your daughter to desire popularity. They wait for the perfect scenario to spring upon your young ones and offer them a moment of feeling good, of belonging, of leaving reality for a few moments.
“The mother of all weapons in fighting drugs and alcohol is just that…a mother and a father, a teacher, a counselor, a principal or a trusted friend. The resiliency of the drug culture with younger kids is baffling. The pervasive use of alcohol by teens is mystifying. Nancy and I worry because we have yet to find the words to appropriately articulate just what seems to happen again and again to many of our city’s youth.
No perfect parent
“We have yet to find the perfect parent (and God knows we’re far from it ourselves) but we have learned a thing or two from some exceptional individuals who have taught us to embark upon creating a culture of respect for one’s body as opposed to a culture of destruction of one’s persona.
“We’ve both seen death in our time as educators. We’ve seen beautiful girls carried to graves by handsome young men. We’ve seen star athletes leave the playing field for the last time. We’ve seen the popular kids, the outsiders, the inner city kids, the suburban kids, the academics, and the apathetic brought low by all too early visits with tragedy. We’ve both seen how life extinguished can affect an entire student body.”
There are no easy solutions to getting over addictions but for those willing to do the work of recovery there are solutions. There are perhaps 4,000 treatment facilities in the nation of varying degrees of competence. I would put Betty Ford/ Hazelden and Caron for openers at the top of the list and would begin a search with them. There is a lot of free information on their web sites, and while they are “pricey” there may be room for negotiation.
There are also non-profit organizations such as Partnership for Drug-free kids where parents can find answers.
Here is a sample of the advice on the “Partnership” site:
Discovering that your son or daughter could be using drugs stirs up a lot of emotion. The best way to find out what’s going on, and to begin helping, is to start talking.
Learn how to have a conversation instead of another confrontation. Here is an approach that Partnership suggests:
Set the Stage
Take a deep breath and set yourself up for success by creating a safe, open and comfortable space for talking with your son or daughter.
- Hold off until she is not under the influence. Do not start a conversation when your child is drunk or high.
- Get on his level, literally. If your child is sitting you want to be sitting as well.
- Turn off all smart phones and don’t allow any interruptions while you’re talking.
- Set some goals. What do you want your child to take away from the conversation? Try writing down your thoughts to review later.
- Try to put any panic or anger aside. If you’re anxious, find a way calm yourself (take a walk, meditate) beforehand, like taking a walk or speaking with a friend for emotional support.
Establish a Good Connection
As angry or frustrated as you feel, keep reminding yourself to speak and listen from a place of love, support and concern.
- Stay calm. Try to stay as relaxed as possible throughout the conversation.
- Keep focused. Try your best not to overreact to what has already happened. Instead, focus on what you want for your child in the future.
- Watch your voice. You may want to scream and yell, but it’s important to maintain the calm and avoid pushing your child away.
- Body language counts. Be careful of finger-pointing and crossed arms – try a relaxed, open posture instead.
- Listen as much as you talk. Be sure it’s a back-and-forth, not a lecture.
- Try not to be defensive. Don’t take criticism personally. Let it be an opportunity for further discussion.
- Focus completely on your child. Try to see things from his point of view. This will help you better sympathize.
- Put yourself in your child’s shoes. How you would like to be addressed when speaking about a difficult topic?
- Keep an open mind. If your child is feeling judged or condemned, she is less likely to be receptive to your message.
- Recognize when you don’t have the energy to be a good listener and agree to restart the conversation (as long as it isn’t dire) at a later, better time.
Now You’re Talking
You’ve collected your thoughts and steeled your nerves, but how do you actually start talking? And more importantly, get your child to talk too?
- Express how much you care. Explain that the reason you’re talking and asking questions is because you want her to be healthy and happy.
- Let your child know you value his honesty and are willing to listen without making judgments.
- Ask open-ended questions. These are questions that elicit more than just “yes” or “no.”
- Let your child know you hear her. Reflect back on what you’re hearing by rephrasing and asking for input – “Did I get everything? – or with nonverbal cues like nodding and smiling.
- Offer empathy and compassion. Demonstrate understanding and show your child you get it.
- Show your concern. Tell your child that you’re worried about her (example, “You haven’t been yourself lately”).
- Clearly state any evidence you’ve found. Example: “You’re not showering, your grades have dropped, and I found empty beer cans in your car.”
- Give lots of praise and positive feedback. Teens and young need to know you can still see beyond the things they’ve done wrong. Find the positives in a situation, no matter how hard it may seem.
- Remind your child of your support. Reassure her that you can always be counted on for support and that she can confide in or seek advice from you whenever it’s needed.
- Show your love. Physical connection is important. Put a hand on your child’s shoulder or give him a hug when it feels right.
- Consider sharing your memories. Share a story of when you were a teen or young adult and the mistakes you made.
- Listen to your child vent. Sometimes she just needs to complain and get things off her chest.
- Be aware that your child could be hiding his true feelings out of fear, embarrassment, or something else. Be careful to not just take what he says at face value.
- Listen between the words. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions and difficulty finding the right words to use.
- Thank your child for talking with you. Even if the conversation didn’t go exactly as planned, your gratitude will make your child feel good and shows it was important to you.
Break Through Barriers
It can be difficult to get past a flat-out denial of drug or alcohol use from your son or daughter. Some kids can’t bear to take responsibility for their behavior and want to look good at all costs.
- Be firm and loving.
- Don’t yell. Remain calm. It’s harder to fight with – or storm off from – a calm person than it is from somebody who is yelling at you.
- Focus on the behavior and why it worries you. Don’t make it sound like you think your child is a bad person because he has tried drugs or alcohol. If you’re child is preoccupied with framing the discussion around trust, keep emphasizing your concerns for her health and safety.
- Insist on the value of truth telling. Explain that people trust you more when you are honest; that honesty is a highly respected trait that requires courage and independent thought; and usually liars get caught in their lies.
- Think beforehand about how you could verify her claims and bring them up – for example, if your daughter says she spent the day at a friend’s house, tell her you may need to call her friend’s mom to check on the story.
- If you have objective proof that your teen or young adult is lying, bring it up – but try not to make it a triumph or contest. It’s not about winning the argument or proving he or she lied to you, it’s about keeping your child safe.
- Try to find out why he lied instead of going straight to reprimanding him for it. Keep talking and let your child know that you will get to the truth no matter how many conversations it takes and that you will do everything available to keep him/her safe and away from drugs.
- Set clear consequences so your child knows what will happen if he repeats problematic behavior in the future, whether it’s actual drug use or overstepping other limits related to drug or alcohol use.
- Consider granting immunity. Some young people get caught in a web of lies and can’t get out. You can sometimes help by offering a chance to clear the record. Tell her that if she tells the truth there will be no immediate consequences but she’ll have to conduct herself differently in the future. And if she doesn’t, she’ll be held accountable.
- Reward honesty in the future. If your daughter opens up to you and tells you the truth about something that perhaps isn’t so easy for her – be sure to tell her that you’re proud of her for doing so.
Keep the Conversation Going
Have you succeeded in having a productive conversation? Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back, but don’t stop there. Keep talking and keep the dialogue open.
- Review your goals to see which ones were met (and if they were met effectively) and which will be saved for a later date.
- Reflect on what went right and what went wrong during each conversation so that you can make improvements for next time.
- Make a list and tackle any follow-up items (ex: understanding more about your child’s anxiety and finding ways to help her.)
- Set up and use family meetings to full advantage. Get input from each person on rules, curfews and on the consequences of breaking rules.