No-one automatically knows how to talk to an addicted loved one—someone living with an addiction. Although people who have lived and worked with people with addictions may have discovered effective ways to communicate, it is always difficult, because of the confusion addiction creates in the person with the addiction, and the various ways that it is affecting your family. If you surmise that your teenage son has an addiction, here are ways of communicating with him that will produce better outcomes.
Communicating with a child who has an addiction can be especially hard if you have been supporting his addiction by enabling him to continue in his addictive behavior in the past. And your son may make this worse by denial and lying to you. Making changes in the way that you interact with your son will put an end to enabling, while still showing you care about him.
Always Be Kind to Someone with an Addiction. Show you care through your behavior—always act with kindness and compassion. This is the elusive secret ingredient to successful interaction with a person who has an addiction. Addiction is so stigmatized in our society, that people who have addictions expect others to criticize, insult, and belittle them, and for friends and family to reject them. By accepting an addict as a person, even if you don’t accept their behavior, you can start to build bridges to forgiveness and recovery.
Listen to Person With the Addiction at Least as Much as You Talk. Whether they are a loved one or not, a person with an addiction is more likely to confide in you about what is really going on for them if you listen without interrupting or criticizing. Even if you do not agree with their behavior, addictions happen for a reason. Find out about their addiction by reading about it, and try to understand the person with an addiction’s point of view.
Keep Your Best Motives in Mind. It’s easy to lose sight of our real motives when we become angry or frightened. Without realizing it, negative motivations begin to creep in. We start seeking to punish our son or force them to admit that we’re right. Before talking to your son about drugs, pause for a moment and ask the focusing question: What do I really want? This can be a powerful tool, as you willfully bring the correct motivations into the forefront of your mind. Remember to pause throughout the discussion, as well, and ask if you’re still on track with what you set out to do.
Confront with Facts, Not Judgements. When you present facts, you obligate the person to respond to the information. Contrarily, judgment will only push your son away, leaving them less likely to respond positively to the information presented. For instance, replace, “You’re a liar, and I won’t stand for this,” with “I’ve noticed the spray cans of air freshener I bought for the bathrooms are already empty. I only bought them a week ago, and your dad and I haven’t used much of it ourselves. As far as I know you are the only other person who has been at home.” Try to remove any language which may read as confrontational. Leave your opinion out of the conversation as much as possible, reducing the conversation to facts only.
Make it Safe. Your son may become defensive during these crucial conversations. Their response may be significantly out of touch with what you’re actually saying. The reason for this is that he is likely hearing something different from what you’re actually saying. He’s having his own perception and experience with your words, and his response may seem irrational as a result. Here are three steps to help them feel safe in the conversation:
State what you don’t intend and what you do intend. Leave no room for ambiguity. Make every statement as clear as you possibly can, using primarily supportive language. Make it clear that you’re not trying to control his life or make his decisions for him. You’re merely stating your experiences and your observations.
Be flexible about when you talk, but not about whether or not you talk. Control is a huge issue. Sometimes you can provoke an unnecessary confrontation by demanding that conversations be on your terms and your timeframe. It’s best to try to engage in dialogue by respecting the other person’s preferences about when to talk. “I’d like to talk openly with you about your concerns and mine. I’m interested in hearing your views even if we disagree. Is now a good time to do that or would it be better later? And if later, when would be good for you?” If they don’t want to talk now, show respect by being flexible—within reason. If your loved one doesn’t want to talk at all, help him or her understand why talking is required. “I understand that you don’t want to talk right now. I also know that you intend to go to a party tonight where I have reason to believe there might be bad influences. If we can’t talk before then, I’ll need to decide how to deal with the party tonight on my own. If we can talk before then, it will give me a chance to hear your point of view. What would you prefer we do?”
Create a “safety reserve” by creating safety even when there are no problems. The framework for these difficult conversations is often much larger than the conversation itself. Try to practice positive interactions throughout your daily life with your son. Praise him when you can. Try to “catch” him being good. The more positive conversations you have surrounding a challenging conversation about drugs, the more likely he is to respond well.
Discuss, agree on, and stick with boundaries. If you talk about rules and expectations beforehand, it is much easier to enforce them later. Then, when boundaries are violated, hold your loved one accountable consistently. If it’s a boundary, it should always be a boundary.
Evaluate the dialogue. You’re aiming for a two-way, face-to-face conversation that gives your son room to disagree with you and communicate a different point-of-view. After the conversation, ask yourself who did most of the talking. If your loved one didn’t do at least 25% of it, you didn’t ask enough questions—or didn’t create enough safety to allow them to participate fully.
Show him how life can look like on the other side of addiction. Many addicts, while not understanding the full toll their addiction is taking on their life and future, had little to look forward to before they even began their addiction. In fact, some got into addiction to improve their life through artificial means, and now they feel trapped in that decision. In fact, they are! So, as help is offered to solve the addiction, also provide a vision of what their life could be like once the addiction is dealt with and the boy’s life can get back to normal. If he has nothing to look forward to, he’ll not have the strength to get through the difficult days ahead of detox and rehabilitation. Give him every incentive to get through it, but only if he does actually get through it! Hold back the rewards until he has accomplished getting clean and sober for a time.
Once you’ve opened a dialogue with your son about his addiction, it’s time to act. Be very firm. Catching addiction early is fantastic, but it must be followed up with constructive and consistent action. “Tough love” is appropriate here — so use it! For most teenagers, this means addiction treatment and a time of rehabilitation.
New Adventure Treatment Center (on the campus of Teen Challenge Adventure Ranch) is a certified addiction treatment center for teenage boys. If your son is struggling with addiction issues, he needs professional help to ensure permanent recovery. This program employs experienced and well-educated therapists and counselors to make sure that his drug addiction is a thing of the past. New Adventure Treatment Center has a complete course of addiction treatment, including an extensive Aftercare Program to protect against relapse. Call 888-289-6818 today – swift action can prevent your teenager’s addiction from spiraling further out of control.
We value education and academic success, considering it key to long-term life success. Most of our staff have advanced degrees. Many of the students who come here lack sufficient high school credit to obtain their diplomas in a timely manner, but we help them get caught up and even to retake classes for a higher GPA. Every boy on campus is taught and tutored several hours each day. Our disciplined and structured approach to learning, with individualized academic goals and progress, helps the boys get back on track with their education and our courses are fully accredited and transferrable.
Our outdoor adventure program is second to none. Our students have regular opportunities to experience fun and challenging indoor and outdoor physical activities. Students enjoy camping, backpacking, rappelling, canoeing, and spelunking (cave exploration). They are challenged physically and learn the importance of goals and perseverance.
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Former Attorney General
“Teen Challenge changes the world one person at a time.”
Founder, Prison Fellowship
“The Teen Challenge program succeeds when all of the government programs have failed.”
“Too many young [people] have already lost their lives. Teen Challenge works to change young people’s lives by changing their hearts.”
“In my opinion, Teen Challenge is doing the best all-around job of providing the kids with something meaningful in their lives. And that’s what they all need.”
Former US Drug Czar
“Of all the programs reported to the Commission, the most successful is the program conducted by Teen Challenge.”
Past Director, AT&T Corporation
“Teen Challenge is one of the most successful programs in our country.”
Darren Reynolds, MA, is a tireless innovator and team-builder. He has worked with troubled youth for nearly 30 years. He became the Executive Director of Teen Challenge Adventure Ranch in 1996. He holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling.