Family substance use is so common almost every family has experienced it. Drinking has been on the rise since the Pandemic, but seniors have been drinking more out of loneliness for years. Parents are stressed and teens are experimenting. But whenever there is substance us, there are relationship issues that are confusing for everyone.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell that a loved one is under the influence. Other times it’s hard to know if your family member is dependent on a drug for more than medical reasons, and hiding a serious addiction. Pretending that all is well can cause real problems for your children and teens down the road.It’s really important to break the cycle of addiction by telling the truth and building resilience. Children of substance users suffer their own kind of PTSD. Talking to teens about family substance use is difficult but absolutely essential to your young people to be able to develop healthy relationships in the future. Without the full understanding of what is happening to a loved one who has a substance or alcohol use disorder, teens can’t heal or enjoy healthy communication and healthy living. Family dysfunction thrives in silence.

By using these guidelines, you can help your teen to understand and cope with the substance use disorder that is harming the family.

1. How should you approach the subject of family substance use

Open up the subject by giving some basic information to cover the following subjects:

What Is Addiction?

Addiction isn’t just a bad habit or a compulsion. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Explain the stages of alcoholism and disease process that occurs with increased use. Substances and alcohol affect brain function. Explaining basic addiction facts and how behavior changes, helps you to educate yourself. Talk with teens about family substance use as if it were cancer or any other progressive disease in an educated, non-judgmental manner. Education empowers teens to understand that addictions are quite common, that they are not alone, and that you can help both the user and the rest of the family.

Explain the consequences of addiction

Looking at common consequences helps to frame this information as a part of the addiction picture. This helps teens understand that addictive behaviors have consequences, and sometimes the consequences are punishments. Common natural consequences include:

  • Traffic accidents
  • Falls
  • Overdoses
  • Arrests
  • Getting fired
  • Losing friends
  • Financial difficulties

Tell your child how recovery can help and get help

Recovery offers hope for the whole family, and much can be done to help the loved one who’s ready for or already in treatment. Discuss with them 12-step meetings, sponsors, other support groups, or individual or group counseling, outpatient rehab, intensive outpatient counseling, or inpatient treatment programs for the parent. Let them know that they can be a part of their own recovery through individual counseling, 12-step meetings, support groups, or family therapy that can occur with or without a parent present. Help them find a therapist who can help.

How much to share about family substance use

Acknowledge what the kids have seen and experienced with family substance use (such as a parent coming home from work drunk or getting fired for smoking pot on her lunch hour). Do not keep these events secret because that maintains the family dysfunction. In reality, your teen already has seen the behaviors and may know more than you do. However, there are some behaviors that may be inappropriate to talk about – healthy boundaries takes precedence over telling all. If you wonder about this, talk to a therapist about these boundaries.

Step 2: When to talk about it

Talk when you are calm, when there is a quiet time with no distractions. During a fight or the aftermath of a crisis isn’t a good time. Don’t lash out with information, for example, while you’re threatening the loved one, or the loved one is screaming back. Times of high drama are not ideal for family meetings. Also, be open any time the teen might want to discuss this, and perhaps set up times for safe talk.

Step 3: Be able to listen promote solutions and avoid drama

First of all be calm and listen. While this is a very difficult and painful subject, it needs to be addressed in a quiet and non-judgmental way. The whole family needs to feels safe exploring it. After the subject is raised, then you listen, listen, and listen some more. As always, focus on inappropriate behaviors caused by substance use disorder, not the person. This also includes a focus on how they family can aid in the recovery of the substance user (if appropriate) as well as recovery for the family itself.

Addictions are difficult, but you can be a positive example for your teenager(s). How you handle the situation can  empower them and help them find healthy ways to cope.  Remember that taking action is a powerful way to help your teen to go beyond the struggles into embracing recovery.

If your teens need help coping with a parent’s Substance Use Disorder, check out Al-anon family groups for teen support.

You can end the cycle of addiction in your family

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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