Will This Mom Push Her Son Too Far Away if She “Removes Rewards” Using the CRAFT Approach?

An AlliesinRecovery.net member is torn between wanting to provide a safe space for her son to use substances, and her fear of losing her lease and social work license. She’s also conflicted about the boundaries she has tried to lay down, and fears pushing her son too far away if she’s strict with removing rewards and enforcing boundaries.

“I have worked through the lectures and exercises on Alliesinrecovery.net, and this has been so useful. I have also had a consultation with Pam Lanhart. There are a couple of things I think I KNOW I need to change, but struggle with right now as I have got into a rut with my 16 year-old son who uses cannabis (illegal in this country, the U.K.).

My situation: During the first lockdown in May-June (2020) my son was in transition between secondary school and college. Exams got cancelled. He had not had a great time in secondary school – no friends. He had focused on his learning to distract him from those painful feelings, then exams got cancelled – he was very angry and sad. During the lockdown young people were mixing on the streets that were not mixing before; it could have been great and well it WAS for my son and still IS – or so he says. He discovered weed and a new circle of friends.

His use soon escalated (at first, I was not too worried) to him using it every day. I expressed my concern and suggested he speak to a drug counsellor and GP. Reluctantly he did both. He interpreted the response as there not being a problem. I knew I had to accept he does not want to give up, but smoking in the flat was my boundary. When he kept violating it, I said “one more time and I will call the police,” which eventually I did. This was the lowest point in our relationship. After that he – in his own words – had as little to do with me as he possibly could, and also continued to smoke in our flat. He sustained not speaking to me at all for three weeks, despite just having started at a new school and ordinarily there would be a lot to talk about. I planned a holiday for us in Greece and I was glad he did not refuse to come. We argued one whole night but then we were okay; it seemed he could connect with the part of me that wasn’t all bad.

As I am a social worker, I can lose my professional registration with illegal activity in my flat, it is also against my tenancy agreement. The smoking in the flat became such a focus for me, I lost sight of almost everything else. My son felt unwelcome at home and told me so, because we had constant arguments about weed. Sometimes I would be calm reminding him of the house rule, sometimes not so calm, but I made it a rule for myself to never just let it go. Until … I came up with the idea to allow it once a week, recently, as a compromise, and asked him if he could live with that and keep to it. He said yes, but he hasn’t.

Now I feel compromised. He is not keeping to it, and I carry the big risk of getting a conviction and losing my professional registration. I have told him all this, but he can’t imagine that would ever happen, so in his mind I am overreacting and so he does not respect me saying those things. In light of the teachings here I can see that am actually rewarding his use at the moment. One big argument we had recently was when he said I was treating him differently when he is high, looking down on him, ridiculing him. That is never my intention. In light of the teachings here I notice that now I am SOOO intent on making sure I am NO different to him when he is high …. instead of withdrawing, removing rewards and connection.

Another way I reward his use is that because I know that after he is high he wants sweet things, so I have a lot of sweet things in the house. Sometimes I even bring things to eat to him when he is in that state of constant hunger after having used cannabis. I have already been really annoyed about him keeping asking for food and THOUGHT of refusing to get him food when he is high, but I have not done it yet.

So what am I afraid of? I am so conflicted because I have also learned that the opposite of addiction is connection. I fear (and this has happened for example after I called the police) that he will disconnect from me if I reinstate my old rule of no weed in the flat (which I know is right); he will be around the corner at his friend’s the whole time (who is also his dealer, just a teen middle person) whose mother allows all the teens from our neighborhood to congregate in her house and smoke weed. With the best intentions as I also understand some other parents’ perspective: they would rather their child uses weed at home than out on the streets, some even say: I would rather you don’t use weed but if you do, ONLY do it at home. And I really think the opposite is right for me, but I worry so much about enforcing it. I am scared my son will disconnect from me altogether. Since we have had the new rule at least he is more open about this use, but the downside is that he thinks it is okay. For example he makes a joint, shows me how well it is made and wants me to praise him. It must be hard for him as so far I have always praised him a lot for everything that he does, but I haven’t praised him for THIS. He’s desperate that I do, he wants to show me cannabis related things all the time, tell me how wonderful it is.

Academically he is still doing well. I think it is because he was so far ahead before he started on the weed. His participation and homework has suffered, but it sadly seems that only the grades count, and his school hasn’t noticed anything yet. Another thing I struggle with: speaking to school or not. I understand my son feels information about his weed use is “private,” but I want him to get some support through school, though there is also a risk he could get expelled once they are more tuned into his use. I do talk about it all to those friends closest to me, although he does not like it at all especially when it is other parents he also knows. But he has had to accept this.

So, in summary I know that the removing of rewards when he is using is the right thing to do, but I struggle with it as I have been so intent on proving to him that I will treat him no different when he is high! Is there a way I can reinstate my boundary that will not be too much of a shock to him, that won’t result in him completely disengaging from me?”

Thank you so much for all of the background information in your story. It helps me to direct you to some skills and strategies that I believe will contribute to the most immediate, positive progress with your situation.

I noticed several strong positives about your situation

I would first like to point to some of the very strong positives I noticed about your situation:

  1. Clearly, you have a strong connection and good communication with your son. I know there have been times when you might not feel that’s the case, but the fact that your son consulted a counselor and general practitioner after you suggested it means that he does trust you and is open to your suggestions. The results may not have been what you wished for, but he still engaged with you, nonetheless.
  2. He consulted a counselor and general practitioner and these professionals are now aware that there may be some struggles going on with him. (Oh and did I say, HE CONSULTED A COUNSELOR AND GENERAL PRACTITIONER?)
  3. You’re focused on working on yourself to improve the situation. I know it may be very chaotic, but continuing to learn about, and practice all that you can, of the CRAFT method and the Allies eLearning modules, is going to help you have a positive impact and outcome.
  4. You are already working on setting down healthy boundaries — kudos!

The family sets boundaries, the adolescent pushes the boundaries: par for the course

It makes sense to me that you would focus on boundaries around his smoking pot in your flat. The worries and concerns around losing your residence and your professional license are perfectly valid, as this is directly related to your ability to provide for both your son and you. This would drive any reasonable person to set down a similar boundary.

Your son is young, and his challenging and testing boundaries is very much par for the course for his age. I’m sure at this stage in his life, he has a difficult time understanding the impact it would have if you lost your licensing and apartment. Like with most teenagers, long-term consequences barely come into their consciousness.

It’s very easy, I am sure many of the Allies members could affirm, to second-guess and waver with our own boundaries. It’s okay to have wavered on a boundary and then come to the conclusion that it may not have been the best idea. Just as it’s okay to waver on a boundary, it’s also okay to change your mind again and reinstate it. It’s your boundary! You can do that. You’re the mom!

It’s not an easy task, but planning it ahead of time might help relieve some of the worry about how it might go. Using your communication skills from our eLearning Module 4 “How Do I Talk To My Loved One?” (like reflective listening), reinstating your “No smoking in the flat” boundary might sound like:

Mom: “I know I previously said you could smoke once a week in the flat, but I still felt worried about keeping the flat and my Social Work license. For me it’s just too much of a concern. I know that you aren’t willing to stop smoking right now, but I am going to ask you to limit your smoking to outside. Would it help if we found somewhere close outside?”

Anticipate ahead of time that his response is probably going to be over-emotional and negative. There will probably cries of:

Son: “But you said…” and/or, “You can’t do that, that’s not fair!” and/or, “You lied to me!”

All “normal” responses for his age! Not quite done with being a young person, not quite an adult either. Respond with calm and patient understanding but stay steadfast with your boundary — this will give your son the chance to learn to deal with difficult thoughts and feelings when things don’t go his way. Be prepared with a response like:

Mom: “Yes, I know what I said before, but I reconsidered. It’s my job as your mom to make sure we have a home and I have a job. I am sure you’ll find a better solution.”

Remember, the boundaries are yours, so it’s up to you to follow through with them.

If you have the time, there’s a lot of good material on boundaries on the Allies member site. Follow this link to read up on our other posts, articles and podcasts that address boundaries.

Removing rewards (including yourself) doesn’t have to create conflict

You wrote in your post that, “One big argument we had recently was when he said I was treating him differently when he is high, looking down on him, ridiculing him. That is never my intention. In light of the teachings here I notice that now I am SOOO intent on making sure I am NO different to him when he is high … instead of withdrawing, removing rewards and connection.” You further explain that you’re in the habit of providing him sweets when he’s high and hungry — but you realize now that this is the equivalent of rewarding his use.

There are two things I’m hoping you might consider doing, which may help break this pattern of reinforcing his using.

  1. Follow our eLearning Module 6 (“My Loved One is Using Right Now: Now What?”) and remove one immediate reward — yourself! (This may make #2 a lot easier). If you’re not in the same room as him, rewarding him in other ways will likely lessen.
  2. If he asks you to bring him anything to eat when he is high, refuse. Leave it to him to take care of. You can say it in a very neutral tone (so that none of this is a seen as punishment):

Mom: “I’m headed to my room to read. You’ll have to take care of yourself. Goodnight.”

You’re afraid they’ll disconnect completely — so practice more rewards when they’re not using

Your concerns about your son disconnecting completely are very common among the families we work with. Here are some thoughts and ideas you might consider, that could help alleviate some of those fears and give you a little confidence in implementing some of the strategies we’ve discussed.

  1. Testing boundaries at 16 years is very much “normal behavior.” Hearing cries from your son like: “I hate you!” and/or, “This is not fair!” and/or, “How can you do this to me?” is very much a part of the teenager’s world.
  2. Connection, or staying connected, does not mean conversations and interactions are all going to go smoothly. Many times, these interactions with our teenagers can produce tumultuous or chaotic situations, but can also lead them to better understand how to deal with difficult thoughts and feelings.
  3. Increasing the amount of positive interaction and conversations with your son will help build a strong connection and help endure the difficult times. Find things he likes to do and invite him to do them with you:

Mom: “Hey, I’m going out for breakfast. You want to come?” and/or, “I have two tickets to the football game, join me!” or in Covid times, it might look more like: “Want to pick a movie and I’ll make popcorn?” or “Feel like playing a game?” or “Shall we make cookies together?”

Make sure to not bring up his smoking or his problems. Just spend time together. If he wants to talk about it, fine, but then you’re just an ear (of course, you’re always listening for “wishes” or “dips” and prepared with a list of resources and numbers, in case).

These moments do not have to mean a lot of time together: it could be just 10-15 minutes out of a day.

I know I’ve given you a lot to read and process. I hope it’s helpful. Hang in there, Mama. You are clearly a loving and devoted mom. None of this is easy… just take it one baby step at a time. Please keep us updated on your progress with your son.

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