Hard Data and Tough Love

Drug testing in early recovery can help to foster lasting change for young people

For adolescents and young adults returning home after addiction treatment, drug testing can be an effective tool in preventing relapse and promoting lifelong recovery. The greatest risk of relapse occurs during the first weeks and months following treatment. Drug testing, especially within that high-risk period, can help parents and young people keep the facts on the table, the lines of communication open, and the process of recovery moving forward.

Experts at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation specialize in the prevention, assessment, and treatment of addiction and co-occurring disorders among adolescents and young adults ages 12-25. Jennifer Stowe, MA, a recovery coach with Hazelden's Connection program, provides counsel and support for young people new to recovery and their families. Drug testing is one of the recovery accountability and support resources Stowe sometimes recommends to the families she coaches.

Where truth meets consequence.

Drug testing provides parents with indisputable, black-and-white data about their son's or daughter's use. But it's what parents do with that information that matters. "Drug testing in isolation isn't going to be impactful. It needs to be tied to consequences," Stowe explains. In other words, what are parents prepared to do with the information they gather? While setting specific boundaries and consequences is a matter for each family to determine in its own way, followthrough from parents is a must, says Stowe. Parents need to be emotionally prepared to carry out established consequences and to back each other up as a united front against addiction. "If parents don't use that information to enforce consequences and advance change, all they've done is collect data," says Stowe.

Catching trouble early on.

Like other chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, addiction to alcohol and other drugs often involves cycles of relapse and remission. With addiction, many of the thought and behavior patterns that lead to relapse can be difficult to detect—denial, dishonesty, isolation, rationalizing. As part of a relapse prevention plan, drug testing provides parents with a clear signal of trouble so a young person's slip doesn't have to evolve into full-blown relapse before it's recognized. According to Stowe, "Monitoring and accountability initiatives combined with therapy and participation in recovery support groups and activities are important components of a family's recovery plan."

Help to balance family roles.

Addiction throws families off balance and into crisis mode. Family members typically carry the burden of addiction by developing unhealthy survival skills to cope with the stress—the parent who needs to control others, the sibling who needs to be perfect, and the spouse who hangs onto anger and resentment. For parents, addiction can have a polarizing effect as one parent unwittingly assumes the role of "protector"—making excuses, caretaking, or softening consequences—and the other assumes the role of "persecutor"—blaming, denying, or overreacting. "Parents don't realize how they've been triangulated by addiction," says Stowe. With addiction, everyone in the family needs help and support, not just the recovering addict. Unless families recognize their fear-based behaviors and work to change them, the family system remains unbalanced even when the son or daughter returns from treatment. Drug testing can be one of the tools to help balance the family system by taking the guess work and stress out of managing recovery.

Ripple effect of recovery.

So while drug testing is one tool, the family has to make other changes to manage their own recovery. A common slogan in recovery circles is "one day at a time." This wisdom applies to family members as much as recovering addicts. Addiction doesn't happen overnight, and neither does recovery. Healing from addiction—for the addict and the family—involves thinking differently. Reacting differently. Behaving differently. Living differently. "Families are in pain and shock. They don't know where or how to start to make things better," says Stowe. She often advises parents to focus on changing one behavior at a time. For example, a parent might decide to work on her communication skills by choosing to step away rather than react impulsively when a conversation becomes emotionally charged. In changing that one pattern of behavior, the parent models self-care, self-awareness, respect, and clear communication. One small change can create a ripple effect of hope and healing for the entire family.

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