As kids across the country settle into another new school year, we get inundated with ads featuring elated beautiful faces with brand new backpacks and the latest trendy clothes, students gleefully walking the halls and chatting with friends. For many teens however, this isn’t their reality. This time of year triggers a myriad feelings that may be far from excitement and eager anticipation of the days ahead. Even the most outwardly happy and “has-it-all” teen may be hiding anxiety, fear, stress and insecurity beneath smiles and laughter… and they often don’t choose healthy outlets for dealing with it.
With school back in session, it’s not just the academic pressures that mount up, the opportunities for parties and social events where alcohol is present also increase. As parents, we may think hanging with the “wild crowd” or going to said parties is the path to alcohol abuse for our kids. We think if we can just keep them out of those situations, they’ll be okay.
Here’s the thing about teens and alcohol abuse: the real underlying issue is most frequently emotional pain.
Adverse Childhood Experiences And Risk Factors
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are any traumatic stressful events that a child has to deal with growing up. They could include sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, living with an alcoholic caregiver… any number of events that can cause stress and anxiety for a child and leave deep emotional wounds and scars. Studies have shown that kids with ACEs in their upbringing are at a greatly increased risk of a myriad health problems including issues with substance abuse and addiction.
These kids are far more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol at earlier age. The comfort they feel as a result fills those emotional gaps. For people in lack of deep connections with other human beings, including parents, siblings, and peers (which is common for those who grew up with ACEs), alcohol and drugs can begin to feel like the friends they can always count on.
They’re self medicating - but it’s not really about the drug; it’s about soothing a wound. Taking away the substance just leads them to seek something else to replace it. What they’re lacking is emotional connection, love, and support to heal the deep-rooted pain that continues to haunt them. Until the underlying issue is addressed, an addict will continue to suffer.
How Parents Can Help
It can be tough to look inward as a parent and evaluate the role your own patterns may play in the how your child reacts to the world. It’s possible you’re aware of traumas your loved one has suffered. Maybe they were factors outside of your control. Maybe you believe you addressed them with therapy or your kid insists they are “fine” so you don’t press things.
If you yourself were the victim of domestic abuse, or you’ve dealt with addiction, or had your own ACEs, it can all filter down to your kids. Or, maybe you haven’t realized how much your own life experiences, or career and work habits, may have affected your kid’s childhood experiences. It’s not about putting blame on you as a parent, but in understanding why a teen may have grown up feeling neglected or disconnected from family, it’s important be honest about the contributing factors. Healing pain is far more effective when its roots have been identified.
What can you do to foster a better connection with your teen? As a parent it’s important to pay attention. Make a point to check in with your kid about how school is going - not just academically but ask about their social life, after school activities and hobbies. Be there to talk with them and be available to truly listen to what they say and how they feel, rather than only yelling at them and doling out consequences when they make mistakes. When teens feel supported rather than constantly berated, they’ll be much more likely to engage in open dialogue with you. The more you connect and seek to understand your child’s perspective and show up as a support system they can count on, the better their chance will be of avoiding addiction or finding long-term recovery from it.
Treating Addiction With Connection
While growing up in an environment where trust, support and connection are lacking make an individual more susceptible to addictive behaviors, the “fix” for the lack of secure relationships certainly doesn’t happen overnight. As human beings, particularly for those with past emotional wounds, learning to trust others is a process.
Teens who are dealing emotional disconnection will need help to build a solid social community of reliable, trustworthy, empathetic people they can learn to count on. For those who enter treatment, they will begin to form bonds with others who understand their experience and can relate to what they’re going through. We also help them to learn to value themselves, which is a huge step in facing one’s emotional pain and healing it. The support system a recovering addict builds is imperative their success in staying sober. For teens, whose brains are still developing emotionally, it carries even more weight.
If you’re a parent reading this in hopes of preventing your child from abusing alcohol, your best bet is to begin building or rebuilding your connection with them right now. Schedule uninterrupted time to be together, focusing on talking, listening and understanding. If you’re concerned your teen is already on a dangerous path, talk with them right now. Let them know you will be there to love and support them no matter what. They need to feel safe and have the confidence that they’ll be cared for through the process of recovery and beyond.
Courtesy of Peaks Recovery Centers