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Helping Kids Navigate Their Teenage Years

When Parents Need Help First

Parents can do much to help their teenage sons or daughters through a variety of difficult situations. Depression, violence, substance abuse, and bullying are all serious issues that parents and teens can work together to help resolve.

Sometimes, however, parents need to confront their own problems before they can help their teenager. Children who live in violent households, or homes where one of the caretakers uses drugs or abuses alcohol, often sustain severe emotional trauma that can last a lifetime. Even if a parent's violent behavior or substance abuse occurred when a child was small, the child may still suffer repercussions during his or her adolescent years.

Domestic violence and parental alcohol or other drug abuse adversely affect children.

Research shows that approximately 90% of children who live in homes where there is intimate partner violence see or hear the abuse. Further, children who are exposed to family violence are much more likely to become violent than are children from nonviolent families. Studies also show that if a parent uses alcohol or drugs, his or her children are more likely to drink or use drugs. Below are examples of situations where children have been affected by current, or even prior, parental behavior. If these situations sound familiar and if you need some help deciding what to do, consider seeking the advice of a local mental health professional.

Parental Alcohol or Substance Abuse

I was called to school by my daughter's principal. Apparently, when her math teacher corrected her in class, Deirdre threw a book at him and stormed out of the classroom. Deirdre's explanation was that "no one else cares, so why should I?" Today was a wake-up call. I have to admit it: My wife has a serious problem with alcohol. I'm not home much. I'm always avoiding the chaos. I know this is serious. What can I do now?

It sounds as though you recognize that your wife's alcohol abuse is affecting Deirdre. This is the first step. Parents with serious alcohol and other drug problems are often overly absorbed in their own needs and problems. They may not pre-pare meals, or be present at them. They may not carry their share of the household responsibilities. They may not properly supervise their children s homework and other aspects of their lives. Often their moods dominate the family. Their anger leaves other family members fearful and anxious. Roles may be confused and children end up taking care of the parents. Communication is often muddled.

Teens in such families feel isolated and alone, with no one to talk to. Their hurt and angry feelings may lead to depression, their own abuse of drugs, or may even erupt in violent behavior, as in your situation with your daughter. Children also sometimes seek attention and/or act out their feelings by shoplifting or committing other crimes.

So what can you do? First, children should not feel alone and abandoned, nor should they be caretakers for their parents. Deirdre needs a parent who will take responsibility and act as a parent should. Make it clear that you are assuming this responsibility and let her know that you love her. She also should know that you are aware that her mother has a problem, and that it is affecting the whole family. Take time to talk with Deirdre about what happened in school and about how she is feeling about things at home. Finally, you should encourage your wife to get help immediately.

If a family member with an alcohol or substance abuse problem is unwilling to seek help . . . Is there any way to get him or her into treatment?

This can be a challenging situation. A person with an alcohol or substance abuse problem cannot be forced to get help except under certain circumstances, such as when a violent incident results in police being called, or when it is a medical emergency. This doesn't mean, however, that you have to wait for a crisis to make an impact. Based on clinical experience, many alcohol and substance abuse treatment specialists recommend the following steps to help a person with an alcohol or substance abuse problem accept treatment:

Stop all "rescue missions"

Family members often try to protect a person with an alcohol or substance abuse problem from the consequences of his or her behavior by making excuses and by getting him or her out of difficult situations caused by the alcohol or other drug abuse. It is important to stop all such rescue attempts immediately, so that the person with the problem will fully experience the harmful effects of his or her drinking or drug use-and thereby become more motivated to stop.

Time your intervention

Plan to talk with the person shortly after an incident related to the alcohol or other drug abuse has occurred-for example, a serious family argument in which drinking or drug use played a part. Also choose a time when he or she is straight and sober, when both of you are in a calm frame of mind, and when you can speak privately.

Be specific

Tell the family member that you are concerned about his or her drinking or drug use, and want to be supportive in getting help. Back up your concern with examples of the ways in which his or her drinking or drug use has caused problems for you or your teenagers, including the most recent incident. If the family member is not responsive, let him or her know that you may have to take strong action to protect your children and yourself. Do not make any ultimatums you are not prepared to carry out.

Be ready to help

Gather information in advance about local treatment options. If the person is willing to seek help, call immediately for an appointment with a treatment program counselor. Offer to go with the family member on the first visit to a treatment program and/or Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meeting. (Consult your telephone directory for local phone numbers.)

Call on a friend

If the family member still refuses to get help, ask a friend to talk with him or her, using the steps described above. A friend who is recovering from an alcohol or other drug problem may be particularly persuasive, but any caring, nonjudgmental friend may be able to make a difference. The intervention of more than one person, more than one time, is often necessary to persuade a person with a drug problem to seek help.

Find strength in numbers

With the help of a professional therapist, some families join with other relatives and friends to confront a person with an alcohol or substance abuse problem as a group. While this approach may be effective, it should only be attempted under the guidance of a therapist who is experienced in this kind of group intervention.

Get support

Whether or not the family member with an alcohol or other drug problem seeks help, you may benefit from the encouragement and support of other people in your situation. Seeking the help of a mental health professional can provide the kind of help, insight and support that will allow for long-lasting positive change for you and, in turn, the well-being of your whole family.