“She’s always acted like a teenager, more like a friend than a mom. She gave me pills for the first time,” said one of our teen clients, Savannah, of her mother. Another client, Ramona, was unsurprised by her own descent into addiction: “My mom was a heroin addict…I never even had a chance!” One client’s mother fed her speed as a young teen in hopes of keeping her thin and fostering a modeling career. David’s father was an alcoholic, Nic’s was a heroin addict, Sherry was sexually abused by her father…the list goes on.
We see it every day: parents don’t always set a good example for their kids, nor do they always provide the support that teens struggling with substance abuse need if they’re going to recover. Parents may deny their teen’s drug problem, look the other way, shame the teen, or even – at worst – be the source of the drug use in the first place. So when a teen decides to seek treatment of his or her own accord, parents should not be permitted to hold them back.
A bill was recently approved in North Carolina that would require notarized parental consent for teens wishing to access mental health counseling, pregnancy care, or treatment for substance abuse or sexually transmitted diseases. While the bill attempts to do good – by “protecting” uninformed youth – it actually does serious damage by standing between teens and treatment.
Often, parents give teens drugs or enable their use because they can’t deal with their child’s mistakes in a healthy way. I’ve even caught parents passing their kids drugs while they’re in treatment trying to get well. On the other hand, the problem could be just the opposite; parents often have such high expectations of their kid that he or she is terrified of disappointing them. This terror can become overwhelming and exacerbate the teen’s substance abuse.
Recently I was working with a young woman whose parents are divorced. Her mother’s boyfriend was sexually abusing her, and her father’s wife allowed her to drink and use drugs at home. Her mother and father had no idea. That’s what we often encounter with these teens: a mixed group of parental figures, some of whom are trying to do what’s best for the teen, and some of whom are doing the exact opposite. There’s a lot of denial, and no clear guidance—no wonder the teen is confused.
We as parents do the best we can with what we know and have, but sometimes kids are actually more aware of the resources that are available to them than we are. They talk to other kids, and they learn who got help and where. After all, if they’re old enough to make the choices to engage in risky behavior in the first place, they need to be able to access resources that will get them back on track.
In California there’s a great thing called Minor Consent to Treatment, where kids ages 12 to 18 can access insurance through the state and use that insurance for outpatient substance abuse treatment without involving their parents or using their family’s insurance. We’ve had kids use this for outpatient treatment here at the Phoenix House Academy of San Diego—kids whose parents were either the drug source or are in major denial of their child’s addiction. It’s remarkable to see young people who are self-aware enough to seek help for substance abuse of their own accord.
Any good parent would want their kid to get the help they need, and any good treatment program will encourage family and parental involvement—if it’s appropriate and on the teen’s own terms. Once a young person becomes sober and is doing well in treatment, that’s often when family concerns unfold and are addressed. Things sometimes get worse between teens and parents before they start getting better. Adolescents are just trying to become who they really are, and treatment takes a lead role in helping youth stand on their own two feet, get stable, and begin to deal with their problems one by one.
All of the issues listed on this bill (pregnancy, STDs, substance abuse, mental health concerns) get in the way of a teen thinking clearly or behaving safely. They keep them from doing what you’re supposed to do as a teen: learning, changing, attending school, and growing developmentally into an adult. But a problem like addiction doesn’t just impede growth—if left untreated, it can kill.
If kids can’t access care, they won’t get it—and whatever problems they’re dealing with will just fester and get worse. Healthcare reform is breaking down all sorts of barriers to treatment, so let’s not take a step backwards by putting up another one; let’s assist teens in getting the help they need, even (and sometimes especially) without parental involvement.
Phoenix House Academy of San Diego
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