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Parents can learn skills to deal with children who use

Is it true only parents with poor parenting skills have kids with drug problems? I’d say the answer is a resounding “NO.” Is it true kids with drug problems want their parents to believe they are poor parents? I’d answer that with a resounding “YES.”

Here’s the thing – if a parent is busy backpedaling and trying desperately to justify their parenting, they are so busy trying to repair their real or imagined transgressions they can’t hold a reasonable line with the drug-using kid. In addition, the kid is, for all practical purposes, in charge. Do parents make mistakes? Of course. Can parents improve and get new skills when they are working with a drug using kid? Of course. But that doesn’t mean they need to blame themselves and succumb to the “guilt game.”

It’s not acceptable to use illegal drugs, possess illegal drugs, use prescription drugs without a prescription or in a nonprescribed way, and it’s not OK to drink alcohol before your 21st birthday. Most kids who are doing these things are busy justifying their actions by convincing themselves and those around them their behavior is normal, that everybody is doing it or that it’s just experimentation. As soon as kids justify their use, assume they don’t feel good about it. In some strange way, if they can get their parents to accept it as normal, then they think they can feel normal. As long as parents maintain nonacceptance of the use, the users can make their unhappiness your fault (and who wouldn’t use drugs under those terrible circumstances).

I know it sounds like a catch 22, but here’s the ticket out. First, parents must accept this won’t be a one and done deal and prepare for the long haul. They must get support, because they will be under personal verbal and emotional attacks and at times will feel like it is their fault. They will need regular reminders regarding their own sanity. If spouses get on the same page, it will cut the battle in half. They must stay out of arguments about the merits of drug use because they’ll always lose and end up feeling stupid, exhausted and manipulated. They must apply regular, appropriate consequences in a measured and nonjudgmental way, get professional help if it’s required, and, if the behavior worsens, up the ante in a step-by-step way.

Addiction doesn’t happen the first time someone uses drugs or alcohol. It may be years before a pattern of symptoms becomes evident. Addiction is progressive, but the earlier the intervention, the better the results.

Al Anon family groups can be an invaluable resource for family members of addicted people, and as they say, “You didn’t cause it, and you can’t cure it.”

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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