It’s not my alcohol, Mom. I’m just keeping it for a friend.”
As a counselor who has been working with teenagers for over twenty years, let me tell you the truth. These words aren’t it. Teenagers can come up with a million excuses for whose alcohol you’ve just discovered in their room…and why they have it. And when it’s your child, you’d much rather believer a lie than the truth that your child has been drinking.
The lies didn’t start with the cover-up, either. They started at the beginning. The first time your child purchased alcohol from an older high school student, or even drank their first sip at a party, the lies started. As the experimentation gets heavier, so does the lying. They’re crafty, these teenagers. A group of high school students told me just last week that there are now bras with special pouches to hold alcohol. There are fake tampons that are really just very small flasks. They carry it in water bottles and disguise it in antibacterial hand gel containers. If we’re lucky, as parents, we catch it early.
At our counseling ministry for kids, we tell parents often that there are three reasons that teens don’t experiment with drugs and alcohol:
- They have their own sense of faith that drives them to make good choices.
- They have a group of friends who are making good choices and thus experiencing positive peer pressure.
- They’re terrified of you and being punished.
As a parent of a teen, you want to do what you can to have all three principles in place. If you have an adolescent, have them participate in a small group where they can be influenced by peers and grow in their own relationship with Jesus. As the teenagers around them start to drink or use drugs, lay out the consequences ahead of time for poor choices. And follow through if your child violates the boundaries. If your response is strong and communication is open between you as a family, you can stop the experimentation. If not, the experimentation can accelerate into a problem…and quickly.
With adults, it’s not quite so simple. You can’t keep an eye on your college-aged son. You can’t choose a small group for your husband to share and learn about Jesus. You can help your sister find a church, but have no way to make sure her car actually drives there on a Wednesday night and not to the nearest liquor store.
No matter what the age, addiction, however, is much the shame. It’s enshrouded in lies. It lives in secrecy simply so it can continue. Adults carry alcohol in water bottles, too. They hide bottles in toilet tanks and the trunks of their cars. Drugs are even easier to hide and, in some states, no longer have to be hidden. But experimentation usually leads to heavier use, which often leads to abuse. Abuse, at every age is accompanied by lies. And the lying just perpetuates an even deeper problem for an addict: shame.
Shame is no respecter of ages. Your son makes a bad decision and, no matter what degree of bravado he displays, he doesn’t want you to be disappointed in him. Your husband drinks another beer “to take the edge off” the chaos of five children at home and then is humiliated when he yells at your four year-old daughter and brings her to tears again. The shame accompanies the drinking or the using. But then more using is “necessary” to cover up the shame.
In her honest and illuminating book, Ashley Cleveland recounts her own battle with addiction: “This combination of outside forces provided my solution, my way of tolerating myself, of feeling different and uninhibited. But my lack of inhibition led to embarrassing behavior that reinforced my self-loathing and pushed it past the tipping point where I could not stand being in my own skin without a stiff drink, and thus the cycle would begin again.” Little Black Sheep
So, what do you do? How do you respond to a family member, a friend, or your child when they’ve been using or abusing drugs or alcohol?
If it’s your underage child who has been experimenting with drugs or alcohol:
- Give them consequences for even a first-time offense. We believe in intense, short-term consequences for teens. Adolescents live in the moment. When they’re grounded for an extended period, such as six months, they don’t even remember why they were grounded by the end of the punishment. Take away everything for a month. Then slowly allow them to start back with a limited amount of trust and privileges, building on that as they prove themselves responsible.
- Give them hope. If they feel they can’t earn back your trust, they’ll often give up and sneak their way to the very behavior you’re trying to avoid. Have them serve their consequences and then give them a chance to prove themselves again.
- If they are repeat offenders, lengthen the consequences with each subsequent offense. If the only one of the three previously mentioned reasons not to experiment that you can control is a fear of being punished, then it can be a healthy kind of fear to have.
- If you feel that your child has a problem, seek professional help. You may need a counselor who specializes in substance abuse. If they are repeatedly getting into trouble, they are often running from some type of emotional pain. They may lack the confidence to have their own voice. In either case, you potentially need an outside voice to step in and help with the situation. Your church will typically have a list of Christian counselors in the area. Research the counselor or site before you go to make sure that the counselor is experienced and a good fit for your child. And then follow their experienced lead in what they recommend.
If you’re concerned about an adult friend or family member:
- Express your concern. Stick to the facts and don’t get bogged down by emotion. If you attack or overreact, they often will, too.
- If the behavior persists, you may want to pull in outside help. Gather a group of trusted friends and family members to lovingly confront the person. Again, the conversation needs to be more factual than emotional. Give them instances their behavior has hurt you. Help them come up with a plan they can enact immediately for help, such as attending AA meetings, counseling or even treatment. A counselor can be instrumental in planning and conducting a meeting of this type, often called an intervention.
- Nagging doesn’t help. Consequences do. You may need to have short-term or even long-term consequences with your family member of friend. For example, if you are at their home and they drink too much, you may need to leave right away. You may even need to separate yourself from them until they’re willing to get help.
- Allow them to experience the consequences. Don’t rescue them or try to hide the problem. Don’t call into work because they have a hangover. Don’t come up with stories so that they’re not embarrassed in front of family or friends. They will have to own the problem in order to get better. Your rescuing them communicates that it’s your problem just as much as it is theirs. And, although the problem affects you, you cannot get help for them. They’ll have to do that for themselves.
- Don’t try to guilt them into changing their behavior. Guilt only produces more shame. And shame exacerbates the behavior. It drives them deeper into hiding and the way they are choosing to hide is in alcohol or drugs. “If you loved me, you’d stop” only makes them feel like they’ve let you down again. Give them hope and remind them that you believe they’re capable of getting better.
- Do what you can to understand them and their choices. Read books such as Addiction and Grace, by Gerald May and Little Black Sheep by Ashley Cleveland, if the person you love is an adult. If you’re concerned about your child, read parenting books such as Wild Things by Stephen James and David Thomas and Raising Girls by Melissa Trevathan and myself. Attend an Al-Anon meeting. Talk to a counselor, for yourself and for them. As you understand more of what drives them, it will help you know better how to love and support them through this time.
- Do all you can to be a godly friend/spouse/parent. In a parenting conference that my friends Melissa Trevathan, David Thomas and I lead, Melissa encourages parents to focus on doing all they can to be godly parents RATHER than all they can to raise godly children. She follows that with a gentle reminder that they are not in control. They can’t directly change the heart of their child. You can’t directly change the heart or behavior of yours, either. Or your spouse. Or sister. Or friend. But you can live in a way that inspires them to hunger after Jesus and love them in a way that frees them from shame and invites them to know the truth of how deeply He loves them.
“Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that.” Ephesians 5:1-2, The Message
Sissy Goff, M.Ed., LPC-MHSP is an author, speaker, and the Director of Child and Adolescent Counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries in Nashville, TN. You can follow her at her blog www.raisingboysandgirls.com.