UNDERSTANDING AND ACCEPTANCE
It can be difficult to know how to talk to your young person, especially when you do not fully understand what they are going through. You may not have a deep understanding of the drugs they are using and the effects that they have. Further, your young person might not be sharing the whole story with you, which makes it hard to communicate with them.
You might even be feeling confused about whether your young person is really addicted or simply experimenting. You may hesitate to confront them about their substance use for fear of damaging your relationship. It is all so new and scary in the beginning. Go with your gut as much as you can. It is okay to screw up and say the wrong thing sometimes. The most important thing is to find ways to stay connected with your young person.
Often, we are having conversations with our young person that we do not want to be having and we feel like we want to run away from it or stick our head in the sand. We are resentful and indignant that we are in this position, and so the conversation does not necessarily flow easily. With time and practice, it can become easier to communicate and become more natural. It might feel forced in the beginning but with practice that will change.
The path your young person has taken can be difficult to accept. Talking to your young person about their substance use disorder makes it feel real, so it can be hard for you to address it. You do not want to see them that way. You do not want to believe that they are doing that to themselves. You might also be aware and fearful of the stigma it will bring and how it will impact other family members. You might feel ashamed, embarrassed, and/or guilty that they have gone down this road, making it even harder to talk to them. But it is better for you and your young person if you find other outlets and support to express these feelings. Your young person is also experiencing guilt, shame and regret, which can limit their progress. You do not have control over their actions. All you can do is support them and yourself.
We must believe in our young person in order for them to believe in themselves. We cannot change other people; we can only change our approach. This starts by talking to your young person the way you would want to be talked to and treating them the way you would want to be treated, even if it is not being reflected back to you. Speak with kindness and respect. Listen. Tell them you love them no matter what, that you have not lost respect for them and that they can come to you about anything. Your young person will notice and appreciate that you are making an effort.
WAYS TO STAY CONNECTED WITH YOUR YOUNG PERSON
Find any way you can to stay connected with your young person, within your boundaries. Focus on connection through every conversation. Tell them you love them, even if they have a substance use disorder. Try to remain curious to get a better understanding of where they are coming from and try to hold back that judgment to build a better connection with them.
Remind them of happy memories. Remind them of things that connect them back to you and your family to let them know you’re still here and that they can come back.
Try to have conversations with them that are not always focused on their substance use or mental health. Remember that your young person is still a young person with young person needs. Not all their behaviours are a result of their substance use. Their brains are still very much in development.
Keep inviting them to family things, even if they do not usually come. It makes them feel like they are still connected to the family and that you still want them there. Let them know you are ready for them to show up however they show up, but ensure it is a safe space for them. Set them up for success. Remind them that just because they are in this does not mean they are in it forever. That this will not define their entire life.
Encourage positive hobbies. If they express interest in something, encourage them to take it on. If you are offering all this stuff that they said they wanted and it is not utilized, resist holding it against them. Celebrate the part that did work, that they were interested and that it will be here later if they want to come back to it.
Reward the positive behaviour. Try to connect with your young person whenever possible and do as much positive reinforcement as you can. This can look different depending on your situation. Find whatever works best for you and your young person. There are a lot of moments that we can celebrate. They can be as simple as coming home on time, spending time with family, or responding to a text message. Acknowledge and remember those small victories, ‘the gems’, and avoid focusing on perceived failures.
Non-verbal communication and physical connection are important. For some young people, they get to a point where they no longer want a kiss and a hug goodnight anymore but trying to provide that physical connection when you can, even though it isn’t always reciprocated, is important. For young people on the street, having a physical affection that is safe and unconditional is particularly important to remind them of what that is.
Everyone expresses love in different ways. Read the The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, learn what your young person’s love language is and communicate this way.
Encourage your young person to connect with people who might help them on their way. This could be with friends, family members, a coach – someone they enjoy spending time with. Sweetening the pot also does not hurt. Take them out for coffee, pay for their lunch. If they are connecting with people, they are widening their system of support.
When you have not seen them in days or weeks and they finally show up at your door, do your best to offer a non-judgmental, loving welcome. Try not to comment on their physical appearance. Negative comments could hinder your connection, rather than foster it.
Consider your responses. Our young people who are using substances are often engaging in behaviours that may make us feel sad, angry, frustrated, and disappointed. Often their stories can be heartbreaking, shocking, and scary. They may not want to tell us because they do not want to disappoint us, burden us or face repercussions like getting grounded for the rest of their lives.
As parents, we have all started a conversation with our young person where we have said, “You can tell me anything”. And this is often attached to, “and you won’t get into trouble”, or “I just want you to be safe”, or “We will talk about it in the morning”. It can be helpful to think about your response to hearing this kind of news ahead of time. How can you create a space for them to be able to tell you anything?
Choosing to listen more than speak is powerful. Saying “thank-you” when they share with you, hugging them as often as you can, and choosing kindness as often as possible are invaluable skills. Also creating a safe space within yourself to be able to hold your young person’s pain, anger, and emotion is vital.
Sometimes you are able to listen, to hold it together, and say all of the right things and then you need to go and fall apart. That is okay. If it feels like too much you can also hold off on having this conversation and reach out for support. (See Support for Yourself and Resources). It is okay to set boundaries with your young person and give yourself a break when you need it. Give them the same opportunity. It is hard as a parent, not being able to fix everything, and it can feel like by talking with them, you can help them figure it all out. Accepting that you cannot always help is humbling and it can be hard to come to terms with the reality of how you are feeling.
Hold space for them. “What people need is a good listening to”. Have conversations about observed behaviour and use I feel statements. When you speak from what you see and what you feel, your young person cannot dispute it as easily as if you are saying “You’re this and you’re that”. Be as authentic as you can. Speak from the heart. And really speak to them the way you want to be spoken to.
Be honest with them and try your best to focus less on how their behaviour is impacting you. Maybe they cannot care, or it is hurting them because of the shame that they feel, so it is not always a helpful topic of conversation. It is hard to switch your brain from protecting your young person to letting them make their own choices. Try to acknowledge how it is impacting them and how difficult and uncomfortable it might be for them to talk to you about these things. Encourage them to get support (see Resources, p.74).
Using open ended questions. Using open-ended questions can be helpful in reframing a judgement into curiosity. For example, a closed-ended question such as, “Could you call your peer support worker?” can be received as an unwanted suggestion. Rather, reframing the question to, “What are your options at the moment?” may be received more as an invitation. Depending on the circumstances in that moment, it could be helpful to remind your young person that they are resilient, resourceful, and have choices. Try to engage and involve them in problem solving, rather than telling them what to do.
Recognize and acknowledge your own learning process. Be upfront with them that you are going to make mistakes along the way. If you do not know why you are saying what you are saying, you do not believe what you are saying or you recognize that what you are saying is wrong, do not be afraid to stop midtrack, tell them you are sorry and change the track. Be honest. Let them know specifically what you are really worried about and that you are not doing it to upset them or control them.
We as parents also have a hard time because of our guilt and our shame, and if they can see us recognize our mistakes and do better, that gives them something to mirror and learn from.
At the end of the day, you could be doing everything you feel is right and still not see any improvement. But you need to stay the course. Manage your expectations until they have decided they want to get help. It is hard to have a serious conversation with your young person until they choose to get help for themselves.
Other tips for connecting with your young person:
- Keep conversations brief — short and sweet
- Write them a letter or a card
- Notice when you start nagging
- Don’t say what you don’t mean
- Look for small wins
- Offer praise and compliments
- Be genuine
- Practice unconditional love