Substance Abuse: Increasing Empathy, Reducing Stigma Matters

6 helpful tips for families with children who abuse substances

Posted Jun 28, 2018

It’s no secret that substance abuse is a serious issue affecting people of all ages, including young individuals. According to Julia Breur, Ph.D, LMFT, a clinical psychotherapist in Boca Raton, Florida, “one in ten children ages 12-17 use illicit drugs.” Dr. Breur adds that “more than two thirds of this age group who are substance abusers also suffer from mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, ADHD, body image and eating disorders.”

Rachael Robiner knows this all too well. Her son struggled with substance abuse problems throughout some of his college years, an eye-opening experience which ultimately prompted her to become a Parent Coach with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, an organization largely dedicated to working with families to address the highly-stigmatized issue of adolescent substance use and addiction. Fortunately, her son overcame his addictions after a long, challenge-filled road including time at a detox facility. He’s faced nothing but success since: not only is he a recent college graduate, but he’s been sober since February 2015.

Empathy: It Can Help Families Cope, But It’s Lacking

As a parent coach, Robiner helps mothers and fathers who have been affected by their child’s substance abuse (to include those who have lost children, who are in recovery, or who are still actively using) in a manner free of judgement and full of support. What’s key, she says, is bringing to the forefront an important issue often lacking in society when it comes to dealing with substance abuse: an in-depth understanding of addiction to include the need to replace the stigma often surrounding it with more empathy. She explains that it’s important for parents to “have more empathy with our children,” and to not see certain behaviors like lying as something personal. “It’s not the child doing the lying,” she says, but rather the result of how “addiction affects the brain, making them think they have to lie.”

“Parents need to stop being quick to judge or jump to conclusions with their teenagers,” says Dr. Breur. “Parents should want their teenager to be able to feel comfortable about needing and wanting help.” She explains that at times, parents may think that an intelligent child is synonymous with a mature child, capable of making wise judgments about drugs and alcohol. “The part of the human brain that is responsible for judgment, the prefrontal cortex, does not fully develop until approximately age 25,” she says. "The brain's limbic system which controls emotional responses and impulses develops at a faster rate than the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for decision making and judgment. For teens this means their brain is often relying more on emotions and impulses than decision making and judgment. It's harder for teens to make measured, thought-out decisions."

6 Tips for Parents and Anyone Who is a Part of a Child's Support System 

1. Put Yourself in Your Child’s Shoes

“It’s important to put yourself in your child's shoes,” says Pat Aussem. She works with Partnership’s parent coaching program, and is a Master Addictions Counselor with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, where she has also volunteered as a parent coach. “Try to learn more about what’s driving the behavior – usually there are underlying reasons behind substance abuse," she says. "People often feel that substance abuse will solve their problems." Work with your child to better understand why they may be engaging in such behaviors.

2. Parents: Make Your Feelings About Substance Abuse Known

Parents: don’t think your thoughts don’t matter. Take the time to clearly express your feelings about substance abuse. “Parents need to let their children know how they feel about alcohol and illicit drug use before they become teenagers,” says Dr. Breur. “Teenagers who know their parents disapprove of alcohol abuse and drug use are less likely to use.” This is not the time for parents to adopt a “laissez-faire” attitude, chalking this up to a phase or “kids being kids.”  Dr. Breur explains that experimenting with drugs and alcohol can yield serious consequences ranging from car accidents to deadly overdoses. Communication is essential.

3. Avoid Negative Statements and Assumptions

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Refrain from assumptions and an angry approach during conversation.
Source: rickey123/Pixabay

Sometimes, it’s easy to lash out verbally or make hasty assumptions than it is to take a step back to consider the “why” behind certain behaviors. However, doing so illustrates a lack of understanding that can potentially put a strain on families while also reinforcing unfair drug-related stigmas. “There have been many times when either a parent of someone I am coaching or someone in my support group has expressed their feelings as to the disgust they feel in regard to their loved ones addiction,” says Robin Star, Parent Coach, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “They show their lack of empathy by stating things like, ‘they should just stop’’ and ‘if they did not try it in the first place, they would not be where they are – they are obviously stupid.’”

But such thoughts only add fuel to the stigma fire, according to Pat Aussem. Calling someone with a substance abuse disorder a  “loser” or any other negative term, she explains, without trying to understand where that person is coming from, only keeps unfair stereotypes going. She says that it’s important to think of this as a medical issue that needs to be addressed rather than treating these people as addicted “losers” who should avoided or met with constant confrontation.

4. Think Twice About Interacting with Experts Who Don’t Exhibit Compassion/Understanding

If you’re meeting with a medical professional to help your loved one, be sure that he or she considers – and tends to – all aspects of your particular situation.

“When my 17-year old son was struggling with both heavy marijuana use as well as anxiety and severe depression,” says David Huntley, Parent Coach, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, “his prescribing psychiatrist declined to diagnose and treat his clinical depression until he stopped using dope for an extended period of time.” Huntley explains that the doctor felt the marijuana use “muddied the diagnostic waters,” although it was obvious to Huntley and his family that their son “was self-medicating for the anxiety and depression but was also addicted to the marijuana.” Sadly, Huntley says that his son took his life while “crashing from shooting cocaine, a drug that gave him suicidal thoughts/ideations.”

He says that “this lack of empathy from a medical professional with what our son was experiencing had the effect of delaying treatment for the depression and anxiety, prolonging our son’s suffering and distress -- which was considerable -- and ignoring the substance use problem. It was a nasty trifecta.”

His story illustrates the importance of providing a deeper level of understanding and care in these kinds of situations, which he emphasizes in his role as a parent coach. “In all of the families I have coached to date, making a simple change in how the parents communicated with their child, by them adopting some level of compassion and empathy for what the child was going through and struggling with, made a significant positive difference in the outcome for the child who was struggling with substance use,” he says. “This positive change wasn't always dramatic, but I would say it was always significant in the process of getting the child the help they needed and in changing the parent-child relationship for the better.” 

5. Try Reflective Dialogue

1041483/Pixabay
Try open-ended conversation to foster better communication outcomes.
Source: 1041483/Pixabay

So, how best to communicate with your child? Do so in an empathetic manner, free of accusatory or guilt-inducing tones (“Why are you doing this to our family?” “What’s wrong with you?”) Instead, Dr. Breur suggests using reflective dialogue, which she says “is a form of communication that demonstrates kindness and empathy by strategically expanding the capacity for listening and cultivating individual reflection.”

Its main goals involve resisting the urge to offer easy solutions to problems, asking honest and open-ended questions, and trying to understand various view points while sharing your own. “Reflective dialogue is not a way to compete,” Dr. Breur says. “Rather, it’s a way that everybody wins because everyone walks away with a deeper understanding of themselves and others who participated in the dialogue. It can allow a teenager to share their thoughts and work through the intellectual and emotional implications of substance abuse.”

6. Know – and Access – Available Resources

In addition to considering working with a parent coach or psychotherapist, there are also online resources to help families better navigate the complexities inherent in their child’s substance abuse/addictions. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, for example, has many informational materials available, including a detailed video to help identify intravenous opioid use. Many therapists also offer sessions over the phone or via Skype.

In the event you or your loved one needs suicidal or emotional distress support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.