When a teenager engages in substance abuse -- that catch all phrase which includes illegal or excessive use of alcohol, marijuana, glue, hard drugs, hallucinogens or prescription drugs -- his or her entire family is thrown into crisis.
There are no statistics kept on the number of Jewish teenagers engaging in substance abuse. Anecdotal evidence from those mental health and youth service workers on the front lines, however, clearly indicates that the historic gap between Jews and non-Jews is unfortunately narrowing, as more and more Jewish young people today are becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Having a child engaging in substance abuse presents parents with a myriad of challenges, questions, and ongoing dilemmas. How did my child get caught up in this? What can I do to help my child? Is there anything I can do to protect my other children? What outside services are available to help our family? And, finally, is there any hope?
WHAT CAUSES TEENAGE SUBSTANCE ABUSE?
While there is no single, root cause for teenage substance abuse, there are a number of significant contributing factors which can combine to produce an adolescent addict:
1. Dysfunctional family life. If either or both parents demonstrate poor self control in their own lives, this sets an all-too-flagrant example for a child to follow. Short tempers, hostile outbursts, severe marital conflicts, compulsive workaholic schedules, verbal and physical abuse and other symptoms of family dysfunction plant the seeds for a child becoming a substance abuser in adolescence.
2. Academic and social failure. Not every poor student turns to alcohol and drugs. Most do not. But when academic failure is combined with lack of friends, parental rejection, overall feelings of inadequacy, and low self-esteem and boredom, a teenager is a prime candidate for the attractive, quick fix "solution" offered by substance abuse.
3. Child abuse and molestation. A vastly disproportionate number of teenaged substance abusers are survivors of child abuse or sexual molestation. Again, not every survivor turns to drugs and alcohol. Those who received early professional intervention and adequate emotional support from their family generally overcome these traumatic experiences. But when children are abused by their parents, or the parents never find out about the molestation of their children, or they dismiss the trauma as not requiring treatment, then children are greatly at risk for becoming substance abusers.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO
There is nothing you can do to turn your child around 180 degrees. It took a number of years for your child to get to the point of desperation that s/he has turned to drugs or alcohol. It will not be reversed overnight. With patience, persistence, prayer, and a lot more patience, however, you will be able to reach your child if you take the following steps:
1. Readjust your timetable for change. Do not measure your impact in days or weeks but months and years. As any parent with a success story will tell you, it takes a very long time to bring a child back from substance abuse. But it can be done.
2. Repair and rebuild your relationship with your child. By now, your child's rebelliousness and your disappointment have combined to create a wide valley between you. It is up to you to bridge that gap. Start by eliminating criticism. Search for any common ground. Try to take interest in something your child cares about. Reach out in any way to renew your bonding with your child. At the very least, empathize with his or her pain and suffering.
3. Rebuild your child's self-esteem by focusing only on successes, however small they may be.
One adolescent addict once announced to his parents his intention of becoming a psychologist. "You never graduated high school," his father scoffed. "You don't even have your G.E.D. Why not try for something more realistic?"
This son was so discouraged by his father's comments, it took another full year before he even expressed any constructive ambitions. What the father should have said was, "That sounds like a terrific goal! Now, tell me what do you think your first step should be toward reaching it?"
4. Confront your child's denial. No addict admits easily that (s)he is hooked. At least initially, addicts try to convince themselves and others that they can stop if they really want. The only problem is that they really cannot stop because it is no longer under their control. The issue here is not whether you did or did not find this or that piece of evidence. Rather, your child is now at the point where willpower alone will not be sufficient to extricate him or her from this lifestyle. Some form of outside professional help will be necessary.
5. Protect your other children by fixing any underlying problems at home. The best way to insure that your child's siblings do not follow his or her example is by repairing whatever family dysfunction may have contributed to this child's substance abuse. If there are sever marital tensions between you and your spouse, get marriage counseling. If you and your other children are not sufficiently close, go for family therapy to repair the parent/child relationships or get parental guidance on how to bond more effectively with your children.
6. Expect setbacks. Recovery from substance abuse never proceeds in a straight line. In all cases, relapses are, unfortunately, an integral part of the recovery process. Bear this in mind and do not let temporary regressions discourage you into thinking that you are not making progress. Success is not measured by complete abstention, but by increased intervals between setbacks.
A variety of treatment options are available to you and your family to help you help your substance abusing child. Depending upon your individual circumstances, preferences and budget, you may choose one or more of the following modalities:
1. Residential treatment. Today, you no longer have to choose between quality residential treatment and traditional Jewish values, as facilities are now available which cater to the special needs of Jewish adolescents. Programs may last a few weeks or a few months; may be covered by insurance or privately funded; may be agency sponsored or totally independent; may be coed or gender segregated. These programs include a variety of modalities as part of the treatment, such as individual, group and family therapies, and have the highest long term success rate.
2. Out-patient substance abuse rehabilitation centers. These facilities offer you the next best treatment option. These are often staffed by former substance abusers who make the best addiction counselors. The programs that offer a combination of individual and group counseling for your child together with family therapy for your and your child are the most effective.
3. Family therapy. If substance abuse rehabilitation is not available, traditional family therapy is your next best choice. You and your adolescent child will meet together with a therapist to address both current points of contention, such as limit setting and privileges, as well as prior complaints and disappointments.
4. Individual psychotherapy. Traditional psychotherapy is not very effective in helping adolescents overcome serious substance abuse. Milder cases may be helped, but only after many months or years of therapy. The nature of addictions is such that traditional psychotherapy is not powerful enough to break through the denial and defensiveness often associated with this condition.
5. Parental guidance. If none of the other options are available because your child refuses to cooperate, then, at the very least, you should seek parental guidance from an adolescent or family therapist on handling the day to day challenges you are facing. This will not have an immediate impact on your child's behavior but it can definitely prevent you from making things worse. It can also provide you with much needed support.
Additional excellent resources for parental support are Al-anon and NarAnon. These are no cost, open meetings of family members of substance abusers. Not all attendees are parents. Some are spouses and others are adult children. What they all share in common is the constant heartache of living with a substance abusing family member. They know what you are going through because they are going through the same ordeal.
If you are feeling quite desperate and hopeless, let me assure you that if you can follow most or all of the advice above and can get some outside professional help for your family, you will eventually be able to add your child's name to the growing list of former Jewish teenage substance abusers.