Two friends embracing

Guidance for Families Dealing with Substance-Use Disorders

Licensed professional counselor Pat Aussem works with the nonprofit Partnership for Drug-Free Kids to offer guidance to families navigating substance-use disorders. Here are some suggestions she offers parents:

Don’t assume your child’s drug use is just a passing phase. You need to address it as a health issue and not a rite of passage.

“Many parents hope their kids will somehow decide to stop using without really understanding the health impacts of substance use, such as the [potential negative] impact on brain development,” Aussem says. In addition to being clear about expectations and consequences related to substance use, parents might consider consulting a credentialed addictions professional.

This is not about you. Recognize that your child is unwell and that the behavior does not reflect your family’s ethics.

“For example, if you’ve learned that your daughter is prostituting or that one of your children is selling drugs or has been arrested, there’s such a sense of betrayal of your family values. Remember there’s something going on in the brain that is compelling this behavior despite adverse consequences,” Aussem says. Many parents are flummoxed by their kids’ drug use and spend much time agonizing over what they did wrong to cause it; use that energy instead to seek help.

Mother daughter talking

Find ways to bring more joy into your own life. “You have your child under a magnifying glass, isolating yourself as you wait for the next shoe to drop,” she says. For your emotional well-being, it is important to stay engaged with other relationships, work, hobbies, spirituality and activities.

Consider compassion — for yourself. Understand and believe that you didn’t cause or stoke your child’s disorder. “That would be like saying that you caused your child to have cancer,” says Aussem. “Having an attitude of kindness and patience toward yourself is important not only for your sake, but can help your child as well.”

For parents who have lost a child to drugs:

Death doesn’t mean a person is out of your life. Create a relationship that goes beyond the physical. “So many families I know are afraid their loved one will be forgotten,” Aussem says. They continue to post photos on social media, make their loved one’s favorite dish on holidays, look for signs and messages from their child — anything to keep his or her memory alive.

Generate meaning from your loss. “Families want to make something good come out of such a tragic loss,” she says. One mom supports Ultimate Frisbee tournaments, as that was a favorite sport of her son, for example. Others speak at schools and community assemblies hoping to reach at least one person who might otherwise head down the same path, while others have become advocates for better treatment and to end the stigma of addiction.

Article written by Alexandra Rockey Fleming, originally posted here on Washingtonpost.com.