When a parent or caregiver reaches me, I greet them with a lot of warmth and empathy. I validate their concerns and help to remove the stigma so many feel. As specialists, we provide empathy around feelings of shame, guilt, anger, sadness or fear having a loved one struggling with substances. I really want to understand what the parent needs to determine the “next best step” for them. Sometimes this is weighing the pros and cons of a certain limit they want to set. For others, it’s about ways to have better, more productive conversations. Often, it’s about helping them see that changing their own behaviors and engaging in more self-care may be the next best thing to do.
When it comes to mental health and substance use, we encourage parents to proactively and frequently engage in conversations with their kids. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to just ask your teenager/young adult, “How are you doing?” You will likely hear, “Fine.” By talking regularly, you can better keep your finger on the pulse of their mental health and relationship with substances. Make it a point to do weekly check-ins and find creative ways to ask them, “How are you?”
If you notice specific behaviors, such as sleeping a lot, or withdrawal from family or irritability, you can say something like, “Hey, I noticed you have been staying in your room a lot lately, and I wonder what’s up with that?” Don’t be afraid to ask your child about feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger or resentment.
It also helps to find creative ways to pose your question. For instance, talk with them about how many people feel stressed about doing school differently, missing friends and having to juggle social pressure and academics. Then, ask them specifically how they feel about these things. You can also use scaling questions, such as, “On a scale of 1 to 10, with one being not at all sad and 10 being depressed, what number would you give yourself?” Once they answer, you can ask follow-up questions. As an example, “What’s one thing you could do to move your number up a point? How can I help?”
Even for older teens and young adults, connection and engagement are important. As parents, we look to balance out the needs of giving our kids both roots (to ground them) and wings (so they can be independent). Teens tend to try to push away, yet they need the safety of family. Have dinner or any meal together, play a board game or watch a movie. These are all ways to stay connected and serve as a foundation to have ongoing dialogue. It can also mitigate some mental health issues and substance use.
It’s been a difficult time for everyone, but especially for kids who haven’t been able to socialize and are now back in school. Empathy for their situation is important. That said, it’s my recommendation that whatever rules had been in place should remain in place. It helps to notice when your child follows the rules, even if it’s what they “should be doing.” Acknowledgement of this, either in a kind word or small token of appreciation, can go a long way.
It’s also helpful to define the consequences for breaking rules ahead of time and follow through on whatever the consequences are. If you include your child in the discussion about limits and consequences, it can often help with compliance. Additionally, when they understand the reasoning for the “rule” — and the reasoning makes sense and is not arbitrary — they may be more likely to follow it.
Specific to COVID-19, talk about their health and safety. Discuss why sharing a vape pen or a joint is a health risk due to the virus. Explain how attending a gathering inside — when there is prolonged exposure to others — can also increase transmission. It’s important to explain the “why” behind the rules. Let your child know that it’s a communal responsibility to stop the spread of COVID. Moreover, this guidance is not about them specifically, but the recommendation of public health professionals. You can also try to make it more personal to them and their lives. For instance, if there are low transmission rates, it’s more likely they can be at school with their friends.
It’s not too late to have a conversation with your college-aged child about how the pandemic is reshaping campus life today, in addition to the normal challenges of being away at college. Acknowledge that many kids “party” and choose to use substances. Have a conversation with them about how they are handling this on campus.
Talk about the school’s rules about gatherings and any expectations regarding testing, mask wearing and social distancing. Try to create a situation where your child doesn’t just “tell you what you want to hear.” Acknowledging that you value honesty and direct communication is a start. Give validation that they have made it to the point in their lives where they can make independent decisions. Remind them that you are still available to help with guidance and support as they navigate this next stage of their life.
If you can work collaboratively with your young adult and share their vision for health and well-being when they are away at school, you are likely to have more productive dialogue. Ask questions, engage in the conversation and let them know ahead of time you will be doing regular check-ins. Communicate that while you accept their independence, and know that there may be bumps in the road, that you are willing to be actively involved and take action if necessary.
We all need community to enhance our sense of connection to ourselves and to the world, so this time is challenging for everyone. For those in recovery, this is even more significant. You can help your child stay connected through online support groups. They can get engaged with a recovery coach or a sponsor, and there may be groups that meet outside or in a socially distanced way in indoor locations. Also, try not to live in fear of relapse. We know it can and does happen, and think about it as part of the process. One thing you can do is recognize the moments where your child makes a choice not to use, and offer positive reinforcement.