5 Parenting Tips Learned From Addicts

I have interviewed dozens of drug addicts and alcoholics. As a mom, I looked for the magic bullet that would keep my own children from that dark path.

But there isn’t one.

As a freelance writer, I have the opportunity to interview some really fascinating people. My work led me to interview dozens of drug addicts and alcoholics over a 2year period, some have since remained clean and some have fallen back into their addictions. Most of the addicts I’ve interviewed spent time in jail, watched close friends die, tried to commit suicide, committed theft and robbery, some were prostitutes (male and female), lived on the streets, were beaten and abused, and all knew what it was to live without hope.

Not a single one of those people chose to be an addict as their life’s ambition. Addiction was something that happened as they struggled to fit in, to be something they weren’t, to stop feeling bad, or to feel good. Many wanted to escape the reality of their own lives, at first just for a few minutes. Now, I’m a writer not an addictions expert, but the more interviews I did, the more parents of addicts I spoke with, a few warnings said in retrospect continued to repeat themselves.

1. Diversify Friends

Many many of the addicts I interviewed only had one core group of friends whose influence ran very deep. So deep, that they were reluctant or unwilling to go against the group. I try to make sure my kids have friends in different places based on different interests. They have their church friends, friends from school, after-school activity friends, and neighbors (many of whom don’t attend their school). And this is true in my own life, I have church friends, neighbors, work friends, etc. If one group decided to shun me, I’m hurt but I still have other friends.

2. Be Informed

So many parents said they just didn’t know what to watch for. Many addicts had stories of how little effort it took to hide their drug use from their parents. The time to teach kids about the dangers of drugs and alcohol is between 8 and 12 years – before it’s a real issue. Many addicts I spoke with said they began experimenting at 12 or 13, some were addicts before 16. Do you know the popular drugs in your area? How about facts like heroin is easier to find in the port cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax – whereas inland you’re looking at prescription opiates like Oxycontin. Do you know what codewords kids use for Ecstasy? Some of these drugs are so easy to find, and will be available at any kind of party and out of classmate’s lockers. And don’t think this is only a city problem. I spoke with one addict who worked on a buffalo ranch in northern Alberta who had drug dealers delivering to him in a field. It’s everywhere. What does someone look like who’s high? One teen informed me that he wore long sleeve shirts all summer to hide the track (needle) marks on his arms, and while his parents were curious they never pressed him about it. Be informed!

3. Find Something They Love

I have tried really hard, and worked hard for the extra money, to find activities that my kids love. For now, my tween daughters have a paper route to help pay for the extracurricular activities they participate in (because they chose really expensive ones). You have to really love something to be willing to deliver flyers in a snowstorm or sub-zero temperatures in Canada all winter. They’ve had that paper route for over a year now. They skip other activities to go to the ones they love. They rush to do homework so they don’t miss their activity. Is there something in your child’s life, an interest, hobby or sport, they won’t give up not even to peer pressure? Find it, nurture it, encourage them. Most of all – give them your time. Go out and watch them, know their coaches and teammates. Be involved.

4. Open Communication

“I just couldn’t talk to my parents” is a comment I heard a lot. ‘My parents didn’t have time to listen,’ or ‘all they did was judge me.’ Parenting a teen is hard – I’m only just beginning on that journey so can’t speak to it too much. But I want my kids to know they can talk to me about anything, and I will listen. I don’t always agree with them, I don’t always have an answer or solution – but I want them to feel heard. And know that they can come to me with anything and be accepted as they are.

5. Natural  Consequences

This seems to be a popular catch phrase in parenting lately, but so many of the addicts I spoke with were either sheltered too much or not enough. Many addicts learned how to use drugs by watching their own parents or family, picked up beer bottles every Sunday night after a weekend of partying, and made excuses to teachers for their parents. A good many others grew up feeling severely restricted by their parents and turned to drugs as a way to escape or rebel. But there was also a large third group that I hadn’t expected to see. These were kids whose parents removed them from the natural consequences of their actions. Life is hard. When my kids are late for school because they dawdled – they have to explain why they’re late. I don’t jump in and write a note. If they don’t get their homework done (as per household rules) then they miss out on an activity.

I heard of one mom who went downtown to buy her son drugs because she was afraid he’d get killed if he went himself. That’s enabling.

One of the most remarkable stories I heard was one set of parents who refused to give their son money they knew he’d use to buy drugs. In a rage, he stormed out declaring they were forcing him to go rob a store to get the money. The father called the police and the son was picked up in the midst of a convenience store robbery and sentenced to jail time. It took a long time for him to forgive his parents, but it set him on a straighter path because he saw that his choices weren’t leading him anywhere good.

Are you aware of the dangers of drugs and alcohol? Have you begun to teach your kids about it or do you rely on the schools?

Lisa

I’m on Twitter and G+, but I hang out on Facebook – would love to chat. :)

“It would be different if one had tried to tell the whole truth. That would have some value.” – Ernest Hemingway

“A woman is like a teabag – you never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” Eleanor Roosevelt

Comments

  1. says

    Wow. Thanks, Lisa for the wake up call. I haven’t had that talk (though I have had a few others, including the dangers of “putting yourself out there” online). My husband just recently mentioned the drug thing to my oldest. Great post.

    • says

      Thanks. A lot of the addicts I talked with were very frank and open about their past. Every one of them agreed that kids shouldn’t be experimenting or using drugs and always had ideas on what might have helped them choose a different path.

  2. says

    #6: Come down hard and firm the first time you even suspect your child is involved. You say, “you may have that friend over to our house only if I am home and only in a common room where I can see what you are doing and you are never to go ovr to that friend’s house again. Ever. Nor are you allowed to go to a party where that friend will be in attendance.” And then stick to your guns. Don’t fool yourself with self-patronizing phrases like, “I want my child to like me.” He is not your child; he is God’s. You just get to look after him for a while. And you’d better do your duty to that child because his Father is watching!

    • says

      I agree. I spoke with a lot of parents who, in retrospect, wish they had implemented a zero tolerance policy. A lot of the addicts I spoke with said they convinced their parents it was only marijuana when they were in fact using harder drugs.

  3. Janice Heck (@janiceheck) says

    Lisa, These are great suggestions. I work with teens in rehab and I find that they fit your number 1 suggestion. They have a single, powerful peer group. Couple that with lack of communication and friction with parents and you have a major problem. Parents need to help with the diversification of friends as you suggest. Your other points are strong as well.

  4. says

    That is really important stuff, Lisa. I never thought about most of it before. But I do think that diversifying friends is so important. The friends I had in high school who became addicts by the time I was in college were not my only friends. When the partying got to be too much for me, I spent more time with my other groups of friends. And open communication paired with the high expectations. I could talk to my parents and I knew they expected great things from me. I’m going to have to come back to this post when I have kids. Thanks for the info.

  5. says

    I don’t have any of my own, but I married into stepkids with children. I have never been good with kids, but am trying to learn, fast, so that I can have a good relationship with my new, extended family. I hope I never have to look for the signs you’ve listed Lisa. I see addiction frequently, since I work in healthcare, and your post is dead on. The drug addiction is an escape valve, a relief mechanism, when what the addict and family need is to find to the way to the root of the problem. Excellent post!

  6. says

    This is a really great post Lisa. I like to think I have time before I have to worry about any of this stuff, but you never know do you? Thank you so much for pulling all this information together. I will definitely share this!

  7. Margie Wilson says

    I’m glad my grandchildren have such a great mom!

  8. says

    I never even saw drugs or alcohol until I moved to New York after high school. I was afraid of them enough to never abuse, or even try, either. (I had my first drink at 22.) I’m not a parent, but do feel that open communication is key for all families, particularly when it comes to wee ones.

    Thanks for this insightful post, Lisa. Your list can apply to people of all ages and lifestyles, whether faces addiction or other negative vices.

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