“My twenty-five-year-old son is on a bender and has been drunk for three days. He’s sleeping it off in my basement?” A desperate father asked me this question when he called for an appointment. What would you do? Let me fill in a little more of the story. This bright twenty-five-year-old young adult is extremely pleasant and capable when sober. He has been through treatment at least twice as well as attending AA. His pattern is to get a job, cash his first paycheck, get drunk, fail to show up for work, and get fired. I’m sure some of you are saying – “kick him out.” It is now the middle of the winter in Minnesota, and temperatures are in the low single digits. If you kick him out with no place to go, there is a good chance he will drink, pass out and die of hyperthermia. Are you as a parent ready to take that chance?
Dealing with Substance Abuse
This story speaks to the most significant challenge parents face. The reality is that parents cannot control the young adult, are not responsible for them by law, nor responsible for “fixing” them. Starting with these assumptions is critical to reducing the guilt and sense of failure we may feel when they stumble. That said, we can’t just give up on our kids no matter how painful it is for us to see them suffer and fail. Substance abuse, opioid addiction, is “…a chronic but treatable brain disease, and not a moral failing or character flaw,” according to the Surgeon General of the United States.
Many parents, thankfully, are not dealing with such life and death circumstances but are living with the fear that their young adult may either be involved in substance abuse or at risk. When we can no longer tell them what to do, we have to shift to engage, be heard, and influence. Engagement involves committing to spending time with them and learning about their world. It became apparent to one of my parent clients, an ex-Marine father, that just being the father did not earn him credibility or immediate compliance. He had to step back and reach out to build a different connection that could serve as a foundation not only for influence but for a more adult-to-adult relationship. In efforts to engage, parents need to be nonjudgmental listeners. If young adults believe that you are listening but thinking about what you will say to counter their opinions, the conversation will ground to a halt. The saying, “no one cares what you think until they know that you care,” applies to us. As our kids move into adolescence and young adulthood and begin to think they are smarter than their parents, our love and relationship will become essential to our influence more than our knowledge.
6 Steps to Take
Not being able to control our young adults doesn’t mean we are helpless. Although no one has the silver bullet that guarantees our young adults won’t become substance abusers, hooked on opioids, or even face a life-threatening overdose, here are some actions you can start today:
- Foster a more adult to adult relationship with them outside the home over lunch, coffee, or doing something together. Find some common interests like shopping, sports, events, etc.
- Practice nonjudgmental listening and ask for feedback as to how you can be a better parent to them. (See “Can You Speak Millennial”ese?”). Educate yourself about drugs and alcohol and the accompanying risks of abuse. “Just say no” isn’t enough. See the references below.
- Be a role model of the appropriate use of medications and alcohol. Do you know how responsible consumption of alcohol is defined? A typical push back from young people is that you drink and that pot or other substances aren’t that different than alcohol. If you have opioids, antidepressants, Benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax), and are not using them, turn them into the local police. If you are using them as prescribed, monitor the use, and if you suspect your young adult may be taking these, lock them up. 20% of youth taking prescription drugs did not have them prescribed.
- Once you have made a closer connection with them, become informed, and demonstrated an appropriate role model, you have established the foundation for communicating your position on drug usage. Clear evidence exists that parents who share their informed views and concerns about drug and alcohol use have youth who are less likely to become substance abusers.
- Attend to risk factors for substance abuse such as stress, depression, anxiety, social isolation, childhood trauma, and encourage help-seeking. Sometimes this can be sold to them as counseling or coaching versus therapy and help for handling stress and pressures in their life. Pay for such services and make money and resources contingent upon attending, if they are resistant. See if you can get them to go at least twice. They may see the value, or at least they will now have a professional they can turn to if in need.
- We must never give up on our kids and be a source of hope and encouragement even if we have to insist they need to live outside the home. Saying “no” is not a sign we don’t care. We can’t stop reaching out to them and showing love and concern for their sake as well as our own.
Here are some additional resources to help with education and other tips on preventing and intervening with substance abuse concerns.
- A Guide for Families and Their Caring Communities
- Partnership for Drug Free Kids-What to Say to Your Young Adult About Drugs
- Prepare to Take Action if You Suspect Teen or Young Adult Drug Use