Teens, divorce and substance abuse

Posted in Divorce.

“I started smoking dope and drinking heavily immediately¬ after my parent’s divorced and 
all of my friends from broken homes did the same. It was the only way to deal with the pain.”

Huffington Post, July 7, 2011

This sad comment carries truth.

And the tragic death of Amy Winehouse brings this truth closer to home. As the world mourns one of its most talented singers, it’s worth noting that Amy was both the product of divorce (age nine) and experienced it herself – an unfortunately common finding. It has been reported that her addiction issues allegedly started as a teenager. Was there a connection? Sadly, we will never know for sure.

Drugs and alcohol are always there for anybody looking for an escape. But your problems don’t go away; in fact, they are usually amplified. And, for teens in the midst of a divorce, substance abuse and dependency are a real problem. These are not just statistics. I’ve seen the damaging effects of drugs on teens for years – as well as witnessed too many lives snuffed out because of drinking and driving. According to the National Longitudinal Sample of Adolescent Health sponsored by the Mapping America project, teenage children of divorced parents are significantly more likely to use drugs than teens whose parents are together. We can do better.

Consider another celebrity, the well regarded actress, Lindsay Lohan. Up until 2004, she was successful and doing well, having worked with Tina Fey for “Mean Girls”. Her parents Michael and Dina Lohan’s divorce in 2005 corresponded with a downhill battle for Lindsay, who has since then had one rehab stint after another. While we cannot know the cause and effect or her struggles (that is her work to do), the coincidence is sobering.

“It was the only way to deal with the pain.”

It is not hard to understand the psychological pain that many kids have to endure during a divorce. And, while most children of divorce make it to the other side in good shape, there are many casualties along the way. Think about it. These young people experience a death of sorts – the end of their family as they knew it. And grief hurts. Then there are difficult changes to contend with, perhaps a new school, a more distant father, a move, a mother who isn’t herself, or quarreling parents who make it worse. In the midst of all this, there is bound to be fear, anger and sadness. This is why drugs or alcohol can seem like a simple answer. After all, it does quell the pain – at least, temporally.

The problem is that “experimenting” with drugs or alcohol can easily escalate to abuse especially when these chemicals are used as a coping mechanism rather than just for fun. Once the brain habituates to chemical stimulation, it gets very hard to stop. And, since drugs and alcohol are readily available to our kids, it behooves us to remember that the stress of divorce can move someone – an adult or a teen – from occasional usage to a more serious dependency.

Is your child using now and hadn’t used before? Has she slipped from occasionally smoking weed to doing it every chance she gets? This is self medication, pure and simple and should be a sounding alarm that you have a real problem. Do you bad-mouth your ex in front of your teen and force her to choose sides? (This is very stressful.) Do you and your ex fight in your teen’s presence? (They just want to hide somewhere.) Is your teen simply not getting the attention that he deserves because you and your ex are so preoccupied with the divorce? (Wake up.) Or, are you engaging in substance abuse yourself – or with your teen, out of a need for company? (Please, get some help.)

If your teenager is using drugs and/or alcohol to deal with the pressures of your divorce, know that there are resources such as adolescent therapists, psychologists, twelve step programs and rehab centers for more serious situations. An effective treatment encourages family members to deal with the divorce in a healthier way. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, teens whose families are actively involved in their rehab program do significantly better than teens whose families choose not to be involved in their treatment. While this report may simply be differentiating healthier teens and families from those less fortunate, it is a study worth noting.

If your adolescent has not stumbled into the world of drugs, do your best to ensure that he never does. You can be a strict parent, but don’t make the topic of drinking or drugs taboo. Discuss the issue, and elaborate about the consequences, but try not to lecture (your teen may nod his head and never tell you the truth). Sometimes it is best to talk about awkward subjects when the iron is cold. Some kids listen best when they are not on the spot. Others respond to st

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