Imagine you’re the parent of a teenager—perhaps you are—and you open the door to your teenager’s room and find him or her leaning out the window smoking pot. Or you’re sitting in the living room late on a Saturday when your teenager staggers in the front door, obviously drunk, and seems surprised to find you still awake. Situations where parents suddenly come face-to-face with their teenager’s drug or alcohol use happen all the time. What happens next depends on the parent.
Amy Mosher-Garvey, a licensed clinical social worker and co-owner of Open Door Center for Change, LLC, in Madison, is an expert on substance abuse. When a parent who has just found his or her teenager using alcohol or drugs comes into her office, Amy begins by clarifying the parent’s expectations by asking, “What are your values regarding alcohol and drug use?” How they respond determines how she works with them. Permissive parents who say, “I know they’re going to smoke, I just want them to do it in the house,” will have different goals than parents who believe that breaking the law, in any form, is unacceptable.
A parent who believes some use is acceptable may not find it necessary to get their child to stop smoking or drinking completely. A parent with a firm stance against alcohol and drugs may see no room for compromise. “Both philosophies present challenges,” Amy says. Hardline parents tend to clamp down more frequently and be more judgmental of their children. As a result, their children might go underground and not be as open with the parents, which can be important. On the flipside, a permissive parent knows their child is using, and the child knows the parent knows, so the child perceives that as approval. As a result, children of permissive parents tend to use more, and a little more recklessly, because they’re not as concerned about being caught.
Sometimes parents have trouble clarifying their values because it involves reconciling their own pasts. If they drank heavily or used drugs when they were younger, they might feel hypocritical expecting different behavior from their children. Yet Amy believes it is rational for parents to hold values that contradict their own pasts. “We used to have doctors endorsing cigarettes, and we used to not recycle either. Times change.”
Other parents might feel pressure from their children, the parents of their children’s friends, or mainstream media to hold values different from their own, or they may have never considered their own values. Amy says parents sometimes don’t know how to respond. “They’re trying to figure out if their ‘just say no’ is passé or out of touch, and they have trouble having a fully formed opinion.”
Teens often use substances either as a form of entertainment or as a way to escape depression and overwhelming emotion. Both uses can impact development. “When we’re flooded with emotion, we’re not at our best in terms of problem solving. When we’re in a high emotional state, we just want to turn down the emotional state,” Amy explains. “We drink or cut or use drugs in order to turn down the immediate pain. But then we just are pushing off, or not solving the larger issue. You end up with people who aren’t actively engaging or experiencing their fear or trauma, but then they’re also not able to be happy. They’re joyless, shut down.”
Even when used recreationally, Amy says alcohol and drug use can change somebody’s value system over time. Teens who smoke or drink during a break with their coworkers are learning that work doesn’t require their full attention and that using together is a way to bond. There is value in experiencing life without substances and learning in an unaltered state.
Over and over again, Amy sees people seek to numb emotion or enhance themselves using alcohol, pills, cocaine, and Adderall. “We are teaching each other that we’re not okay how we are, that we’ll be better with something else. But you miss out on learning to do what you need to do ahead of time.”
Once parents have clarified their values, they should make expectations clear at home. Explaining the thought process behind values can help a teenager understand a parent’s values, even if they differ from the values the teen is developing on his or her own. But gaining a teen’s approval is not always necessary.
Teenagers who regularly use have likely built a routine and social unit around their drug or alcohol use, so when a parent suddenly responds differently and tells them something needs to change, there is immediate conflict and frustration on a biological level. “A lot of the times, the teenagers don’t perceive the problems,” Amy says. “They say, ‘This is working with me. I was fine with it until you came along.’” Other times, teens seem relieved to be caught by a parent and glad they’ll have an excuse to refuse drugs when offered by a friend.
In both scenarios, Amy encourages staying the course. One of biggest influences on whether children use and the extent of their use is parental disapproval. If children know their parents don’t approve, that the parents will be serious about checking on them and expect them not to use, they tend to use less heavily. “Even a kid who might have taken more risks, if the parents are on top of it, might use less than they otherwise would have.”
Parents who haven’t disciplined in the past might have a harder adjustment period, but Amy says there is hope. When teenagers realize they have been getting away with something and they have a strong relationship with their parents, they are often willing to figure out why they were doing it.
Cara Lombardo is a writer and graduate student.
Amy Mosher-Garvey works with clients at Open Door Center for Change, LLC, in Madison. For more information, visit opendoorcfc.com .