Today I’m honored to present much thoughtful information in the series Issues in OUR ORBIT: Substance Abuse & Recovery. This guest post is by Gregory K. from his website Suchness: A Mental & Spiritual Health Blog. Gregory K. holds a Masters of Divinity degree and is working toward a graduate degree in counseling. His goal is to help Christians and others who struggle in “finding some measure of peace living in our own skins.”
At my request, Gregory K. was kind enough to address the very problems that arise in fictional form in my novel Our Orbit. Many thanks to him—
Adolescents, Alcohol, and Alienation – Part 1
To see a teenager drink or use drugs is startling. For those of us who have no experience along these lines to see a child using such a grown-up way of coping can really upset our view of the world.
It is just like sexual crimes. They are that much worse when they are committed against children, those who do not even fully understand what is happening to them. There is a terrible crashing together of cold reality and the innocence of childhood that we so prize in our culture. Therefore before we can help a child who has begun to use alcohol to find emotional relief we must first come to terms with this kind of fear and dark confusion that exists in ourselves.
Our fear, if it is not acknowledged, can taint our attempts to help.
In fear we may find ourselves trying to force such children to stop drinking, screaming and stomping our feet. We may find ourselves lecturing, shaming, and calling attention to all the ways that child has gone wrong morally. We may resort to threats and punishment, forced isolation and indoctrination, anything we can do to grind this problem out of our children.
But where does our desperation come from?
Fear is at the root of such approaches, fear of loss or of pain, for ourselves or for our children. While we may never be able to fully exorcise that fear, if we give into it and allow it to lead us tumbling forward at a frantic pace then we will rush right past the small gate and narrow road that we must travel with our children to find any real peace.
With these thoughts in mind let us consider the emotionally troubled teenager who is using alcohol to find some sense of relief. One of the first things that need to be done is for the child to stop using alcohol. This is not because of some moral reason and it is not to lessen our own fears. Instead it is simply a matter of fact that when a person is using chemicals to alter their minds and escape reality they are not fully present with us as we begin our work.
There is a chemical barrier between us and them, and no surgery can be performed through a brick wall. This need for abstinence and sobriety on the part of the teenager though does not give us an excuse to start using force, punishments, and sermons to get them to stop. With teenagers, as with all people, true abstinence along these lines can only be achieved if they are themselves invested in the process.
Motivational interviewing is a technique that is used to help addicted people to start pursuing recovery for themselves.
Motivational interviewing is done by connecting the goal of sobriety with what they value most in their lives. If they are proud of their career, let us link sobriety and that career. If they are very involved with their families, let us link happy family life with sobriety. We are trying to make the rewards of such effort worth the hard work it will take to get there. Similar approaches can also work with the teenagers we are trying to help. This is especially true for the teenagers who have not yet become physiologically dependent, but who are only using alcohol to numb themselves.
It may help to openly and honestly explore with them this concept that alcohol only numbs the pain and does not remove it, and if they are willing to work with us a way may be found to real and lasting wholeness. Such honesty, and such straightforward explanations of the work we hope to do, will certainly work better than preaching, cajoling, and manipulating. If nothing else they will see where we are coming from and begin to develop some level of trust for our work and our intentions.
Now we move forward into the real work that must be done with such teenagers. Rather than present a comprehensive method for such work (which would be beyond my experience anyway) I will present a few concepts that may be helpful to keep in mind.
When working with people who use things like alcohol to numb their pain we may be tempted to try and trick or manipulate them. “If you masturbate, you will go blind!” We may also want to shield those we are working with from the truth in some way hoping to protect them (or to protect ourselves). Certainly we need to have some sense of tact in this work since too much truth in the wrong way or at the wrong time can be just as destructive as a lie.
At the same time though the people we work with can be startlingly good at figuring out when we are being genuine or when we are just putting on a show for their benefit. Sometimes they may call us out, or sometimes they will remain darkly silent as they are continually bothered by our pat-answers and fake smiles. Either way, the trust they have for us is damaged each time this happens. And without trust there can be no real forward momentum.
Adolescents are at the developmental stage where social connections are the most important things they have. Who they are friends with, how they are connected to their families and loved ones, these things are more important than the “hard facts” we may try and throw at them. So before we can expect our words to carry any real weight in the lives of those teenagers we are working with we must first earn their trust by forging a social connection.
This does not mean we are trying to be “friends” with them. If we do try to go about it that way we may be surprised with how easily we become manipulated by the very teenagers we are trying to connect with. Instead it is about the teenagers coming to the realization that when they deal with us they will be treated honestly, fairly, and well. In the life of a troubled teenager these traits in the adults in their lives are more precious than anything else, even if they are too angry or hurt or confused to say so.
Perhaps one of the more difficult ideas to understand when working with children is this idea of creating structure. We are there to help these children and rules only seem to limit and frustrate them. Also we may find we dislike the work of enforcing those rules, especially with children who are suffering in our care. Rules for the sake of rules can indeed be damaging. But rules made with purpose can have lasting benefits.
Rules can teach teenagers the essential lesson of cause and effect. We are not trying to “discipline” the children, but connect them with the fact that what they choose to do will have certain consequences that must be considered. If they are late for a counseling session that means there will be less time to be together. If they shout they will not be heard as clearly as when they sit and speak. If they strike out they will not receive the care and attention they want. Here are a few guiding points about structure and consequences:
Explaining the rules, and the practical reasons why those rules exist, is an essential part of building a good relationship from adult to child. If a rule cannot be explained along these lines then it is not necessary.
Consistently enforcing those rules reduces the confusion that the teenager may feel when otherwise they may have been screamed at or beaten with no real cause.
Punishments only teach children that the stronger person can hurt the weaker person as she sees fit. All repercussions of breaking a rule then must be intrinsically connected to the practical purpose of the rule.
Allowing the teenagers to have a say in the making of the rules provides an excellent space for the child to learn to input and to feel heard. She becomes part of the process, a part of a relationship as opposed to a prisoner or victim.
The rules must be agreed upon by the child herself. Otherwise these rules simply become blunt instruments used by the adults to impose their will onto the child which creates a situation where social violence may accidentally be done.
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Gregory K‘s discussion of adolescents and alienation will continue in the near future. Meanwhile, the links below provide helpful information on addiction and recovery.
Visit the Harvard Help Guide
Visit Parent Treatment Advocates
Visit Gabbertsite from mental health counselor Gail Gabbert
And here’s a recent article from the New York Times on teenagers discussing what might have stopped them from using drugs.
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Teaching and leading a child without just imposing the grown-up’s “will” goes against the standard model of child-raising.If that had been tried in my case bet I’d be a different man today.