Combating Substance Abuse Through ‘Creative’ Parenting

Newtown Bee By Larissa Lytwyn

Lauded family counselor and substance abuse expert Wendy Davenson spoke at The Parent Connection’s latest forum, held on January 21. Ms Davenson encouraged families to embrace “creative” parenting – the key to incurring a safeguarding home environment.

“If you take anything at all from tonight, let it be these two things,” Ms Davenson said. “One, never be best friends with your children and two, if you are in a [partner] relationship, nurture that connection.”

Over 100 turned up to hear Ms Davenson speak, a number that impressed Parent Connection co-founder Donna DeLuca.

“There was a lot going on in the community that same time, with school concerts and a Communion event at St Rose,” she said. “I am just so happy that we had such a turnout. Some people even divided their time between [a concert] and the forum.”

Ms Davenson’s program included setting limits for children, resisting the urge to overindulge them, refraining from over-programming their schedules, and letting them be accountable for their own choices, as long as these choices are “not life-threatening,” she amended.

“Healthy families have rules,” Ms Davenson said. “There is a difference between consequences, which teach, and punishment, which hurts.”

One mother expressed concern about how to delineate between her “adult” role and being “a friend” to her two young children.

Ms Davenson discussed a “transition” state between the two roles, marked by verbally separating playtime from the parent role.

“Tell your children, ‘Okay, five more minutes of play and then back inside,'” Ms Davenson advised.

She also urged parents to refrain from relaying “double messages,” such as telling a child not to drink or drive, but if you do, call for a ride.

“As soon as there is a ‘but’ in there you are contradicting yourself,” Ms Davenson warned.

It is important to remember that parents themselves are role models, she said.

“A lot of parents may tell their underage children not to drink, but then go out, have a few beers and drive home themselves,” she said. “Don’t go down the ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ path.”

One father asked about how to cope with one child being more emotionally demanding than his siblings.

“Don’t forget the other children,” Ms Davenson quickly replied. “The ones that don’t ask probably need something the most.”

At the same time, she added, it is important to nurture each child’s individual identities, respecting the child who may be more demanding or downright needy.

She described the parental dynamic as a mobile, with parents at opposite ends and children hanging down from the center. The mobile shifts and re-balances itself during different times, she said. Adjusting smoothly to changes is key to sustaining a healthy family life, she said.

Ms Davenson herself has a blended family, a particularly challenging dynamic because, in keeping with her analogy, it could lead to multiple mobiles.

“Partners do need to be consistent in making and reinforcing rules,” she said. “Especially if there are kids coming in from [different family backgrounds]. Kids will immediately understand how to manipulate if one parent is the disciplinarian and the other is passive, or if parents reinforce rules differently, or make different rules.”

Open, forthright communication, she said, is key to maintaining strong familial relationships.

Also important, she said, is to continually nurture partner connections.

“It’s fine if one child wants to have breakfast one Saturday with Dad,” she said. “It’s also important that couples have time apart for themselves, too.”

Otherwise, she warned, after children leave the home parents could look at each other and say, “Who the heck are you?”

Over-programming children could be tempting, she said, because the thought is that children will be less likely to become involved with substance abuse or premature sex.

In the meantime, however, children may be burned out by high school, losing interest in all activities. They also may have difficulty coping with how to handle free time.

Overindulged children – defined as children who get whatever they want when they want it – are prone to becoming conduct disorders and having other problems.

“Children actually love rules,” Ms Davenson said. “It shows that you care about them.”

Ultimately, she concluded, there is no guarantee in whether or not children will become involved in substance abuse.

“I’ve seen wonderful parents have children who are addicted and children from dysfunctional families who turn out great,” she noted, drawing laughter.

In situations where there are substance abuse concerns, she said, it is important that accountability is practiced and that the addicted family member does not create imbalance through being the family’s primary focus.

Such focus, she said, could lead to enabling behavior, defined as literally “killing with kindness.”

“Enabling sends the message that the enabler will do everything for the child so that they do nothing for themselves,” she warned.

Lastly, she reiterated, remember that parenting can be creative.

“Raising kids is fun!” she declared. “Especially when you have those days where you say, ‘Hot Dog! Today was a good day!'”

The forum will be broadcast in early February on Channel 21, Newtown’s local community cable station. Copies of the tape may be available. For more information contact Donna DeLuca at 426-9280 or Dorrie Carolan, 426-6424.

The next forum sponsored by Parent Connection, a grassroots organization working to raise substance abuse awareness and prevention, will take place Wednesday, February 11. “Kid Connection” will feature a panel of local students answering substance abuse related questions from parents.

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