When we think of addiction, many of us immediately imagine the scariest end of the spectrum: Drugs. But the reality is that many youth experience addictive patterns in much more subtle ways. It’s difficult as a parent to navigate this issue, because there are so many things that teens these days develop unhealthy relationships to. Things like social media, technology, food, alcohol, sex, porn – things that are inherently a part of the world we live in, and therefore impossible to enforce teens to “stay away” from if we feel they are having a negative impact.
So what is an addictive pattern, and how can we tell if our child is engaged in one? The issue is not whether or not they are doing things that we think are destructive or unhelpful, it’s WHY they are doing these things.
We can tell if there is an unhealthy pattern when it is something a teen feels they MUST do/have, or CANNOT live without. This signals that they are using this activity/substance as a method for avoiding their feelings.
We live in a world that deems all feelings of sadness, loneliness, fear, shame etc as “negative” and so all of us have a desire to escape these feelings.
But the problem with this approach is that we become a SLAVE to our feelings because every time they arise we are consumed with the panic of NEEDING something to get us away from our current reality.
The purpose of feelings is to guide us in knowing what is true and untrue for us, what we like and what we don’t like, and to point us in helpful directions – a bit like a compass. But in our culture we’re taught to fear our feelings because they’re uncomfortable, and so we cut off from them. We use addictions, work, relationships, and all sorts of drama to help us avoid what are actually very useful signposts.
The way to help your child shift addictive patterns is to help them lean into their feelings rather than avoiding them.
When they do this, they will start to KNOW what’s good for them and not good for them, which leads to making healthy, empowered choices.
Here are some tips you can follow that will help your child implement this learning in their life:
When your child is overwhelmed with a feeling, show them you care (eg “I’m sorry you’re hurting”) and remind them that they are not weird or strange for feeling this way (eg “it’s normal to feel upset when things are hard…it’s ok to be struggling”).
Help them notice the feeling as a physical sensation in their body – Ask them what colour, shape, and size it is, where it is located, what the sensation feels like from a physical standpoint. This is a powerful self-soothing technique that helps them separate the sensation from what their mind is telling them ABOUT the sensation – so they can simply feel sad rather than also thinking they are a loser because they feel sad
Remind them that feelings are messages – and that it’s normal to want to ignore them and distract ourselves but that won’t make the feeling go away – it will only suppress it and it will come back even stronger later. The only way feelings truly pass is when we STOP, FEEL them, and allow them to run their course.
After they are calm, help them reflect on where the feeling might be coming from, what might be happening in their life that they are reacting to. This is a vital part of the process of helping them engage with their feelings in a healthy way and learn from them, rather than simply putting out fires when their feelings get too intense.
Encourage your child to express their feelings when they are struggling – through words, art, drama, sport, writing, anything where they are connecting to their experience and using it to generate action and connection – so they can see the beauty that comes from feelings as well as the pain.
If you can encourage your child to relate to their feelings in all of these ways, so much of the angst of being a teenager can simply pass by in waves of learning and growth, rather than fuelling lifelong patterns of addiction and reaction.