That’s the first and most important thing for you to do – but we won’t include it in our list of five tips, because it’s more than a simple pointer or a random bullet on a clickable list. Think of it as your mantra. Make it the default, bedrock advice you give yourself every time you stress about your teen’s recovery journey. Step back, take a moment, give yourself some space, and understand you’re doing everything within your power to help your child. To do that, you need perspective – and for perspective, you need to get out of your own head. To get out of your own head, you need to breathe. It’s a virtuous cycle, and it’s also a basic mindfulness technique: examine all the emotions at play in your heart and mind without judgment. Allow them to be there. Take a deep breath, then exhale. Allow them to pass – and if they persist, don’t fight them, because that gives them energy. They have their place, but now that your teenager is in treatment, it’s your job to trust the process. Stressing over it won’t help you or them. Understand the outcome is beyond your control. You can do quite a lot for your teenager, but you can’t get sober for them, and you can’t manage a mental illness for them.
They have to do that, and you have to let them.
This may be the hardest exercise in letting go you’ll ever attempt.
It may have taken weeks, months, or years to get your teen into treatment. For some parents, getting to this point is the hardest part of the process, but for others, what happens next can prove more challenging – especially when their teen is away from home in a residential treatment center. If you’re one of those parents, then you’re probably feeling a mix of emotions: anxiety, relief, anger, fear, and hope are all common of feelings for parents of family members of teens who enter intensive treatment for mental health or substance use disorders.
We can’t offer you any blanket reassurances about what will happen next. We’d love to tell you everything will be okay – but that’s impossible to know, and it would be irresponsible to predict any kind of outcome, positive or negative. What we can tell you is this: you aren’t the first parent to go through this. You’re not the first to experience all these emotions, and you won’t be the last. While no one can predict the future, there are some practical things you can do – actionable steps to take and internal attitudes to adopt – to help get through this transitional time.
Five Helpful Tips for When Your Teenager Is Starting Rehab
You may have noticed we used the phrase transitional time. Something you and your teenager need to understand is that recovery and sobriety are life-long processes. Residential treatment is short, compared to what came before and what will come after. If you go to any support group meetings, chances are you’ll hear some variation of this phrase: rehab is short; life is long. While your teen’s therapists and counselors will create sobriety strategies to implement upon your teen’s discharge from treatment, here are five things you can do, starting now, to make it through the next few weeks without tormenting yourself with worry:
- Manage Expectations. Recovery is rarely a linear process, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It took time for your child to arrive where they are – whether they’re recovering from a substance use disorder or learning to manage a mental health issue – and it will take time for them to restore balance to their life.
- Be Patient. Your child may relapse. Your child may resist treatment. Your child may take one step forward and two steps back. That’s all part of the journey. They may seem fine one day and down the next – also part of the journey. Get used to the idea that a workable, sustainable set of sober coping skills may take time to develop. Model patience and understanding for your child, and they’ll feel supported in their efforts to reshape their life.
- Be Educated. Ask the staff at the treatment facility for any resource material they think may be helpful. Most treatment centers have a central treatment philosophy, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), or some combination of complementary modalities. If you learn about the treatment your child receives, you’ll be in a better position to help them during and after their time in treatment.
- Be Engaged. Evidence proves positive family involvement leads to better treatment outcomes for teenagers struggling with substance use or mental health disorders, so most treatment centers request or require family participation. You may attend group therapy sessions with your teen, group therapy sessions without your teen but with other families with teens in treatment, or you may be advised to seek out support groups for families of people in recovery. Do your best to participate to extent you’re able while your teen is in treatment. This will set both of you up for success upon discharge.
- Manage Your Stress. A curious thing happens to most parents when their kids enter treatment: they grow and learn about themselves, too. For many parents, this means learning to handle the anxiety they experience while their children are away from home. If you’re prone to worry, then plan – ahead of time – to participate in stress-reducing activities while they’re in treatemnt, whatever that means for you. And don’t be surprised if you realize you may need a little bit of therapy, yourself.
Family Support: A Positive Paradox
Your child has to develop their own set of coping techniques to recover from an addiction or manage a serious mental health disorder. You may have solid instincts as to what might and might not work, but at the end of the day, it’s their life, and the strategies and techniques they learn while in treatment have to work for them. After discharge from residential treatment, your teen may want to talk to you about what they’re going through, or they may want to do all their talking at support group meetings or with their therapist. You won’t know until the time comes, and even then, you and your teen will learn that nothing about recovery is set in stone. Their strategies and coping mechanisms will change over time, as will the ways in which they need your support. Recovery from addiction and mental illness is a lifelong process. Your teen needs you there – even if they don’t show it. They need your presence – even if it doesn’t seem like they take advantage of it. They need your participation – even when they seem to dismiss offers of help and encouragement. You’ll walk individual, yet parallel paths, and therein lies the paradox: it’s a shared journey, undertaken separately.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.