A Letter to the Parent of an Addicted Teenager

I am director of a nonprofit organization, Spectrum Youth and Family Services, which helps teenagers and young adults, some of whom are addicted to drugs and alcohol. We have licensed clinicians on staff who provide what is termed outpatient counseling, and a few months ago I wrote a Huffington Post column in which I referenced a fairly new approach to the prevention of addiction called Preventure. Preventure uses a combination of intensive training for teachers; workshops offered to all students; therapy techniques used to combat psychological problems; and teaching students cognitive behavioral skills to address emotional and behavioral difficulties.

I sent the column out to a number of our supporters and donors, asking, “If you have any reaction to it or any ideas, I’d love to know.” I was flooded with responses, more than any I had ever received. But none was more poignant or striking than this:

Dear Mark,

Thank you for this and all the work you do at Spectrum.

We just checked our own 19-year-old son into rehab yesterday for an addiction to Xanax. While not an opiate it is just as deadly. This young beautiful soul comes from an upper middle class loving family. We talked to him early and often about the dangers of drugs, and we were in his face about not experimenting early with alcohol or marijuana because of his tender brain. We were and are overflowing with love and unconditional support without enabling him – i.e. handing him money, we expected he get a job and work, etc. He was busy with athletics and life with good friends in high school, but then as he went off to college it all changed. He drank and smoked pot, he became anxious and depressed and then started using Xanax and experimenting with a myriad of drugs.

I knew when he was little he had a personality that would be prone to addiction – the way he played video games, how we had to actually have the internet stop working for him to stop and go to bed. His love of risky things – we even got him into safe risky outdoors things in an attempt to hook him on his natural adrenaline. It was not enough.

I myself feel very guilty and a failure as a parent because I knew this could happen to him; I talked to him about it several times at least in high school ( even though I knew it earlier). But talking and a good family weren’t enough.

If there is something we can do to move Vermont in this prevention program direction, I will use my story to help.

I found this letter to be heart-breaking. Many of the young people we work with at Spectrum come from poverty and extremely dysfunctional family situations, rife with domestic violence, parents who are in prison, missing parents, parents who are addicted themselves, kids who’ve been neglected, physically and/or sexually abused, kids who are in and out the foster care system their whole lives.

But this does not appear to be one of those families. And that’s the tragedy, and what every parent needs to be aware of: that addiction can happen, even in the healthiest and most loving and supportive of families.

I immediately wrote back to this mother, emphasizing a few key points:

First, don’t blame yourself. “Please, please don’t blame yourself or feel like you are a bad parent,” I wrote. “ I’m begging you not to do that to yourself. “

Second, addiction is a mystery in many respects. “There are SO many factors that go into why one person travels down that path and another does not,” I wrote. “Why that happens, who knows, it could be genetic, it could be that particular child’s disposition to risk, really, no one knows. I do think as we learn more about neuroscience in the coming decades, some of these things will become clearer to us, but in my mind there will always be some element of mystery to it.”

Third, take hope. I wrote about the many success stories we’ve witnessed at Spectrum. “A husband and wife I know, good people, responsible people, loving parents, whose son was so addicted to drugs that he had to drop out of college and was literally living in the woods. That young man is now over ten years clean, a college grad, a law school grad, married to a wonderful woman, with two children.” I wrote about the young man dropped off at our drop-in center 14 years ago after overdosing twice and almost dying; he’s a college grad now and actually works in our field, where I know he is an excellent counselor. “We have a woman volunteering with us now who 11 years ago was a cocaine addict and actually tried to take her life while living in our shelter; if not for the saints who work here at Spectrum and those in the Emergency Room at the hospital, she would have died. She is now drug-free, married, a college grad, sober, and happy.”

Finally, I let her know that when her son does exit rehab, we are there for him. “Thankfully he is in rehab now,” I wrote. “Let’s hope he gains from it, and if Spectrum can help with outpatient counseling after he comes back, let me know. That is a lot of what we do, post-rehab counseling using Motivational Interviewing and an approach called The Seven Challenges.”

That last point is very important. Residential rehabilitation is a vital tool, but only one tool in the arsenal of recovery, and it is rare that a short stay in rehab will be all that is required to maintain sobriety. The after-work, the skill-building, learning how to deal with cravings and resist using – these are essential components of recovery and often what are learned post-rehab in outpatient counseling.

It is more than a little ironic that only a few days after our email exchange, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a 400-page report, “Facing Addiction in America.” In an interview he stated, “For far too long people have thought about addiction as a character flaw or a moral failing. Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain and it’s one that we have to treat the way we would any other chronic illness: with skill, with compassion and with urgency.” I agree with him 100%, and the further that message makes its way out to parents, the more they will understand that they need not feel as if they have failed as parents, and that there is in fact hope for the kind of full recovery that there is for most diseases.


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