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How to Talk to Your Teen about a Co-Parent's Alcohol Abuse

Most teenagers experience various physical and mental changes as they transition into adulthood. Add a significant event like a parents’ divorce to the mix, and you may have a very explosive situation. News of a parent’s separation could bring additional stress and conflict into your family dynamic.
This makes it crucial to talk openly to your teen about a co-parent’s alcohol abuse and help them better navigate this potentially confusing period in their lives.

Child Development: Mental Changes and Awareness Overtime

Adolescence (10-19 years) is a formative stage, where kids go through major developmental changes — both physically and emotionally. The teenage years can be particularly confusing and stressful because that’s when kids go through critical psychological changes new cognitive structures.
During this time, most teens begin to think abstractly, become more self-aware, and gain additional awareness of their world. It’s also when they develop moral values that stick with them throughout their lives.
Since they’re at such a critical and sensitive stage of cognitive development, teens are at great risk of mental health conditions and emotional disorders. The WHO reports that 50% of all mental health conditions begin around 14 years of age. This is precisely why having a supportive and nurturing environment is so vital for their development.

Effects of a Co-Parent's Alcohol Abuse on Teens

A co-parent’s struggle with alcohol abuse can have significant, long-term effects on a teen. Not only can it put them at a higher risk of developing mental health problems, but it also can shape their psychological and moral identity:
  • Teens may normalize excessive drinking and binge drinking.
  • Teens may develop a fear of abandonment and constantly seek approval from others.
  • Teens may develop issues with low self-esteem and self-worth, resulting in excessive judgement.
  • Teens may develop trust issues and struggle with maintaining healthy relationships.

The Importance of Open Communication with Teens

With all the emotional turmoil that teenagers experience, having an open line of communication with their parents can be critical for their mental wellbeing. When your teen knows that they can talk to you openly about what’s troubling them without fear of judgment, they may feel more comfortable engaging.
Further, this style of open communication may encourage your teen to confide in you with significant problems, pressing worries, and complicated questions. This can make it easier to detect possible mental health problems or risky teenage behavior at an early stage. Besides, communicating openly with your teen can help foster trust and strengthen the relationship.
Communicating with teens, however, is not a one-way street. With young adults being highly perceptive, they can easily sense when you’re being dishonest or keeping a secret. So it can be helpful to talk to them about the more “adult” subjects as well, including relevant discussions about divorce or a co-parent’s alcohol abuse. 

Ways to Communicate with Teens about A Co-Parent’s Alcohol Abuse 

Compared to younger kids, teens may feel differently about addiction. They may be less sympathetic and more resentful toward the parent who’s struggling with alcohol abuse. Here are a few suggestions on how to communicate with your teen about a co-parent’s alcohol abuse:

1: Be Respectful

If teens feel like they’re not being respected during a conversation, they may feel inclined to shut down. Try to acknowledge their feelings and opinions instead of being dismissive. Further, avoid taking a condescending tone and make sure they know their feelings are valid.

2: Explain What Addiction Is

Have an honest talk about what addiction really is — a disease. Make it clear that it’s not a moral failing and explain the possible impact of the illness. Help them understand what the alcohol-abusing parent is struggling with.

3: Skip the Blame Game

Avoid placing blame on your ex-spouse for their addiction. Instead, offer reassurance that the co-parent isn’t a bad person but that they’re struggling with a chronic disease. This is crucial if they’re going to establish a healthy relationship with both parents. Otherwise, they may hold resentment toward a co-parent for failing to commit, breaking promises, or forgetting things milestones like birthdays and graduations.
Better yet, if the co-parent is in recovery, make sure to discuss it with your teen. For co-parents using Soberlink, a comprehensive remote alcohol monitoring system, share test results with your teen so they can witness a parent’s progress and commitment to sobriety. Not only does Soberlink help to ensure child safety in custody and alcohol cases, but it also provides young adults peace of mind that their parent is not abusing alcohol. 

4: Let Them Know It’s Not Their Fault

Many kids may harbor some guilt and take responsibility for their parent’s addiction, even if they know that it’s realistically not their fault. It helps to reassure them that they’re not to blame for their parent’s illness.

5: Let Them Know They’re Not Alone

Teens should feel safe and understood as they navigate challenging phases in their lives. Having a parent who struggles with alcohol abuse may leave them feeling alone and misunderstood. Make sure to emphasize that they’re not abandoned and that you’re always there to support them.

Conclusion

Dealing with a parent’s alcohol abuse can be confusing and frustrating for teenagers caught between childhood and adulthood. Communicating openly about the issues like substance abuse can help them process and navigate various hardships in their life. 
While teenagers of addicts may not be in imminent danger like their younger predecessors, they often struggle to voice their feelings and behave around an addicted parent. Providing them a safe space to share their questions, comments, and concerns about a parent’s alcohol abuse is important in the healing process. While some younger children may not understand the gravitas of the situation, teenagers often have more advanced processing capabilities that should be acknowledged and encouraged. Accountability tools like Soberlink can help teens witness their parent’s growth, allowing for trust to be restored along with adoration.
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