Adolescent Substance Abuse Articles
How Parents Can Help Their Struggling Teens During Treatment
By Meghan Vivo
Research over the years has made it clear that when it comes to teens, family matters. Teens whose parents talk to them about drugs and alcohol are less likely to experiment with, use, or abuse substances. Family therapy has proven to be among the most effective methods of treating anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders and mental health issues like depression. Strong family ties have been shown to reduce the risk of teen suicide. Family dinners have been linked to improved grades and a reduced risk of drug abuse and other dangerous behaviors. There can be no question, parents do make a difference.
Experts in adolescent treatment strongly believe that teen issues aren’t created or resolved in a vacuum. Because most adolescents live at home with their parents and siblings, they are constantly negotiating the rules, boundaries, and patterns of communication as part of daily life. As a result, any program that treats an adolescent with emotional or behavioral issues must also address the family system in order to be effective.
At Aspen Achievement Academy, one of the oldest and most reputable wilderness therapy programs for teens in the country, family involvement is central to the program’s philosophy. From day one, staff members take the approach, “If you enroll your teen, you enroll your family as well.”
“A ‘teen issue’ is never just an individual problem,” explains Lucy Taylor, LPC, the clinical supervisor at Aspen Achievement Academy. “As families, we’re all connected. If you want the system to function better, you have to address all parts of the system.”
Aspen Achievement Academy has one of the most comprehensive family programs in the field of wilderness therapy. In the business of helping families in crisis for more than two decades, the academy has spent many years perfecting its family systems approach. Parents receive reading and journaling assignments, books and CDs with helpful parenting tips, and intensive family therapy.
“Family is the most important contributor to a teen’s long-term success so we work hard to get parents involved in analyzing their own patterns, changing their communication strategies, and setting healthy rules and boundaries,” says Taylor. “At the same time, the teens are doing their own work so they’ll be on the same page when they reunite with their parents at the end of treatment.”
While many wilderness camps offer some form of behavioral or psychiatric assessment at the start of the program, Aspen Achievement Academy is unique in the breadth and depth of its family assessments and family therapy. One of the first tasks parents and their teens complete is a series of assessments addressing issues like family communication, emotional connectedness, personality types, stressors, substance abuse, and others.
Based on their answers, a therapist generates a detailed, written report and spends 60-90 minutes discussing the results with the family. In this way, parents become an integral part of the teen’s treatment plan and all family members understand their strengths, areas to improve on, and treatment goals. The therapists at the academy also involve the family’s home therapist in the treatment plan so that parents have a list of areas to work on to improve the family system even while their child is away in treatment.
The family assessments also help the therapists understand which family members are most receptive to change and which are most resistant. “The wealth of information we get from the family assessments helps us create a treatment plan that both parents and teen can get on board with,” says Taylor. “We also get a sense of where to invest our energies to spark the process of change.”
Studies show that the assessment process alone can help bring about change to the family system. “Parents feel empowered by the assessments because they receive concrete feedback about patterns they can begin working on right away,” notes Taylor. “The assessments also show, in black and white, that if the family doesn’t begin to change, their interactions will continue to be strained because certain patterns have taken hold at home.”
A New Way to Educate Parents: Webinars
Busy parents don’t always have the time or resources to commit to frequent in-person meetings. For this reason, Aspen Achievement Academy offers five psychoeducational webinars throughout the wilderness program, designed to teach parents about the topics that interest them most and have been proven most useful by research, including:
• Introduction to Wilderness Therapy
• Communication and Enhanced Relationships
• Adolescent Development
• Adolescent Substance Abuse
• Behavioral Contracting
These interactive, online sessions give parents a taste of what their teen is experiencing in the wilderness and offer insights into typical adolescent behaviors and ways to change ineffective relationship patterns. Parents are encouraged to join one webinar each week to learn, ask questions, relate with other parents, and begin to understand why their teens behave the way they do and what they can do to help.
Parent Support Groups
Having a child in treatment is an emotionally charged experience for most parents. Parents who receive support and encouragement throughout the treatment process are not only more likely to enjoy the process but also learn and grow more. The staff at Aspen Achievement Academy offers ongoing support to families through family therapy and regular phone calls. Because the best support sometimes comes from people who share a common experience, the academy also provides parent support groups.
Parent support groups are open forums where parents call in to talk to other parents, share stories, and develop a connection with others while their child is in treatment. The academy’s support groups are facilitated by Clinical Supervisor Lucy Taylor, who helps answer questions and address any parent concerns. Topics range from understanding and responding to letters home, coping with having a child away from home, and preparing for a child’s return home.
“It’s powerful when families find the support and understanding they need from other families in the program,” says Taylor. “Some families have established such close bonds by the end of the program that they exchange emails and continue to talk outside of the support group.”
At the end of wilderness therapy, families are reunited with their teens, each having been changed in profound ways. At Aspen Achievement Academy, parents participate in a three-day reunion that culminates in a graduation ceremony. The reunion gives parents and teens a chance to practice their new skills with guidance and support from program staff. Families have the opportunity to spend a night in the wilderness together, allowing parents to see what their teen has learned and to celebrate one another’s successes.
“The reunion is an intense time for families,” says Taylor. “The parents see changes in their child, and the child sees changes in the parents. It is a time filled with hope and joy, as well as a little nervousness and anticipation. They’ve done a lot of work and now it’s time to put their skills into action.”
Teenagers Need Parenting
Even though teenagers look and sometimes act like adults, they still need a lot of parenting and family support. “Teenagers aren’t ready to be adults yet, and they can’t learn how to be adults from their peers,” Taylor states. “Even though they seem to be pushing their parents away, it’s up to parents to learn new ways to be with their teen and support them so that they are emotionally and psychologically equipped to transition into adulthood.”
Words of wisdom from the experts in adolescent treatment: Make the most of the time you have left to parent your teenager. As Taylor advises, “If you can still engage your child in a dialogue, you still have influence.” Aligning yourself with the right adolescent treatment program will give you an excellent jumping off point but ultimately, it ends where it started: with family.