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Collaboration Helps You, Your Partner and Your Child

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By Jeffrey Foote, PhD, Co-founder and Clinical Director at Center for Motivation & Change

Collaboration matters a lot.  You may think we’re talking about collaboration with your child (which is important); but no, we’re talking first about collaboration with your spouse/partner/co-parent. When your child is struggling with substances or other behavior problems, there is often a communication breakdown between the adults, and tension builds about how to manage the problems on a day-to-day basis. That makes sense — we are all more likely to get tense, not be at our best, struggle to not get defensive, when we are most emotionally distressed, and when we are in situations that we don’t know how to control or navigate.

It’s natural, then, that when parents are trying to help their child change risky behaviors, they sometimes become what we call “misaligned,” or out of sync with each other. Think about what can happen even under the best of circumstances: your partner (in your humble opinion) is too much of a softie when it comes to making sure the kids get to bed at a reasonable hour, do their homework, eat their vegetables; your partner (sooo unfairly!) wishes you would relax a little and have some fun with the kids, and step out of being rigid with them about things such as curfew, homework, chores. Given that it’s pretty normal for couples to be on different pages when it comes to “easier” parenting issues such as homework and TV watching, it’s really easy to get polarized around how to handle your child when he or she is abusing alcohol or drugs!

Why does collaboration and “getting aligned” matter? A couple of reasons.

First, it is important to give clear directions and consequences (positive and negative) to your child in helping him or her get refocused in a more positive direction. The changes you will be asking your child to make are not easy, and he or she will be ambivalent (or even angry) about making them. It’s hard for a teenager or young adult to change some of their friends, or not be high at parties, or leave evening events earlier than others, or not have pot to give out when it made you really popular. The more ambivalent your child is, the more important it is to have your expectations be totally clear. When each parent has different expectations it is the opposite of a clear message.

Second, the more agreement you can reach with your partner about expectations, the less stressed you will each feel, the happier you will be, and the more likely you both are to be able to be consistent as well as positive with your child. Both of those are important.

By the way, collaboration and alignment with your partner doesn’t mean across-the-board agreement at all times. It depends on the age of your child, but can be quite flexible. For younger children (ages 12-14), a more “unified” front is probably less confusing. For a 17 year old, who lives somewhat in the adult world and knows that uniform agreement is not reality, your approach can be different. Here alignment can can mean that you and your partner understand what you agree on and what you don’t – but you have an agreed upon “policy” none-the-less. For example, you might say: “Your father and I have a slightly different feeling about this, but we’ve decided it’s important for you to be home by midnight in any case.” Here you can acknowledge differences, but still be in “alignment” on your expectations.

There are many ways to start the process of becoming more of a team with your partner.  To get the ball rolling here is a list of 5 options that we know parents have tried and found helpful.  None of these are a quick fix for everlasting harmony, however, each option can be useful in terms of getting less polarized, feeling more connected with your partner and getting practice working as a team:

1. Spend an hour with your partner this week coming up with a plan for how to handle it when/if your child comes home under the influence (thinking about it and planning in advance can help you avoid common pitfalls).

2. Spend an hour with your partner this week NOT talking about your child or any problems (especially useful if you are finding that this is all you talk about anymore.)

3. Let your partner’s idea for a consequence for your child’s behavior be the one you try this week (especially useful if you are finding yourself stuck in role of “bad cop.”)

4. Let your partner know that you will be the one to dole out consequences this week if needed (useful if you are the “softie.”)

5. Make an effort to let your partner know one thing he does each day that you appreciate (useful when you are misaligned to do things to rebuild a sense of good will and togetherness…this will help you get through the more challenging times.)

4 Responses to this article

  1. Florence / June 27, 2014 at 5:54 am

    I am new to this. I don’t even know where to start. I saw the signs, heard the warnings from people my son knew, and I denied them. I believed him when he lied to my face, I kept on believing him when my prescription medication went missing (I must have taken it, I kept saying, even when I knew I didn’t), I kept on believing him when my jewelry went missing piece by piece (maybe I miss placed it??) I didn’t share any of this with my partner, a man I have been with for over 25 yrs (he is not my son’s father). I finally broke down and talked with him when a piece of jewelry which wasn’t even worth much disappeared (a baby ring my mother saved and gave to me when I was 30). We only talked when I had a few drinks in me (yeah I know, not healthy, but, I was afraid if I didn’t keep it bottled up, I would break down and not be able to come back). I gave my son an ultimatum when my only air conditioner was missing. Since then, he SAYS he is on methadone and is getting clean. I have no way to verify this. My partner is helping by checking up on him, but, we both work. I need to talk to someone who has been through this, but, a web search doesn’t show any support groups in my area. I go to work terrified that I will come home and find my son has overdosed, or what little I have left of any value will be gone. I just need to hear there is light at the end of this tunnel.

    • Avatar of Julie
      Julie / June 27, 2014 at 10:21 am

      Florence, please call the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids’ Parents Toll-Free Helpline at 1-855-DRUGFREE (1-855-378-4373). The helpline is open Monday through Friday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm ET. Our trained and caring parent specialists will:

      • Listen to your concerns, challenges, setbacks and emotional turmoil that you have experienced with your child’s substance abuse or addiction

      • Help you outline a course of effective action – whether it’s prevention, intervention, seeking treatment or supporting recovery – grounded in science-based resources

      • Inform you of different resources available to you nationally

      Our parent specialists speak English and Spanish and are professionally trained psychologists with years of experience helping individuals and their families prevent and overcome substance abuse problems.

  2. Frank C / May 6, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    As a dad who rode the roller coaster of dependency with my son for six years I do agree that the issue of getting parents on the same page is important for all family members especially with respect to setting realistic expectations and boundaries. In a perfect world these pages would mirror one another but the reality is that in most cases they don’t.

    Asking parents and loved ones to ‘negotiate’ their way to a solution based position depends on more variables than can be included in a simple post. Leave it to say that each of us has in some way our own unique belief system based on the truths that we have either selected or been given through the natural process of mapping that occurs based on life experience and specific influences.

    A simple analogy that I share with parents and loved ones is that it is like filling a basket with colored eggs. As we move along in our life we pick up the eggs that suit our perceived needs and neatly put them into our basket. If you imagine that each egg represents a personal truth even if some of the eggs contradict one another it becomes our personal belief system for better or worse. When we are asked to ‘negotiate’ we are essentially being asked to either remove an egg or two or three or to rearrange the eggs in our basket to align with another’s collection in their basket.

    It is by no means a simple process. I remember being asked to calmly wait to speak with my son’s step-mom and mother if I didn’t agree with their thinking but the reality is that we all wanted to keep our respective collections intact. And my son just wanted to stomp through all of our baskets and crush everyone’s belief systems to maintain his skillful manipulation of our love for him.

    In that basic sense a unified front is helpful to deal with the bad choices our children make and to set healthy boundaries. For me it was always a moving target and the treatment specialists were always trying to identify the parent that would appear to have the ability to maintain a common front until some elements of treatment could gain a foothold in my son’s thinking. You may have heard the cliche, “Fake it until you make it.” I remember choking on things I was asked to swallow to keep things on track. The problem is that we have an instinctual need to protect the contents we have put into our basket because it is what we believe defines who we are.

    While one parent may be worried about school one day the other may not. Or one parent may be consumed with fear while the other is more capable of letting the treatment specialist be the bad guy to change behavior. As a parent don’t forget why you sought help with treatment in the first place. The fear of losing your child to addiction and the chaos of their choices in your home. These fears will slowly change as they may choose to accept sobriety at which time concerns move to getting a job or returning to school. So disagreements can and do continue to move along the continuum. To assume that following a list or a rehearsed set of responses to be effective they have to take into account the transitory nature of our fears. They are not static.

    In the beginning of our journey it was all about our suspicion that our child was getting high. Once we have confirmation we then have to choose a path. Our choices can and do become increasing difficult.

    My point is that to sit down at the kitchen table and calmly discuss the boundaries that we choose to enforce have been forever affected by outside influences. My son who now has four years clean and sober just laughs at all of the internet sites that are intended to keep kids from choosing drugs. There are just as many sites that show them how to use a specific drug or cheat on a drug test.

    It’s purely anecdotal on a personal level but it clearly doesn’t work with a kid who is determined to get high. Remember the millions of dollars spent on the ineffective DARE Program that lost funding because in spite of the effort drug use data indicated that increasing numbers of school age kids were choosing to get high during the program’s existence (SAMHSA Monitoring the Future Survey).

    There are no easy paths to building consensus. Most of us have to deal with a general lack of collaborative effort at work, in politics, treatment philosophies, etc. on a daily basis. We are pretty much ‘negotiated out’ by the time we get home. And I made the fatal mistake of letting my addict negotiate the terms of his treatment by trying to be communicative and fair with him. I am not a true tough love proponent but there are some elements that cannot be negotiated with your addict if it is causing harm to your family. I remember letting him talk me into intensive outpatient as opposed to a residential stay.

    I am not saying that he was ready for either but in looking back on my many misinformed decisions that didn’t hold any relevant consequences for his choices, negotiation wasn’t the answer. If you negotiate early with your addict about treatment you will be negotiating rewards for them choosing a path that your other children may already be following without the need to be paid.

    The sad truth is that sometimes we can’t save all of our children or our marriages. That doesn’t mean that you should quit trying. But to assume that you can negotiate a good outcome by giving something of yourself that you know is not in your best interest or that of other siblings you have to stand your ground. Treatment specialists lecture us all the time about being an ‘enabler’ to our addict. What about the consequences of being an ‘enabler’ to a spouse that refuses to be a part of a healthy solution for an entire family? And at what point do we become an ‘enabler’ to the specialists that continue to promote negotiation?

    I remember feeling like I was negotiating my way to negotiate.

    This disease demands difficult if not incalculable consequences from our decisions. If your negotiations create and maintain uncertainty with respect to outcome it is time to repeat the mantra of the specialists that promote the idea of insanity being defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

    And don’t forget that our children become students of the treatment process itself and become capable of using that knowledge to take their manipulation to another level. It is an exhausting endeavor emotionally to keep a family and marriage together if there are disagreements but it is possible to agree to disagree. Just be aware that your child is paying close attention to everything you say and do. Until they are ready to choose honesty over lies and manipulation they will in all probability use any and all weaknesses they perceive against you. I had a hard time accepting the fact that my son didn’t care if my marriage and family disintegrated when he was getting high.

    Be strong but also be wise in being able to give up any eggs in your basket that you don’t truly need that are there just to protect your ego. Your example to let go of those beliefs that don’t serve you in the present may be what saves your marriage and family from the your addict’s choices. Only you can decide…

  3. Patti Herndon / September 6, 2013 at 12:09 am

    Thank you for this, Dr. Foote. There is SO much good learning contained here for us parents. This ‘collaboration’ component is framed with such care, encouragement, and insight.

    It has me thinking about how the vast majority of us parents don’t usually get much exposure to ‘that’ brand of positive, ‘can do this’, support in our culture when it comes to advising that relates to ‘parenting strategy and substance use’, unfortunately.

    What we have been socially cued to is receiving loads of: ‘Here’s a mirror for you to look in -so you can see how ‘wrong’ you have been doing things’. Even the most well intended can, inadvertently, put parents on the defense…and that result can further ingrain discord ‘between’ parents regarding parenting strategies. That result serves nothing and no one.

    We need the kind of support and learning that you inspire here. This kind of support and guidance gets us parents further done the road in the journey, helps us in staying focused on how critical collaboration and unification are in this journey. This serves our expanded awareness and helps us build on strengths on behalf of ourselves/our kids/our family collective.

    Thank you, again, for your thoughtful, wisdom-filled encouragement to parents regarding the benefit of maintaining/modeling a collaborative spirit. Please write more on this subject :-)

    Addiction is the journey. Recovery is the destination.

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