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Kind Love vs. Tough Love – What’s A Parent To Do? A Q&A with Maia Szalavitz, Part I

Posted By Jerry On April 2, 2013 @ 2:35 pm In Books about addiction,Dealing with an Addicted Child,Drugs,getting help,parenting,Substance Abuse,tough love,Writing About Addiction | 6 Comments

Maia Szalavitz is an award-winning journalist who covers the addiction field, health, science and public policy. She is co-author (with leading child trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD [1]) of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential — and Endangered [2], (Morrow, 2010) and the author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids [3] (Riverhead, 2006).

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Szalavitz about her work. Following is the first in a four-part series. Here, Ms. Szalavitz shares her insights into how parents can better deal with their teens’ and young adults’ drug and alcohol abuse problems.


JERRY OTERO: In your latest book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered ,you explore empathy’s startling importance in human evolution and its significance for our children and our society. Why is empathy essential, and how can parents help to instill it in their children? Are there any lessons here to learn for parents who are struggling to make sense of their teenagers and young adult children’s drug abuse issues?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Empathy is critical for having a happy, healthy life because it affects all of our relationships and our health — physical and mental — to an enormous degree is determined by our ability to form strong bonds with others.  The best way to teach empathy is to behave kindly:  as one expert put it, empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught.  However, kids need to learn to understand their own feelings well before they can understand those of others:  good ways of helping them learn this are reading to them and asking them explicit questions about their own and other people’s thoughts and feelings in various situations.

Empathy is also important for preventing and treating drug problems.  In terms of prevention, schools with warm atmospheres where kids feel part of a community have less drug use and less bullying, for one.

Also, part of the reason I got interested in the subject was that I saw how unkind so many counselors and treatment programs were to people with addictions.  And there are all kinds of people out there advocating that being cruel is the only way to help.  The data just doesn’t support that — empathetic treatment is the most effective.  And harsh treatment drives people away from seeking help.

JERRY OTERO:  “Kind Love” vs. “Tough Love”, what’s a parent to do about a teenager’s or young adult’s substance use?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: There is no evidence that “tough love” does anything useful.  Of course, you shouldn’t buy drugs for your children or do things that will help them use easily and if they are a danger to you or your other children, you may have to have them live elsewhere — but don’t put a child on the street with the aim of helping him stop using.  It might do that — but it also might make a temporary problem into a permanent one by entrenching the street lifestyle and putting the child at greater risk for overdose, suicide and disease.  If you need to cut a child out of your life, in other words, do it to protect yourself or others, not to help them.  There’s no evidence that it does help and all of the evidence on treatment and intervention shows that kind, supportive, gradual approaches are more effective than abrupt, harsh, confrontational ones.

This goes back to empathy:  if you want to help your child quit, you need to understand why they use and help them find other ways of getting those needs met.  If the child believes you are on their side and will not place them in an awful place they can’t escape and want them to feel good, not control them, you will be much more successful in motivating change.  It’s a lot easier for a kid to say yes to treatment if he knows his parents will back him up if it’s not right for him; a trial of antidepressants is much more easily done if the teen sees this as a way for her to feel better, not a way for her to be made compliant.

Check back next week for Part 2 of our Q&A, “Finding Treatment for Your Teen.”

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com [4] and writes about addiction-related issues for The Fix.com [5] . Find her on Twitter at @maiasz [6].  In addition to the books mentioned above, Ms. Szalavitz previously co-authored The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook [7]: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing (Basic, 2007), and Recovery Options: The Complete Guide: How You and Your Loved Ones Can Understand and Treat Alcohol and Other Drug Problems [8] (John S. Wiley, 2000).

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URLs in this post:

[1] Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD: http://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/bruce-d-perry-md-phd

[2] Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential — and Endangered: http://www.amazon.com/Born-Love-Empathy-Essential-Endangered/dp/006165678X

[3] Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids: http://helpatanycost.com/

[4] TIME.com: http://healthland.time.com/author/maiasz/

[5] The Fix.com: http://www.thefix.com/content/maia-szalavitz

[6] @maiasz: http://us.lrd.yahoo.com/_ylt=AlBJM.BONxS3dzldPwWDzPy1qHQA;_ylu=X3oDMTFrb2pndWQ3BG1pdANBcnRpY2xlIEJvZHkEcG9zAzEwBHNlYwNNZWRpYUFydGljbGVCb2R5QXNzZW1ibHk-;_ylg=X3oDMTJqdm9zMW9zBGludGwDdXMEbGFuZwNlbi11cwRwc3RhaWQDNTU4MDQzYmQtNjhmYS0zNWJkLWI1YzItNzg1OTRiZTQxNjE5BHBzdGNhdAMEcHQDc3RvcnlwYWdl;_ylv=0/SIG=11m05ldim/EXP=1364921734/**http%3A/twitter.com/%23%2521/maiasz

[7] The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook: http://www.amazon.com/The-Boy-Who-Raised-Psychiatrists/dp/B005YUDOR2

[8] Recovery Options: The Complete Guide: How You and Your Loved Ones Can Understand and Treat Alcohol and Other Drug Problems: http://www.amazon.com/Recovery-Options-The-Complete-Guide/dp/047134575X

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