Monday, August 8, 2011

Guest Blogger Faith Blitman: Help, My Child May Be Chemically Dependent: What Should I Do?

Faith Blitman, M.A. is a Psychotherapist and Certified Drug and Alcohol Assessor in Philadelphia, PA. She provides individual, group and family counseling as well as drug and alcohol assessment and counseling. You can reach her at

Despite warnings children may experiment with drugs for a multitude of reasons: curiosity, peer pressure, to escape anxiety and depression or simply to feel good. Some children who experiment with drugs ultimately become addicts, while others do not. While genetics play a role in addiction, there is no fail-proof, early warning system to alert the child who is using, that due to his or her unique vulnerabilities or proclivities, addiction may be imminent. The process of addiction is an insidious one – many who experiment do so to temporarily forget their problems but as the addiction gains momentum, it inevitably wreaks havoc on every facet of the user’s life. It also tends to wreak as great or greater havoc on parents’ lives who helplessly and painfully witness the loss of their child to drugs and alcohol. The bitter irony is that the addiction itself becomes far more deleterious and pervasive than the original problem which motivated the child to use drugs in the first place.

Drug addiction can be psychological, physical or both. Many recreational drugs attach to the same receptors as brain chemicals and act as disinhibitory agents. Normal behavioral control is undermined and suspended, accounting for many of your child’s mood and behavior changes. Drugs often hijack the brain (most notably, the prefrontal cortex), typically resulting in a severely comprised ability to carry out important survival skills such as planning, exercising sound judgment and resisting temptation.

As a concerned parent, it is helpful to be aware of the signs and symptoms which are frequently associated with drug abuse . . .

Changes in Mood and Behavior including: mood swings, e.g. depression, mania, anxiety, isolation, paranoia, increased or inappropriate anger, relationship changes, increased secretiveness or lying, changes in sleeping patterns (up all night or sleeping excessively), changing friends

Problems in School or Work i.e. increased absenteeism, problems getting along with others, drop in grades or productivity, loss of interest in (class) work or extracurricular activities

Problems in the Home or Community – be aware of dwindling or missing prescriptions, alcohol, money, jewelry and other valuables, the presence of rolling papers, pipes, bongs, or needles, pills, powders and other unknown substances, car accidents, fights, legal problems

Traumatic Events – for example, a loss of a significant person through death, divorce, etc. , a history of sexual, emotional or physical abuse, witnessing a horrific event such as a murder, domestic abuse, etc., military combat (PTSD) can lead to using

Changes in Personal Appearance including glassy eyes, unkempt appearance,
changes in grooming, significant loss or gain in weight

Assuming your child is exhibiting at least some of these indicators, what should you as a concerned parent do?

1) Approach your child with a caring and calm attitude. Your child’s life may well feel out of control to him or her so it is important for you to stay in control for the both of you. Do not confront until you feel calm. (Should you experience guilt, remind yourself it was your child’s decision to use, not yours.)

2) Confront your child with whatever evidence or suspicions you may have. Let him or her know that you are there to offer your love, support and help. Avoid giving the third degree or lecturing; your role is to build a climate of safety and caring, thus assisting your child to admit and share concerns about drug use.

3) Set firm and reasonable boundaries. Clearly delineate which behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable and inform your child of the consequences (both positive and negative), of their behavior. Consistency in following through provides clarity and stability for you and your child.

4) Denial is a major component of addiction. If you’ve confronted your child and he or she denies having a problem, a well-planned intervention which includes his or her friends, family and professionals may be advisable.

5) Seek professional assistance. Chemical dependency does not occur in a vacuum and affects the entire family. A skillful therapist can objectively assess your situation to determine which type and level of treatment is best suited to the needs of your child (in addition to your child attending Narcotics Anonymous and/or Alcoholics Anonymous). Moreover, a therapist can assist family members in establishing appropriate boundaries, by teaching effective coping skills and helping to identify and modify maladaptive patterns of thinking and behaving.

6) Self-care is critical. In addition to therapy, spending time with friends or developing a supportive network is essential to your well-being. Many parents who have a chemically dependent child also reap tremendous benefits by participating in their own 12-step programs such as Nar-Anon (for friends and family concerned about a loved one’s drug addiction) , Al-Anon (for friends and family concerned about a loved one’s drinking), and CoDA (Co-dependents Anonymous to help establish healthier relationships). Pursue hobbies, exercise, take classes and live your life. You will inevitably feel better and also be an even healthier role model for your child. In life, we cannot control other people, but we do control who we are and who we are can flourish despite adversity.