Something You Can’t Fix

Addiction specialist Naomi Weinstein gives advice on what young people should know and do if their parents have a substance abuse problem. That includes how to handle reunifying with parents in recovery after being in foster care.

by Represent Staff

Naomi Weinstein is the former director of the Children of Alcoholics Foundation, director of Phoenix House’s center on addiction in the family, and is now VP, Innovations at the Institute for Community Living. She has trained substance abuse treatment providers to better understand child welfare issues.

Represent: When is a parent’s alcohol or drug use a problem?

Naomi Weinstein: If the parent’s use is causing problems in your life, that’s a problem. If you have to lie for your parent, or cover for them, or get them ready for work, or they’re embarrassing you by showing up drunk or high, that’s a problem.

It doesn’t mean your parent doesn’t love you. But it does mean the drug has hijacked your parent’s brain. The drugs are in control.

Represent: What do you do if your parent is using drugs, or if you think they’re drinking too much?

Naomi: If your parent has a substance abuse problem, that’s not your fault and it’s not something that you can fix. You need to focus on keeping yourself safe.

Find a trusted adult who will give you a safe place to do your homework or get fed. That might be a neighbor, a relative, a teacher or school nurse.

You should also find someone who you can talk to, who can help you understand what’s happening. Someone in your family, or another person in recovery, can help you understand addiction and what the facts are.

Represent: If you tell someone, will they put you into foster care?

Naomi: That depends a lot on what kind of drug it is and how much it’s causing your parent to neglect or abuse you and any other children in the home.

In New York, the child welfare system is trying whenever possible not to remove kids. But that’s not a guarantee.

If you do get removed from your home, try to think of a friend or family member who can take you in, and tell your social worker that you want to stay with that person.

Represent: Are kids whose parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol more likely to become addicted themselves?

Naomi: Unfortunately, yes. If your parent has a substance abuse problem, you’re three to four times more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol yourself.

It’s important to recognize your own risk for addiction, and take that seriously.

But that doesn’t mean you’re destined to become an addict. You can do things to protect yourself.

When you’re angry or upset, don’t turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with it.

Find someone to talk to, or find places and activities that make you feel good about yourself.

Figure out what your strengths are and take advantage of them. And remember that you’re not alone.

Represent: How can you help yourself cope?

Naomi: First, you should recognize that you need and deserve services, like mental health counseling and other kinds of support.

You can contact Alateen (see box below) to join a group of other teens who are dealing with an addiction in the family. Or talk to someone at school who you trust.

If you’re in the child welfare system, talk to your caseworker. Even if you think you’re coping well, talking to someone can give you the support you need to become even stronger, and to cope with some pretty lousy things.

Be open to the kinds of support you do have, even when it comes from unexpected places. While you want to have your mom’s love and attention, it may be your grandma who provides it, or it may be your after-school teacher.

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Represent: If you reunify with a parent who has been to rehab, what can you expect?

Naomi: It’s going to be really tough. When families reunify, at first everyone is going to be on their best behavior.

But after the honeymoon period is over, there’s going to be a turbulent, stormy period, and an increase in fighting. It might actually feel like it’s worse than it was before your parent got services.

Parents often report that their teen kids are so angry, and just curse them out. The adults are bewildered because they just went through all this treatment.

But the parent may have been gone or out of it for a long time, and suddenly they’re trying to step back in and be Mom or Dad, and start imposing rules.

After so much time apart, and at a time when a teen is trying to become an independent adult, trying to find that bond again is a tough process for both parents and kids.

Plus, one thing Mom or Dad is going to learn in treatment is how to express their feelings, and that can lead to more conflict.

Families often manage to stay together right through the addiction and then split up when they come home. That’s why it’s so important to get family therapy if at all possible.

Represent: What can help families get through that reunification process?

Naomi: Family therapy, time, and patience. Being able to know what’s coming next can help. If something is predictable, it’s normal. And if it’s normal, it’s not a tragedy.

That stormy period takes everyone by surprise. Families think, “If things are this tough, something is wrong.” But if they know that it’s likely to happen, then somehow it makes those things a little bit more tolerable, because it’s normal.

It’s important for teens to know that when parents first get out, the focus is on recovery. It takes four to five years before you really consider an alcoholic to be in a stable recovery place.

Treatment is just the beginning of the recovery process. It requires a lot of patience.

Represent: What can you do if you suspect your parent is using again?

Naomi: Using drugs or alcohol again is the last stage of a process that starts with the person going back to their old values and attitudes and ways of behaving.

If your parent was doing well and always making their meetings, and then they start missing them, that’s when you should say something.

Teens can ask another family member or close friend to step in and say, “I’ve noticed this happening, do you need to talk to somebody?”

You can even call the treatment program and ask them to reach out directly. The idea is to prevent it from happening.

In a household where people are using drugs, there’s often a family culture not to tell anyone. There are families that do everything from completely denying what’s happening, to putting the shades down so no one can see inside the house, to trying to behave really well so mom doesn’t get stressed out and use. But none of those strategies work.

Addiction is a recurring disease and recovery isn’t easy. The important thing to remember is that, as a teen, the best thing you can do is help yourself.

It doesn't mean your parent doesn't love you. But it does mean the drug has hijacked your parent's brain.
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