mamancatou’s Loved One has been drinking and experimenting with different drugs for a year. Their relationship has been deteriorating ever since and her son does not show any signs that he might be willing to stop. She writes in for guidance on where to start.
I was wondering if I can get advice about my 16 years old boy. I am worried sick about his alcohol and drug use but not sure if it falls into the category of addiction, or if I am reacting too much to the situation…Is he just experimenting? I am confused as you can see…
He started smoking pot a year ago and since, he took drugs about 30 times (mostly pot, wax, and he tried once mushrooms and LSD). He also likes to drink.
He doesn't see his use as a problem like I do and our relationship is a daily struggle. I asked him to stop, talked to him about the risks of using drugs and the benefits of being drug free (more freedom, more trust from the parents) but he is not receptive, he minimizes the risks, he shows a big lack of judgement (he is convinced that the drugs he uses are safe, 100% clean, that the dealer providing the drugs would not sell them bad stuff…). He also told me that he likes the feeling of being high; it's fun, it's relaxing…he does not sound like someone ready to stop.
He has a new group of friends since last year and they are the ones using with him and providing him the drugs. Every time he wants to see those friends, my heart stops, I know they are bad news but I feel powerless, he won't stop seeing them.
Your 16 year-old son is mainly using cannabis, but is also experimenting with alcohol. You are understandably concerned, but is it addiction? Your son is showing signs of heading towards possible trouble: he locks himself in his room, has a new set of friends, and there is a growing distance between you.
Without answering the question of whether this is addiction or a less serious phenomenon, you can use CRAFT to set your boundaries and intentions for him. You are raising good questions. Your clear messaging to him will push the responsibility for his actions back onto him. You can’t force your son to stop but you can create the conditions that will help him to think about his decision to use or not use in the moment.
I am overgeneralizing, but the trend with teens is that of increasing use throughout the years. Best practice interventions, such as Adolescent Community Reinforcement Approach (A-CRA), only flatten the line for the period the youth is receiving treatment. This means your son is unlikely to stay abstinent, and you will see continued use for the foreseeable future. What we are looking for is lowered, more considered use.
Many young people do mature out of drug and alcohol use as other activities and goals take precedence: like school work in college or being part of a sports team. That’s why approaches like A-CRA work: the goal is to look for community and other activities that compete with use.
You are right to think of a counselor for your son. The focus does not have to only be on the drugs—perhaps the drugs don’t even get mentioned at first. The aim of counseling is to get your son to make good decisions that are in line with his near and future goals, which would now include lower and safer use. Don’t talk about treatment with your son, unless you are ready to intervene. Loved Ones become deaf to the message when we continuously talk about their drug problem and their need to get help.
You are going to intervene (Module 8 provides guidance on how to approach this), either to get him into individual or family counseling. It might be a little easier to get your son to meet a family counselor. See if you can find both and give several options.
Intervention comes at the end of 4 to 6 weeks of making other changes. Focus on communication and on finding a rhythm between rewarding when your son is not using and stepping away when you see signs of use. CRAFT is about evaluating the present situation: when your son not using in this moment, you come in and reward. When he is using in this moment, you'll step away, remove rewards and allow for natural consequences to unfold.
I’m underlining “in this moment” to emphasize that the decision to reward or to step away due to use is made daily, even moment by moment, depending on your assessment of whether your son is high or not. Try answering the exercises in Module 3 to sharpen your ability to know the difference between use and non-use.
Rewards for your son include driving lessons, sleepovers and probably food.
Rewarding rather than punishing:
is more likely to work
is less likely to lead to bad feelings
offers a solution of what to do
doesn’t lead to spread of effect (all people in authority are suspect)
is much less controlling
Example script: “Son, the decision to use drugs is yours. We can’t stop you. But as your parents, we do not support the decision, as you know. If we see that you haven’t been using the day before and the day of a driving lesson, then you will have your lesson. But the lesson will be postponed if we see that you’ve recently been high. The stakes are just too high. We all want you to get your license, but driving has to be done safely.”
The difference between punishing and rewarding is similar to the difference between control and influence:
• Demand, dominate, manipulate
• Leads to guilting, anger, shaming, resentment
• Power over
An example of a controlling statement: “Drink and you’re out of here.”
• Request, provide resources, realize where the responsibility lies for you and for your Loved One
• Does not lead to disappointment and provides information
• Power with, it’s a partnership
An example of using influence: “I’d really like this to happen, but I can’t force it.”
Your son will still get frustrated when a reward is removed. So be it. Learning to deal with frustration will serve him all through his life. The reaction is likely to be big at first and then lower in intensity. Expect it. Don’t react. Don’t take it personally.
Dig into the modules. You are asking the right questions. Learning and practicing CRAFT builds your skills as a parent of a young person who is using drugs. The work is subtle, like the difference between control and influence, but you'll see, it is also very effective.
Communicating in the way we've laid out in Module 4 will help get your son out of his room. If it doesn’t, so be it. Let him sit in there. Go about your life. Practicing this type of positive detachment will help you relax and see the situation more clearly. Make space for yourself and you will be able to react more objectively to his highs and lows. Practice not reacting to each and every move (as you've seen in the modules, even a negative reaction from us is a sort of reward for them – it's attention).
Being 16 is tough. We usually don’t remember much of how we felt at 16 but it is a complex transitional time for everyone. Your son is most likely dealing with an entire set of new realizations, uncertainties and desires. Conflicting emotions are the name of the game.
This time is complex for you, too, and our hearts go out to you. When they are little, our children share easily and need us for almost everything. As they grow older they become more private and don’t talk as much about their issues—sometimes not at all. It can feel like we’ve lost them a little. Adding substance use to the equation makes the whole thing a bit more challenging.
Consider the importance of self-care. When we're continually focused on our suffering Loved Ones, we get to the end of our rope much quicker. You have been worrying for a year and more challenges still lie ahead. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, rely on activities that allow you to center yourself (be it journaling, yoga, meeting friends, gardening, drawing…). Reflecting on what fills you up and gives you joy is a powerful and mindful exercise. It will ensure that you have the energy you'll need to help your son.
Your son is navigating his path right now, though it is certainly not the path you would have chosen for him. With CRAFT you will be able to influence him positively. CRAFT is meant to teach you the communication skills you need to stay connected to your Loved One and promote more unity and solidarity in the family. CRAFT is also meant to provide guidelines for day-to-day communication, helping to reduce family members' anxiety and uncertainty.
You have landed on this site, you are not alone. Welcome and thank you for reaching out.