Three Words for my College Kiddo

“Three words.” That’s all I have to say and my college kiddo knows exactly what I mean. He tells me he’s heading out on Friday night, and I say, “three words.” He says, “I know, Mama.” And, he does.

I’m the youngest of three sisters, so being “the baby” is a familiar role. Because there are quite a few years separating us (seven and 12, to be exact) , it’s almost like this role is both “youngest” and “only.” It also gives me a special connection to our third kiddo, “the baby” and “youngest” by eight and 12 years to his brother and sister. Perhaps this is why we can talk in three-word code.

By the time I came along and by the time I was in high school and college, my parents had been there and done that. They weren’t going to put up with much, and they didn’t have to. While there are a few things they never knew about those teens and 20s, I was basically a good kid, and I did not have a substance use disorder.

Our college freshman has been through the wringer – with his brother in particular. He’s seen, heard and experienced it all. Substance use and co-occurring mental health set in about 10 years ago. Kiddo No. 3 was in fifth grade while kiddo No. 2 was struggling and we were newbie parents to marijuana, opioids, alcohol and more.

This weekend, he’ll be coming home to Minnesota for spring break – yeah, not the sun and surf spring break he might go on in the future, and not the one I want to think about.

College is off to an excellent start. He’s made friends, adjusted to being 682 miles away, is dating a nice young woman, made the Dean’s List, played intramural sports, and had a chance to visit and get to know Michigan.

Has he been to parties? Yes. Has there been alcohol? Yes. Have there been drugs? Most likely. Has he participated? My hunch is yes to the alcohol and no to the drugs. Have we talked about it? Yes. Have we talked about the risks? Yes. Does he know our concerns? Yes.

My message, and he often repeats it back to me so I know it has resonated with him: Smart, safe and sober. Just knowing that he knows this is my hope and it gives me confidence. Three simple words. For a mom with a kid in recovery and the mom of another kid in college, that’s right up there with the other three words of “I love you.”

Rose McKinney aka Midwestern Mama

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Young men struggling with addiction require some extra attention

Youth struggling with addiction face a unique challenge when it comes to getting clean.

Addiction is a disease that can change the way someone thinks and behaves.

These changes run deep, and are fueled by both chemical dependency and bad habits that are hard to break.

Adults who are struggling with addiction are often able to look back at a time when addiction did not rule their lives.

This can give them motivation to get back to that place, or at the very least, it reminds them that it was possible to live sober.

Teens and young adults, on the other hand, don’t have that benefit. Really, they have not yet had any adult habits or routine free from the effects of addiction.

What are the root causes of addiction in teens and young people?

Much of the dialogue around youth and addiction is flat-out wrong.

Discussions tend to focus on aspects like peer pressure or teens going through a rebellious “phase.”

The ugly truth is, teens start doing drugs for the same reasons adults do.

Kids, just like adults, are seeking a reprieve from crushing anxiety or numbing depression or a strong desire to fit in.

Youth are not armored against the stresses of life, like painful relationships, loss, and fear of rejection.

In 2015, the New York Times wrote an article exploring reasons that teens began doing drugs, and what these addicted youths say might have convinced them to stop early or not try drugs in the first place.

David Sheff, who authored “Beautiful Boy,” the story of his son’s addiction, and “Clean,” about treating and preventing drug addiction, noticed that a common factor in youth drug abuse was self-medication.

Sheff told the times:

“It’s pointless to tell our children to ‘make good choices’ about drugs if those drugs offer a reprieve from the darkness they feel, or a connection they so badly crave to other kids. We must work to mitigate rather than add to the stress they experience before drugs present as a solution.”

In many ways, this phenomenon hits young men the hardest, as men are less likely to seek treatment for mental health issues that are the root cause of their drug abuse, and also men in general are more likely than women to use illegal drugs.

There ARE solutions for teens and young adults who have stumbled down this path though.

Young men who struggle with addiction need special attention

When drug abuse is all a young person has ever known, it can seem impossible to get sober, especially since it seems like “everyone is doing it.”

Detox and a support group may not be enough to get them out of the hole that is drug dependency, as their habits under the influence are the only habits they’ve had so far in their adult life.

This is one reason why Alternative Peer Groups, or APGs, can be so beneficial.

Comprehensive rehabilitation facilities recommend CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, as a primary treatment method for many of patients, especially those who are young.

CBT has a strong focus on coping mechanisms to work into your day-to-day routine.

Coping methods can include:

  • Dealing with your problems as they come along. Ignoring them or “stuffing” your feelings is unhealthy, and can often result in depression and relapse.
  • Keeping stress levels low by incorporating hobbies, recreation, physical fitness, and positive people into your life.
  • Planning ahead for difficult and unavoidable situations.
  • Building and maintaining a core group of positive, supportive people who will help you stay sober.

This therapy method also works to identify unhealthy thoughts as they come up, what triggers them, and how to ease them in a positive way, rather than turning to drugs.

CBT is a good resource for anyone with an addiction, but it is especially useful for those who need help learning better mood regulation.

Teens and youngs adults fit squarely into that category of need.

Mood swings and hormonal issues can compound other problems like anxiety and depression that impair a young person’s judgment and drive them to drug abuse.

Youth relapse prevention also poses unique challenges

Drug use relapse is common, almost expected, and usually happens within the first 6 months of recovery.

Returning to “normal life” after detoxing or inpatient treatment is always fraught with triggers, be they old influences, or just a return to the stressful environment that originally motivated the drug use.

Many adults do their best to make a fresh start by changing their environment as much as possible. They move if they can, they try a new job, or at least avoid places they’d been hanging out before.

Teens and young adults usually have less power to make these changes in their lives.

Even if moving is an option (which is out of the question for most teens), young men are less likely to have the savings required to make major life changes.

Parents also often have to re-evaluate their relationships with their children after they come home.

Some may feel the need to clamp down on their kids’ whereabouts and activities in ways they never did before, or conversely, other parents will worry that they were putting too much pressure on their teens before.

Parents have an even closer role than usual in supporting sobriety and preventing relapse for youth in recovery.

For anyone on the lookout for relapse, some common warning signs and triggers are:

  • Emotional or mental health issues that may tempt you to self-medicate
  • Conflict
  • Peer or social pressure, either overt or implied
  • Positive celebrations where alcohol or drugs are present
  • Making unattainable goals that set you up for failure and eventual relapse
  • Illness or pain

What can we do to help young men avoid relapse?

General relapse prevention tips, of course, still apply to young men.

Continued cognitive behavioral therapy, keeping busy, and avoiding previous triggers can help.

Young men however, can overdo it when they try to stay away from previous “bad influences.”

Avoiding the crowd  that a young man did drugs with is important, but it can sometimes lead to near-total social isolation.

Social isolation can be a huge relapse trigger. Finding a support group of sober people is of paramount importance.

This is another reason to try to find an APG in your area.

Parents and family can also play a pivotal role by helping the young man in their life plan ahead for difficult situations.

For example, if a teen used to buy their drugs on the school bus, relatives can step in and drive him to school.

Young people have only just begun to figure out their routine, and logistical help from adults with resources and experience might make or break a recovery.

As you can see, there is no simple solution.

Finding recovery as a teen is fraught with a host of challenges.

A variety of support strategies tailored to an individual teen’s needs, plus integrated care from important people and professionals in the teen’s life are the key to not just obtaining, but also maintaining successful recovery.

It CAN be done.

Derek Wilksen is the Vice President of Serenity Lodge – Lake Arrowhead, a men’s addiction treatment and rehabilitation center in California. He has applied his passion to excellent clinical care for over two decades.

Guest blog posts are welcome additions to the content on this website. Guest blog posts represent the views, opinions and experiences of the author and do not necessarily represent Our Young Addicts. Together, we provide parents and professionals with a variety of perspectives and information.

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