Leading Kids from Addiction to Sobriety

...to Recovery

Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Youth Continuum, believes that it’s essential to give young people struggling with addiction the help, insight, and tools they need to move toward sobriety and beyond—to lasting recovery. And as the person who’s responsible for setting our course in treating teens and young adults, it’s his job to make sure our counselors and staff always have that goal in mind.

Not my child

Most parents simply can’t believe it when they discover that their child is using drugs or alcohol. That only happens to kids who come from broken families, or whose parents don’t care about them, or who live on the street, or who have alcoholic parents...and so on. But, as Runa H.’s story shows, that’s just not the case. “Strong families and good relationships are protective factors, but they’re not the whole story,” says Lee. “Genetic predisposition and environmental stressors are often much more powerful influences.”

“Sobriety and recovery are not the same. Sobriety is the absence of the symptom. But there’s a connectedness, a greater purpose, and a bigger picture in recovery.”

That’s why our concept of kids on a “youth continuum” is so important to our approach toward treating them. “Young people who develop substance use disorders are at risk before they start using, while they are using, and after they stop,” says Lee. “It’s really no different from a heart attack or any other serious disease. When you think about that, you have to think differently about how you address their care.”

That means getting kids to sobriety is only the first step. To maintain lasting recovery, they must reconnect with their goals, values and loved ones.

And with adolescents, it’s incredibly complicated. Not only are they dealing with substance use—they are also smack in the middle of all the overwhelming challenges of growing up: discovering who they are and what they care about; learning to form constructive relationships; working to succeed socially and in school; and figuring out how to become independent.

Getting kids back to the important work of growing up

When kids come to treatment, they’re dealing with competing sets of goals and values. “The first is social, positive, and future oriented—they want to accomplish goals, maintain relationships, and feel good about the lives they’re leading,” says Lee. “The other focuses on the immediate and familiar—though it may make them miserable. And that’s using.”

Lee and his staff help their patients sort through the conflict—to see through the distorting influence of their addiction and discover their true values.

A key ingredient to this process, one that we emphasize at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, is building the capacity for relationships and empathy. And service—giving back—nurtures these human connections. That’s why Runa was so excited about the positive response she got when she spoke to the girls in treatment at Plymouth. As Dr. Lee says, “When young people in recovery give back by sharing their story, it often helps them even more than it helps the audience. They see their lives coming full circle as they experience the gifts of service and empathy.”

That full circle, it’s the continuum—the journey—from health to addiction to sobriety to true recovery.

Pointers for Parents

Dr. Joseph Lee’s recent book, Recovering My Kid: Parenting Young Adults in Treatment and Beyond is a basic primer for parents who are going through a time of crisis with their child. It teaches parents the emotional and leadership skills they need to become part of the solution and healing.

Here are a few of Lee’s suggestions excerpted from the book, which is available for purchase at our online bookstore: HazeldenBettyFord.org/Store

When we place unfair expectations on ourselves about what we should feel as parents versus what we actually feel, we are bound for failure.
  • Be willing to admit, fully experience, and share what you’re feeling. With knowledge and permission come the wisdom and strength to act wisely, no matter what you feel.
  • Don’t try to co-pilot your child’s treatment program. Just be a parent.
  • Don’t try to tackle all of the issues with your child all at once.
  • Accepting the fact of your child’s addiction comes with a willingness to change what you do as a parent.
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