A meeting at Railroad Street Youth Project in Great Barrington, which is partnering with the Center for Motivation and Change in New Marlborough to present a training session to help parents communicate with their teen children about substance use.

Coping with teen substance abuse: A training session for parents

The techniques and approaches Foote advocates are not specific to any particular substance or circumstance; rather, they address the fact that communication gets much more fraught, and the stakes get much higher, when kids enter their teen years.

Great Barrington — Railroad Street Youth Project has long been a hub of conversation and action about and for youth. Its health-focused component, the South Berkshire Community Health Coalition, includes outreach to adults, as well, and that group has been deepening its partnership with the Center for Motivation and Change, a substance abuse treatment center with an outpatient facility in New York and residential program in New Marlborough, Mass., at the site of the former Mepal Spa and Manor.

In collaboration with CMC’s nonprofit arm, the Foundation for Change, the coalition is sponsoring a parent training titled “An Invitation to Change: Learn Compassionate Communication Strategies to Make a Positive Impact on Your Child’s Decisions about Drugs and Alcohol.” Jeffrey Foote, Ph.D., CMC’s co-founder and co-director, will run the training Saturday, Feb. 9, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington. There is a $10 fee.

Erik Bruun and daughter Rebecca. Photo courtesy Rural intelligence

Erik Bruun, the adult co-chair of the South Berkshire Community Health Coalition and a father of three, notes how that latter job shifts as children grow into teenagers. “There’s a way in which, when our children are younger, there’s a lot of parent engagement, a sense of working together and celebrating. As they become adolescents, this becomes a lot more complicated. There’s a lot more complexity to the interactions, and how to deal with the issue of substances is very sensitive for many people. You are completely at a loss.”

Foote did a presentation on his approach to helping parents navigate these treacherous waters back in October and, for a lot of people attending, said Bruun, he helped clarify their experiences. That session was an acknowledgement that this stuff can be incredibly difficult, even devastating. “When they [your children] get involved with substances in an addictive way, then you’re talking about the potential for tragedy.” Erik’s niece died as a result of a drug addiction, and his brother had struggled with how to both support his daughter and create boundaries, how to believe in her when he was afraid everything she said was a lie.

The techniques and approaches Foote advocates are not specific to any particular substance or circumstance; rather, they address the fact that communication gets much more fraught, and the stakes get much higher, when kids enter their teen years, and there are best practices parents can use.

Foote explained the aims of “Invitation to Change” in baseball terms: He’s not preparing parents to hit (solve) every possible pitch (problem) that will come flying their way. “You won’t go out the door knowing how to do it all, but maybe you’ll have some new ways of thinking,” he said. “There are a lot of different skills to learn and the overall approach is learning a new process.”

Jeffrey Foote, Ph.D.. Photo courtesy Center for Motivation and Change

Foote’s approach steers parents away from threats and ultimatums. “We try to develop a different set of communication strategies. Can you reinforce positive behaviors? When a kid says, ‘You don’t get it, Mom, all my friends smoke pot,’ can you try to understand this from a motivational level? One-hundred fifty parents will have 150 different problems, but the set of relationships is common to all, and trying to control behavior is usually a failing strategy. Having a collaborative stance with your kid, hearing what matters to them, even if you think it’s insane—it’s important.”

What about those parents who are firmly committed to the “do as I say and not as I do” philosophy? Foote said he’s seen that even rigid diehards shift their approach, and it happens through experiencing first-hand, through an experiential role play, how that just doesn’t work.

“We do an exercise on ambivalence. One person describes something they have been thinking about changing but have not changed yet. They get to experience what it feels like to be told something like, ‘Don’t you understand smoking is bad for you?’ to which the answer is, ‘Of course, I understand. Everyone knows that. That is not the thing that will help me change.’” Facts on their own don’t do the trick, as evidenced by the fact that there are oncologists who smoke.

Iona Smith of RSYP loves the CMC approach to communication, and pointed out, “It is a skill set that will serve you above and beyond the worry of the moment, and applies to parenting in general.” She adds that the South Berkshire community is very fortunate to have an expert like Foote with 30-plus years of experience who’s willing to share his expertise with the community for a nominal fee.

Iona Smith of Railroad Street Youth Project

Apart from their own trainings, CMC also works nationally to find ways to help communities develop parent-to-parent resources. To that end, Foote also runs a free group for parents every two weeks on Tuesdays, with about eight to 10 regular participants. The hope and expectation is for this group of parents to evolve into a community of coaches to teach other parents the skills that are helping them cope with similar issues.

Pam Morehouse is the adjustment counselor at Monument Mountain Regional High School, and often the one to whom a student is referred when his or her drug or alcohol use is interfering with school performance. When it comes to their substance use, says Morehouse, “It’s the chicken-and-egg thing. Which came first: Did the kid start smoking pot to treat what he was feeling? We emphasize delayed onset. You’re far more likely to develop a problem if you start young. We always say, ‘Wait!’ ”

Morehouse says she was hired for the 2011–12 school year in part to address these sorts of issues among the student body, and soon developed a “Science of Addiction” curriculum for physical education classes. Based on the success of a broader health course piloted in the fall semester—which brought in Smith, among other community members, to teach mindfulness and yoga—Morehouse is now advocating for a more comprehensive, stand-alone health class, which would touch on a broad range of issues, with mindfulness joining such topics as self-care, suicide and injury prevention, and coping skills.

Among students, there seems to be energy and interest around health issues. Seventy-five kids filled out raffle tickets at RSYP’s booth at a recent health and wellness fair at the high school, according to Smith, and many more attended the lunch hour event. Presenters joining RSYP included Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, Woven Roots Farm, Greenagers and LifeWorks Studio.

The Foundation envisions, down the road, the development of a community playbook for people who might want to help schools, or police, with different approaches. For now, those interested in practicing how to communicate differently are invited to register for the Invitation to Change training with Iona Smith at iona@rsyp.org. Scholarships are available.

Stay tuned for more Coalition events, including a community forum in March, for which The Edge will be a co-sponsor, that will include a panel focusing on the shifts resulting from the legalization of recreational marijuana.