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My Teen is Home from Rehab: Now What?

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A stay at a residential treatment center can be life-changing for a teenager, but the work doesn’t end when a child comes home.

“Completing rehab is just the beginning. Adjusting after the return is a big challenge for everyone involved – the teenagers, the parents, the rest of the family,” says Tina Muller, family wellness manager at Mountainside Treatment Center, an alcohol and drug addiction treatment center in Canaan, Conn.

Parents should begin doing their own work while the child is away, she says.

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“Start building a network that you can rely on to help with the transition of your teenager coming home,” says Muller, a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor.

Support groups like Al-Anon or Families Anonymous can be helpful for making connections or gathering information. Arm yourself with “as much knowledge as possible” about addiction, depression or whatever issue led to the treatment, she says.

As part of preparing for a child’s return home, parents should consider their self-care needs. It can be helpful for parents and siblings to get therapy of their own, either as individuals or through family counseling.

“Many teens struggle with mental health issues because they come from dysfunctional families,” says Mike Veny, a weightlifter and mental health advocate who gives TEDx talks on issues of healing. “When parents or guardians pursue therapy for themselves, they become more aware of how their own behavior might be affecting their teenager. They will also learn to care for themselves when their teenager is struggling.”

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, author and media commentator, warns parents about assuming too much.

“Do not expect them to be ‘cured’ by one program,” she says. “There is still a lot of work to be done, such as additional family therapy and participation in self-help groups.”

She warns that parents need to walk a fine line with teenagers. “Keep a balance between not putting too much pressure on them and not treating them like fragile eggs about to break.”

Muller made other suggestions about family life after a teen has been in a therapeutic program:

  • Boundaries, including some new household rules, are important. Curfews and chores should be part of that. And families need to talk about limits and the role everyone plays in recovery. “Boundaries are really for self-care, and it’s for everyone to feel safe in the home,” she says.

  • Communication is crucial. “Have dinner together every night, and ask your teenager what was their favorite part of the day,” she says. “Become really involved in what they’re doing in their daily life.” That doesn’t mean watching every minute of every activity, but the more the parents get involved, the more they will know what’s going on.

  • Invite your child’s friends to your house. “If you get to know your teen’s friends, that will help build the trust you need to allow them to go out into social settings,” she says.

  • Use a calendar for family members’ schedules. “If you’re expected to be home at dinner every night at 6 o’clock and you’re not, that will send up a red flag if you don’t make a phone call,” she says. “There has to be some accountability.”

  • Connect with the guidance counselors at the school. Find someone your child can consult during the day. Returning to school may be difficult after time away for treatment. Teens may feel shame, guilt, anger or embarrassment, says Muller. “Other kids can be mean and not have an understanding of what addiction really is.”
  • Encourage openness. It’s good to be open with teachers and guidance counselors about a teen’s treatment and future needs, she says. The teen should also be OK about being open with peers. “They can say things like, ‘I went to get some help. I’ve been having some struggles. These are my struggles.’ They don’t have to go into huge details about it, but the more honest and open they are, the more support they’re going to receive,” Muller says. “The more that they start talking, the easier it gets, and the more connections they can make. They’ll be surprised at how many of their peers are struggling with the same issues.”
  • Maintain connections with professionals through post-treatment therapy and with peers through groups like Alateen or Narateen. The road forward won’t be without speed bumps, Muller says. “A slip-up doesn’t have to be the end of the world, a huge horrendous thing,” she says. “You can catch it and have an open and honest discussion about it, and say, these are the steps we’re going to take now to prevent it from continuing.”

  • Whenever possible, focus on positives. “Encourage teens to consistently engage in activities that give them joy,” says Veny. “This will help to get them in the habit of self-care.”

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Bill O’Neill graduated from Harvard College with a degree in economics and he’s been working with words ever since. He’s been a Lifestyle department editor at a daily newspaper and wrote PR and fundraising materials for nonprofits focused on affordable housing and animal welfare. As a freelance writer, he focuses on stories about family life, health and pop culture. Bill lives on Cape Cod, where he enjoys biking, hiking and kayaking.