Some of the greatest impacts of drug use are on families, but families sometimes feel in a position of little control when it comes to responding. Often they receive mixed messages about what they should do.
Ice or crystal meth, the strongest form of methamphetamine, has arguably the biggest impact on families of all drugs. It increases the risks of psychosis, violence and impulsivity and decreases emotional control. This can create a volatile and chaotic environment for people living with a person with an ice problem.
So, what can families really do?
The good news
The good news is fewer teenagers and young people are drinking and trying drugs than in the past. Those who are drinking and taking drugs do so less often than in previous years. Most young people who are offered drugs don’t try them.
Drug use does not necessarily mean drug dependence. So parents shouldn’t panic if they discover their son or daughter has tried drugs. Most people who use drugs do so very occasionally, for a short period and then stop.
Most people who use drugs don’t need treatment. Specialist treatment in a drug and alcohol centre is designed for people who are experiencing moderate to severe harms, such as addiction or dependence (which is the clinical term).
For crystal meth, more than weekly use is associated with dependence. Around 15% of people who have used methamphetamine in the last year use once a week. A further 15% use more than once a month but less than once a week. These groups are at higher risk of other harms such as overdose.
That means 70% of people who use methamphetamine do so irregularly and won’t be dependent or experiencing the harms of long-term use.
Prevention is better than cure
The best protection for kids is prevention. Children are strongly influenced by their parents’ attitudes – sometimes more so than by their peers. Parents influence when and how their kids use drugs and alcohol through timing, supervision, modelling, attitudes and communication.
There’s a popular myth that introducing kids to small amounts of alcohol early has a protective effect. The argument is that they can learn to drink safely when supervised by parents.
But there’s no evidence that early sips of alcohol are protective, and lots of evidence that delayed drinking reduces risk.
Early supply of alcohol from years 7 to 9 is the single biggest predictor of drinking in year 10.
So delay the introduction of alcohol as long as possible.
Parents who establish clear and understandable rules and then supervise their children to ensure those rules are followed tend to have children with lower rates of alcohol and drug use.
Low parental supervision is associated with earlier drinking and drug use.
Parents have an important influence on whether kids drink and use drugs through their own behaviour. Not getting drunk or using drugs in front of your kids – or not reaching for a medicine for every minor ailment – are the kinds of strategies parents can use to reduce early exposure to alcohol and other drugs.
Kids who learn effective coping and social skills and good emotion regulation are also less likely to use drugs. These skills are typically learnt through parental modelling.
Clear and early communication of values and attitudes to drugs heavily influences children’s attitudes to drug use and the likelihood they will try drugs.
Talk to pre-school kids about safe use of medicines when they are sick. Talk to them about the effects of smoking and alcohol in primary school, especially if you notice smoking and drinking in movies or on TV. Communicate family rules about drinking and drugs in high school, including drinking and driving.
Make not using alcohol and other drugs “normal”. Only a small proportion of teenagers drink and a very small proportion try drugs. Those who do generally drink or take drugs only very occasionally. If teenagers think everyone is doing it, they are more likely to do it themselves.
Keep an open dialogue with young people about alcohol and drugs. Particularly talk to high school students about what is happening in their year level.
Young people are more likely to discuss difficult issues, including drugs and alcohol, when they believe their parents will not be reactive. Using the LATE Model has been shown to increase help-seeking: listen, acknowledge issues, talk about options, and then end with encouragement.
What about when there is a problem?
When someone in the family has a problem with alcohol or other drugs, family members cope in a number of ways, with both positive and negative impacts on the family. Some will tolerate substance use and its impact; some will attempt to change the drug use; and some will withdraw by reducing interaction.
There’s no right or wrong way of responding. But when family members have vastly different coping styles or change the way they cope in unpredictable ways, conflict in the family can result. Agree on boundaries and responses, and stick to these as much as possible.
It can help family members to get support from a family therapist who specialises in alcohol or other drug problems in the family, or from one of the many support groups available. These include Family Drug Help and Family Drug Support.
Families can encourage the person who uses drugs to seek help from a number of sources if they’re ready. When families are involved in an effective way, the person using drugs is more likely to engage in treatment and outcomes are better.
If the person isn’t ready to seek treatment, talk to a family specialist who can explore options for encouraging someone into treatment.
What doesn’t work
American TV-style “family interventions” or Southpark “fat camp”-style interventions aren’t generally effective.
The premise behind them is that the person using is in “denial” about their drug use and how it affects others. They are designed to force the person to see those connections. However, confrontation is rarely helpful and it’s often distressing for all involved.
Research suggests those who enter treatment as a result of a family intervention are less likely to stay in treatment and more likely to relapse.
Last year, Tasmanian MP Jacqui Lambie voiced many families’ frustration, proposing forced treatment for people who use ice. Lambie eventually admitted, though, that this type of strategy would not have helped her son.
Her assessment was correct. There is no evidence that forcing people into treatment has any long-term benefits in reducing drug use. In some cases it can actually backfire, making it less likely a person will seek treatment in future.
While forced treatment is an option in some states in Australia, there are many more palatable options available for people who use ice and their families if treatment is required.
The Four Corners report Rehab Inc, The high price parents pay to get their kids off ice goes to air on Monday, September 12, at 8.30pm on ABC television & iView.
Nicole Lee provides alcohol and other drug policy development and training to schools and other workplaces as a private consultant. She has previously been awarded funding by Australian and state governments, NHMRC and other bodies for evaluation and research into drug prevention and treatment.
Paula Ross consults to 360edge which provides alcohol and other drug policy development and training to schools and other workplaces and conducts evaluations of drug treatment programs. She is affiliated with Family Drug Help@SHARC by her position on the advisory committee. She conducts a private practice in which she sees family and individuals with problems associated with substance use.
Authors: Nicole Lee, Associate Professor at the National Drug Research Institute, Curtin University