Don’t Act Weird: When Your Loved One Comes Home From Rehab

Families and friends are often confused about how to act when a loved one comes home from treatment.  Should family and friends avoid drinking around them?  Should parents restrict a teenager’s activities, effectively grounding him or her?

I would argue: No, to all of the above.  The more a person feels different, damaged, and excluded from normal society, the more likely they are to relapse.  The more a person feels “normal,” and returns to normal life, with friends, goals, work/school and activities that they enjoy, the more quickly they will lose the identity of “addict” and the behavior that came with it.

Here are some specific questions family and friends ask, and some suggestions as to how to handle these situations:

An Adult With Alcohol Problems Comes Home from Rehab.

Question: Should I stop drinking in the person’s presence?

My suggestion:

Ask that person.  Some people prefer not to be in the presence of alcohol.  Some don’t care.  Some are actively made uncomfortable if people change their behavior because a person labeled “alcoholic” is there.  Let the person tell you what works for them.

Question: Should we remove all the alcohol from the home?

My suggestion:

Again, ask that person.  It may be easier to avoid temptation if the person who does not drink doesn’t have to move three bottles of wine and a six pack to reach her Diet Coke.  Alcohol is so common in our society that people are constantly confronted with reminders.  Just browse the greeting card aisle and see how many cards equate alcohol with celebration.

Not having alcohol around might be best, but it’s still important to ask the person involved.  Moving beyond a problem with substances requires making, and taking responsibility for, your own decisions.  If you as a family decide not to keep alcohol in the house, discuss it openly.  Don’t make your family member feel that you don’t trust them.  That will only lead to further diminished self-esteem, increasing the chances of relapse.

Family Pause for Reflection:

This is a good time for the whole family to pause for reflection on their drinking habits.  Have celebrations, family holidays, even everyday dinners revolved around alcohol?  Maybe one family member gets into visible trouble with their alcohol use (loss of job, DUI, etc.), but these things do not usually come out of nowhere.  The more a family can reflect together on the role alcohol has played in their lives, the better everyone – not just the person labeled “alcoholic,” can recover.

A Teen who Binge Drinks and Smokes Marijuana Comes Home from Rehab.

Question: Should we restrict our teen’s movements, require that they report where they are and who they are with, or monitor their phone/computer activity to make sure they don’t drink/smoke again?

My suggestion:

No.  Teens and young adults need to return to normal life as quickly as possible.  Isolating young people teaches them that they are different and cuts them off from the possibility of naturally maturing out of addiction, which is the most common outcome.  Lock a kid up in a cage, and you’ll find they get worse, not better.

Your teen already knows that drinking and smoking are off the table: rehab makes that very clear.  If they truly want to continue the behavior, they will find a way to do so, no matter what you do.

The best way to make sure that this was a short term episode, not a life sentence, is to encourage involvement with activities that are more engaging – and healthy – than substance use.  Ask your teen how you can support their interests.  Ask yourself: do you know what your teen’s interests are?  Instead of talking about drugs, talk about life.  Offer support: “I remember you talked about wanting to take art classes, and you used to draw amazing pictures.  If you’d still like to take art classes, your father and I would be happy to pay for them.”

Treat your teen like a normal teenager: there will be ups and downs.  They will have stress.  They are still learning to manage their own emotions.  You are wise to keep them safe and make sure they don’t make decisions that could close off possibilities in life (drunk driving or committing a drug related crime).  However, if you treat them like an “addict” or “alcoholic” instead of a teenager, they will come to identify with that label, and find it much more difficult to move on to a happy, healthy adult life.

Remember: alcohol consumption is legal age 21, and marijuana is rapidly becoming legal in many states.  Soon, your child will have the legal right to choose if and how to use these drugs.  It is unlikely that a teen will never try a sip of alcohol for the rest of their lives.  No matter what rehabs tell you, a substance use problem as a teen does not require lifelong abstinence.  Most people outgrow addiction, as long as they aren’t saddled with a label and a life sentence to feeling different.  Stanton Peele and Zach Rhoads’ new book, Outgrowing Addiction, is an excellent resource for both parents and teens.

Family Pause for Reflection:

Teens often use substances to medicate fear and anxiety.  The pressures on teens are tremendous.  Pressure to do well in school, be popular, please parents, and eventually get a job in a tough economy can just be too much.  Drinking and drug use can be a cry for help.  Stopping problematic, chaotic substance use is like stopping the bleeding on a gaping wound: it’s necessary, but it doesn’t address the reason why the person started bleeding in the first place.  Don’t focus on the drug use.  Focus on helping the teen create a life that doesn’t need to be medicated away.

Coming home is hard, for everyone.  Working together to make things as normal as possible can make it work.

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Photos Courtesy of Shutterstock

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