The hallways of most public schools are plastered with posters outlining the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
Kids who watch Saturday morning cartoons may see dozens of commercials that encourage them to “Just say no” to drugs. And most parents talk to their children at least once about why experimenting with drugs and alcohol is so very dangerous. Given that teens are bombarded with anti-abuse messages on so many fronts, it would be easy to believe that teens would never choose to abuse on their own. Unfortunately, it seems like these anti-abuse messages aren’t getting through to the target audience. For example, a study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that only 40 percent of teens thought that using alcohol once or twice per week was dangerous, and only 34.2 percent of teens thought that smoking marijuana once a month was dangerous. It seems that teens are still experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and it’s likely that some of these teens are becoming addicted to these substances. As a result, interventions for teen family members are becoming more and more common.
According to the National Institutes of Health, portions of the brain that regulate impulse control and decision-making are still in development until age 25. This means that teens are simply unable to make decisions based on long-term consequences, rather than immediate rewards. Teens who abuse drugs do further damage to this portion of the brain, making it even less likely that they’ll be able to see the rewards of living a sober lifestyle.
If the addiction is a bit like a train, running down the track at full speed, an intervention is a bit like the braking system. In a series of conversations, moving from spontaneous to structured, the family works with the teen to bring the issue to light and help the teen to stop the abuse now, before more damage occurs.
Why the Family Can Help
Teens often try their hardest to push their parents away. It’s common for teens to shout out hurtful phrases such as, “I don’t care what you think!” or “Who are you to tell me what to do?” Often, underneath the bluster, lies a child who desperately wants and needs the help that loving parents can provide. No matter what teens might say in the heat of the moment, they do listen to their parents, and they do tend to follow the advice that their parents provide. For example, a study in the journal Substance Abuse and Misuse found that parental attitudes about alcohol use were strongly related to changes in adolescent alcohol use. In other words, parents who made their opinions about alcohol use clear tended to influence the amount of alcohol their children drank. As the authors put it, “…parents can influence the future use of alcohol by their children.” Even troubled teens want help from their parents, no matter what they might say.
During the course of addiction, teens can do a significant amount of damage to the structure of the family. The teens might:
Become violent with family members
Curse and shout
Parents who are confronted with this sort of behavior might reasonably back away from their children, allowing them more autonomy in order to help reduce the amount of conflict that the family is enduring. Unfortunately, backing away like this can cause more conflict, instead of reducing the amount of conflict the family deals with. For example, a study in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy found that families with a high level of conflict had few parent-to-child interactions, and the children in these families tended to engage in a variety of deviant behaviors in the following two years. In other words, the more the parents pulled away, the more the children acted out, and more conflict was generated. Parents who choose to step back into the lives of their teens, confronting them directly and encouraging them to adopt a healthier lifestyle, may be able to reverse this trend and keep it from moving forward and doing more damage.
Teens who have just begun to experiment with drugs and alcohol, or teens who have stellar relationships with their parents that have not yet been eroded by substance abuse, may be able to curb their use through short conversations. Even though these conversations may feel much more informal and impromptu that the formal interventions described later in this article, parents should still plan for these conversations, determining exactly what they will say and how they will respond if the teen becomes angry, defensive or both.
According to the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, parents can take these steps to prepare:
Choose a time when the teen is likely to be sober. This might mean watching the teen closely for several days, looking for times when the teen is habitually sober.
Talk with their spouse in advance. Parents should present a unified front about the abuse, agreeing on limits and consequences. Arguing in front of the teen is destructive, so parents should have their script in place well in advance.
Perform practice runs. Ask one spouse to role-play as the teen, and then swap roles to come up with good strategies to diffuse a bad situation.
Learn to stay calm. Practicing breathing exercises or just promising to walk away if emotions run high can be helpful. The conversation should never disintegrate into shouting, even if it means the talk is only a few moments long.
During these informal talks, parents can disclose that they know the teen is using drugs and alcohol, outlining specific instances when they saw the effects of the abuse on a firsthand basis. They can then move on to outline the consequences that will occur if the abuse continues. Parents can also allow the teens to ask for help with the addiction, in case the teen knows that quitting the abuse will be difficult or impossible without help. Teens who disclose this need during the conversation should go to an addiction counselor that same day, or as soon as possible.
The Next Phase
Parents who hold short conversations about addiction and still see no change in the teen’s behavior may need to employ a more dramatic approach and schedule a formal intervention with the help of an interventionist. These conversations are far from impromptu. Instead, these are deeply structured conversations that come after a significant amount of practice. They’re designed to help break through a teen’s denial and point out how dire the addiction situation has truly become. At the end of these conversations, if all goes well, the teen will enter a formal treatment program for addiction and get the proper help needed to combat the addiction problem at hand.
The interventionist might begin the planning stages by asking the parents to pull together an intervention team. While parents, siblings and grandparents might be obvious choices, there might be good reasons to include members of the teen’s peer group. Teens are often heavily influenced by their friends. For example, a study published in the journalScience found that drug use by peers had a greater influence on teen drug use than drug use by parents. Families that include the teen’s close friends who do not use drugs may find that the intervention is slightly more effective. The team should be made up of people who have the ability to change the teen’s mind, and for some teens, friends have a key role to play in this process.
The intervention team will meet with the interventionist on a periodic basis, coming up with a script they will follow during the intervention itself.
While there are many different ways an intervention can be held, most include:
Information about the addiction process
Specific examples of how the addiction has hurt or damaged relationships
Consequences that will befall the teen if the addiction isn’t stopped
A plea for the teen to enter a treatment program
Some interventionists ask family members to write letters containing this information, and then families read these letters out loud during the intervention. Other interventionists use a less formal approach, but they still require the family to pull together notes on cue cards, so they will not veer off script when emotions run high.
Making It Happen
Again, the intervention should be held during a time of day when the teen is unlikely to be under the influence. In addition, the intervention should be held in a public place that is slightly unfamiliar, so the teen isn’t able to hide in his/her bedroom instead of dealing with the conversation directly. Holding the talk in an office, a church basement or a neighbor’s house might be an excellent idea.
On the day of the intervention, parents should remain calm and supportive. According to a study published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, “…adolescents benefit from having parents who are authoritative: warm, firm, and accepting of their needs for psychological autonomy.” Parents who scream, yell, blame or attempt to punish their children will not bring about real change. Parents who respond to their children with understanding, while remaining firm about rules, can make a huge difference for their teens.
As the intervention moves forward, the teen will be repeatedly asked to enter a rehabilitation program. As soon as the teen agrees to this idea, the intervention is over. If the teen walks out of the intervention and will not come back, the intervention is also over, but it might be rescheduled for another day. Perhaps on the second try, the teen will agree to get the needed help.
As mentioned, at the end of an intervention, the teen needs to enter a formal treatment program for addiction. Often, families line up this treatment program well in advance of the intervention itself, so they can ensure that the teen goes right into the needed program as soon as the conversation is finished. An interventionist can help the family to find the right program, or the child’s doctor may be able to provide assistance on making the right choice.
Families also need to remember that interventions may need to happen multiple times. In fact, some teens even require an intervention after they have completed a formal treatment program for addiction.
According to a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors, 66 percent of teens who completed a treatment program for addiction relapsed to use within six months. Parents who stay alert for a relapse, and hold a touch-up intervention immediately, may be able to help the teen get back on course before a minor relapse becomes a full-blown resurgence of addiction.
If you’d like help staging an intervention for your teen family member, contact us today. You can reach us any time of day or night at our toll-free number.