A need for connection
Reprinted from the Nourishing and Moving Our Bodies issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 19 (1), pp. 38-40
Children have an innate need to form safe connections with loved ones. However, when those connections are unavailable, children learn to attach to “things” rather than people. These things may be food, gambling or substances, which may help them self-regulate, or manage stressors, but over time, can cause harm.
In my work as a youth and family counsellor and substance use liaison, I connect with many individuals whose stories of trauma have impacted them in this way. As I write this, I do not mean to blame caregivers. Instead, I want to provide some educational background on the workings of the brain and how our reward and stress-management systems operate.
I often suggest to people that addiction may be a result of events in their lives. Because trauma does not discriminate, it also comes in many forms. Some of the main traumas I have come across relate to history, childhood and immigration or forceful migration. These, combined with systemic barriers (like poverty, poor support for addiction and mental health issues, and lack of resources for newcomers), heighten people’s survival mode. In survival mode, we tap into the brain’s primitive “fight, flight or freeze” response.
As a parent of a child or loved one who is struggling with addictions, please know that some factors are beyond your control. The most important thing you can do is to support them. Below, I explore some aspects of this support.
When we find out that a young person we love is using substances, our first instinct might be to stop them. This might look like grounding your child or taking away things they love doing (sports, video games, etc.). You may also think about instilling in them the fear that if they do not stop using, you will kick them out or forbid them go out. You may shame them for using and may call them an “addict” or a “crackhead.”
All these things will cause you stress, but they also promote a narrative in your child’s brain that they are not good enough for you. For that reason, even if they quit, they will most likely go back to substances. This is not because they do not care about you or themselves, but because they want to be cared for and loved, and the only thing that may help them with that is substances.
To support someone in this situation, you must support yourself. I like the example of the oxygen mask on the plane: during an emergency, you must put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help your child. The same goes for supporting your loved one with addiction. When you practise self-care and engage in healthy living practices, supporting—with boundaries—becomes easier. Self-care may include having a safe place where you can talk about your feelings, or doing whatever grounds you or gives you joy. Joy can be hard to focus on, knowing your loved one is struggling, but remember, only they can bring changes in their life.
How support works
In my conversations with adults and young people, some themes that emerge are trauma, chronic stress and lack of support. Trauma and chronic stress can originate from family violence, neglect, poverty, racism, cultural pressures or lack of supports and resources for families. Children pick up on these issues and, to manage stressors, may use substances that help them escape their reality. They may also connect with other children going through similar stressors and may be influenced by those people to use substances.
Lack of support can include a child not being heard. Many times, when children do reach out for help, their concerns are disregarded or not taken seriously. Young people experience many other factors in school, too, including bullying and gang involvement. If no one is supporting them, chances are they probably will stop reaching out for help. To counteract this, we have to promote connection.
This does not mean enabling. Enabling can mean covering for your child (like lying to their school when they are absent or giving them money). It often happens because you fear your loved one may end up doing something illegal or more destructive to their health. But enabling becomes problematic behaviour for your child or loved one and may cause an increase in your stressors as well.
There are more constructive ways to offer support:
- Talk to your loved one about what you have noticed about their substance use, and tell them you are worried about their health.
- Ask what they would find helpful in their journey.
- Do not take away the things they enjoy (activities, games). Instead, focus on building a relationship and connection with your child and bring up your concerns in a respectful and non-judgmental manner.
- Connect with school counsellors and administration teams who can put the child into contact with internal and external supports. These supports will not be forced on the child; instead, they will play an active role in conversations to get them the help they need.
- Focus on boundaries. Make clear boundaries with your child related to how you can support them.
- Try to understand the causes of their substance use without judgment. Remember, you may not get a single answer. Sometimes children may use to focus on their schoolwork or to fit in. It’s important to have honest conversations so you can support them accordingly.
- Educate yourself on brain and body development. The brain’s pre-frontal cortex (part of the brain involved in decision-making and understanding causes and effects) is not fully developed until the age of 26. That means young people will continue to learn in this area. It is important to have conversations that will not shame them for this, but rather, allow them to learn in healthy ways.
- Focus on yourself and your goals. Engage in self-care so you can better be there for your child or loved one. Remember, this is not an easy path, so it is important to take care of yourself.
A role for schools
The Surrey School District actively supports young people experiencing substance use and addiction issues. In the Safe Schools department where I work, our goal is to build relationships with students, families and community resources so we can keep our schools and communities safe.
In my liaison role, I provide students with a sense of safety in our sessions. I allow them to talk about their lives and share their stressors, and I connect them with community organizations for sustainable supports. From my knowledge, schools all over BC can similarly connect students with internal and external programs. If your child or loved one is struggling with substances, do not hesitate to reach out to schools. It can be the first step in getting support.
Please know that as a caregiver, parent or a loved one, you are not alone. There are many resources in the community that can help you navigate the stressors you may be feeling. This includes substance-affected counselling you can access for free from agencies that support individuals in navigating substance use issues.
Know that you are doing the best that you can. Sometimes, that is more than enough.
Some books on substance use that I recommend include:
- Beyond addiction: How science and kindness help people change, by Jeffrey Foote, Carrie Wilkens, Nicole Kosanke and Stephanie Higgs (Scribner, 2014). simonandschuster.com/books/Beyond-Addiction/Jeffrey-Foote/9781476709482
- In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close encounters with addiction, by Gabor Maté (Knopf Canada, 2009). drgabormate.com/book/in-the-realm-of-hungry-ghosts
- Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself, by Candace Plattor (Candace Plattor, 2016). lovewithboundaries.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Loving-an-Addict-Loving-Yourself.pdf.
About the author
Simran was born in the land of five (Punj) rivers (Ab) and emigrated to Canada in 2007. As a substance use liaison for Surrey School District #36, on unceded Coast Salish lands, she supports young people experiencing substance use issues and connects them with community resources. Simran is completing a graduate degree in social work focused on Indigenous trauma and resilience