A Guide for Parents of Kids With Substance Use Disorder During the Coronavirus Pandemic

by: Brenda Zane
Parents of kids with substance abuse disorder are suffering the emotional and physical toll of the coronavirus pandemic on top of the heavy load they already carry. The founder of an online community to support moms of kids with substance use disorder weighs in with advice on how parents can best prepare and care for their kids right now.
Dealing with kids with substance abuse issues during COVID-19

The challenge of parenting a teen or young adult child with substance use disorder is arduous and emotionally exhausting at any time. Paralyzing anxiety, fear of the unknown, confusion, isolation, and sadness are normal day-to-day emotions when your child is misusing drugs or alcohol. Today, these parents are suffering the emotional and physical toll of the coronavirus pandemic on top of the heavy load they already carry.

As a mom whose son battled an addiction to drugs and lived an exceptionally high-risk lifestyle, I understand the need for information, self-care, and coping mechanisms during these trying times. The strain can make it feel like you're at the end of your rope, yet you know there's no option but to hang on, blisters and all.

More: How Parents Can Support Their Teens During Social Distancing

You may be doing the work-from-home plus homeschooling juggle in addition to worrying about your child, whether they're in treatment, sober living, or still actively using. Or you may be on the front lines supporting your community yet feeling as though your world is imploding. Like all parents of an at-risk child, you must stay as healthy and whole as possible so you can be there to help your child.

For Parents Whose Children Are In Wilderness Therapy, Residential Treatment or Sober Living

If your child is currently in treatment or sober living, you've done the hard work and gone through the turmoil that requires, only to find yourself now even more removed from them during a health pandemic. At this point, you may be feeling relieved at times that they're not living with you in the new normal of "shelter in place." You may also have moments of sadness and regret that your child isn't home, within arms reach to hug them, and calm the uncertainty they may be experiencing. At times like this, it can be tempting to want them home, overlooking the chaos and disruption they were causing before going to treatment.

"The most important thing to do is assess risk," recommends Derek Bowles, M.S.W., Founder and Lead Therapist at Crossroads Academy, a residential treatment and sober living center in Ogden, UT. "The risk of relapse, poor school performance, family disruption, and legal issues that may occur at home far outweighs the risk for young people associated with COVID-19. Decisions about changes to your child's current treatment plan need to be based on assessing those risks with the professionals caring for them."

It's also helpful to remember your child has probably experienced a lot of dramatic ups and downs in their life by now. In their youthful mind, this crisis might not seem as scary as it does to you, especially if their access to social media and television is limited.

You can also ask your child's treatment provider for an increase in communication if they feel it's beneficial for the family. Again, remember it's in the treatment provider's best interest to keep your child safe and in a consistent routine, so let their first-hand knowledge of your child's current frame of mind inform your decisions.

For Parents Whose Children Are at Home and Actively Using

Teens and young adults who aren't in treatment but are at home and misusing substances are in a potentially life-threatening situation. If your child is even casually using opioids or benzodiazepines, alone or combined with marijuana or alcohol, there's a real risk of fatal overdose. These substances affect the part of the brain which regulates breathing and can cause respiratory depression and death, according to the World Health Organization.

Narcan (brand name for Naloxone) is the opioid overdose reversal drug (think of it as the EpiPen of overdose) and should be in any home where someone might be using opioids. All 50 states have standing orders for prescribing Narcan, which means you don't need a prescription to buy it. Call your local pharmacy first to make sure they have it in stock and have at least two doses in your house.

In addition to the risk of overdose, your child might start experiencing withdrawal symptoms if they're unable to get the drugs they usually use due to current stay-at-home orders. Watch them closely for volatile moods, agitation, sweating, runny nose, restlessness, excessive yawning, and inability to sleep. These are all signs of detoxification. These symptoms can mask those of COVID-19, so if you suspect your child is in withdrawal, call your doctor or 911 for guidance on managing their condition.

On a positive note, "Sheltering in place may also provide more opportunities to see your child; it may provide opportunities to get to know each other again, improve communication and offer opportunities to repair connections that may have taken a hit over time," offers Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D., and co-founder of CMC: Foundation for Change.

For Us All

Whether your child is with you or away in a treatment setting, recognize this is an unprecedentedly scary time. Don't expect to maintain an even keel right now and carve out a portion of each day to care for yourself. Some of us have more time now, and some less, so work with your reality and make your mental and physical health a priority. This doesn't have to mean long bubble baths or hours in a meditative state. It could be calling that friend who's always there for you, doing deep-breathing exercises, going to bed an hour earlier, not doing the laundry, or ordering take-out instead of spending your precious energy cooking.

You already know what works for you, so do that.

The Power of Community

Finally, gather a team around you who will support your unique need for sanity right now. Online communities can be a much-needed respite and resource for those with kids misusing substances or battling addiction. Moms, in particular, suffer a sometimes debilitating level of worry and guilt when our children are at risk. For moms looking to improve their state of wellbeing, The Stream is a new kind of online gathering place focused on your mental and physical health while your child is in active addiction, treatment, or recovery.

Most important, assemble a support system that will recognize your special kind of distress - one that's even greater than those navigating one health epidemic - you are dealing with two.

For more COVID-19-related advice and guidance, check out our Coronavirus Resource Center for Parents.

Brenda Zane is a Mayo Clinic Certified Health and Wellness Coach and Founder of The Stream, an online community to support moms of kids with substance use disorder. She is also the host of Hopestream, a podcast that offers resources, expert input, and hope to parents whose kids are struggling with addiction.