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Handling Grief for a Teen with a Substance Use Disorder

Mom comforting a teen struggling with a substance use disorder

Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed half a century ago: “Grief goes from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance.”

Somewhat later, the Swiss psychiatrist who developed the “5 Stages of Grief” in 1969 regretted that her model was misunderstood and admitted that grief doesn’t proceed in a “linear” fashion. This is especially true when considering the complex and ever-changing grief that a parent experiences when his or her teenage child struggles with a substance use disorder.

Is Grief the Right Word?

On its face, the idea of grieving someone who is still living may seem counterintuitive. Although such grief may differ from the mourning that takes place after someone’s death, these parents’ emotions are no less powerful or painful. Plus, these individuals must navigate this grief without the outpouring of support that is typically received from the community after the death of a loved one.

To make matters worse, this type of grief is not accompanied by the closure that coexists with the passing of a friend or family member. In contrast, parents of teens with a substance use disorder may endure a constant state of despair and powerlessness when watching their child plunge further into addiction, all the while knowing that their teen could succumb to a fatal overdose at any time.

The Stages of Grief During Addiction

Though the five grief stages were originally designed to describe terminally-ill patients, they can easily be applied to adolescents with a substance use disorder. Teens often deny they have a problem for quite a while, and then get angry when it becomes clear that they actually do. They bargain with parents and promise to change if they are given money, restored privileges or even given a chance to move back home. Depression sets in when teenagers realize they are at or near rock bottom (or going through withdrawal), and acceptance occurs when they finally agree to teen addiction treatment or some other kind of corrective action.

Parents experience these stages too, but often in different ways. They may tell themselves that their child isn’t dependent on drugs or alcohol (denial), and also blame their teen, his or her enabling friends or the lack of treatment options for causing this problem (anger). In addition to occasionally acquiescing to their teen’s entreaties in the hopes that change will occur (bargaining), parents can spiral into hopelessness and dejection (depression) before eventually admitting that their teen’s recovery is ultimately up to the teen (acceptance).

Battling Parental Grief

Believe it or not, acceptance may be the most emotionally-draining grief stage for parents, because it comes with the realization that their teen’s well-being is beyond their control. It also requires defiance of their paternal instincts when they find they must do things like refuse to enable their teen’s problem, make difficult choices to save their family (like withholding funds, removing teens from the home or calling the police) and detach themselves from their teen’s tumultuous life to preserve their own sanity.

For these grieving parents, there are no silver bullets or easy answers. Instead, many grieving parents find comfort in striving to mold their behaviors around the following principles:

  1. Communicate and collaborate in a positive way with their teen.
  2. Dispense positive reinforcement whenever possible.
  3. Realize that their teen’s actions don’t occur in a vacuum, but rather they are motivated by something else.
  4. Allow their teens to learn from the natural consequences of their actions and behaviors.
  5. Take care of themselves, not just their families.
  6. Never, ever give up on their teen.

Parents can seek help from peer support groups in their communities or online so they can share their feelings with others who know what they’re going through. Also, family therapy in addiction treatment can help parents, teens and their siblings heal from the trauma and fallout resulting from teen substance misuse.

The silver lining to all this grief? With hard work, appropriate treatment and consistent support, many teens do get better, remain substance-free and grow up to lead productive lives. Sometimes, this hope is the only thing that can keep grieving parents going during the darkest of times.

If you’re a grieving parent of a teenager who struggles with a substance use disorder, contact Next Generation Village today to get helpful information about your options for getting help for your entire family.

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