How To Drug-proof Your Church Kids
By Stephen Arterburn
I received a call from my pastor, requesting my help. He had spotted a young girl on a curb near the local high school. She was in tears and smelled more like a skid row bum than a 16-year-old from his church. He took her to his office, but he didn’t know what to do next. He would have called her parents, but she begged him not to. I hurried over.
When I arrived I found an alert, petite girl, weighing approximately one hundred pounds. I asked her what had happened. She and two other friends had started drinking that morning around 8. She had consumed a pint of whiskey and half a bottle of vodka flavored with peppermint — all of this within four hours. For a girl of her size to consume that much alcohol in that short of time and continue to be alert meant only one thing: she was a full-blown adolescent alcoholic.
As I’ve worked with chemically addicted youth, I’ve discovered this is not an unusual scenario. When a drug or alcohol problem arises, people turn to a pastor more frequently than to any other professional. That places pastors at a pivotal point in the life of the addict and the addict’s family.
I’ve also found that pastors who invest even a small portion of their time in rescuing kids from drugs have a major impact, not only on these youth, but on their community as well.
It Won’t Happen Here
Still, many pastors hesitate to get involved in this issue. Some don’t think the problem affects their youth; others believe prayer alone is the cure. Let’s look at these two issues before we consider what, in fact, pastors can do to help.
The problem doesn’t affect our church. While working on the book Drug Proof Your Kids, I came across a survey that showed that 92 percent of all pastors felt alcohol and drugs were a problem in the community, but only 13 percent considered them a problem in their own church. Most thought their people wouldn’t stoop to such behavior.
However, other studies don’t bear that out. One revealed that 93 percent of all church kids will have at least one drink before they leave high school. And 40 percent or more will have had their first drinking experience before leaving the sixth grade.
My experience with kids confirms this; if a church has adolescents, a portion of them are involved with alcohol and drugs. They may look nicer and talk sweeter, but they are exposed to drinking and drugs, and some of them are involved.
Christian youth don’t need formal treatment; God alone can deliver them. That’s true in some cases. Many people have experienced some sort of spontaneous remission after which they no longer desire drugs or alcohol. They often go years or a lifetime without a desire to drink or do drugs again.
Unfortunately, spontaneous remission is the exception rather than the rule. We haven’t been able to patent it. Treatment is the more likely route to getting off alcohol or drugs.
Even in the case of spontaneous remission, I en-courage treatment. After I spoke at one conference, a man approached me and said he had been instantly freed from his addiction to alcohol, and this after years of drinking. I assured him that I believed him, and then I asked, “At the time you were instantly set free, was your wife also instantly set free from her bitterness, resentment, and anger from years of watching you drink your marriage away?”
She wasn’t, of course. This is why treatment refrains vital. Treatment doesn’t just take away an addict’s craving; it also provides a foundation for recovery. It helps heal family wounds. The addict can return to a supportive environment where both addict and family recover together from the ravages of drugs. And without treatment, I’ve seen too many instantaneous remissions and instant healings turn into instant relapse.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that pastors per-form treatment themselves, or become experts in chemical dependency and recovery. Such is best left to those so trained. Nonetheless, pastors can play a vital role during three critical areas: prevention, confrontation, and treatment.
Stopping It Before It Starts
Parents don’t want more preaching against the evils of liquor; they know it’s bad. They want to know how to prevent drug abuse. A pastor providing such insights can be a real hero.
Prevention, of course, involves educating adults and teaching them to educate their children. It also means reminding adults about the power of modeling. A cocktail-sipping parent cannot hope to influence a child to refuse marijuana. To a teenager, there’s no difference.
However, even the best facts or the finest example need to be coupled with techniques that motivate kids to consider the consequences of certain behaviors. And pastors can encourage parents in just this regard, to use short-term rewards and restrictions.
For the adolescent, the big question is “Who is in control here?” The teenager always wants to be, but I’ve found the right to be in control must be earned through the display of responsible behavior. The more responsible the behavior, the more freedom should be granted youth. The more irresponsible the behavior the greater imposition of restrictions.
For example, a teenager who consistently returns home before curfew should be granted an extended curfew as a reward for adhering to rules. But curfew should be shortened if a son or daughter consistently comes home late.
When this principle is applied to the use of an automobile, it gets the undivided attention of the adolescent. I encourage parents to allow their kids to drive. However, parents should make one big exception to this freedom: if the teenager is caught doing drugs or drinking, his or her driver’s license will be destroyed, and the right to reapply for one will not be granted for one year.
This rule not only gives youth pause, it gives them a socially acceptable way out when offered drugs or alcohol by their peers: “I’d love to have a drink, but my parents are so weird they wouldn’t let me drive for a year. It’s too big a risk.”
I often hear kids who, in referring to how they got into drugs, say, “No one cared enough to help me.” Pastors can care by helping parents care before experimentation or casual use turns to addiction.
Care Means Confrontation
The best efforts at prevention won’t always work. Some kids still become involved with drugs, and parents will call pastors for help.
In working with the family, prayer, encouragement, and understanding go a long way. However, with a teenager who won’t admit a drug problem, the helping style must be different, for both pastor and parents. The best help they can offer is organizing a formal confrontation.
If a pastor isn’t trained to lead a confrontation, he or she can learn what one is and what makes one effective. In that way pastors can work wisely with a counselor who is so trained.
One young girl had been extremely active in her youth group. But when her parents split up, the girl split from the church. Her rebellion against the church and her parents took several forms, the deadliest being a growing addiction to alcohol. As her drinking grew heavier, friends told the mother about the new “wild” behavior of her daughter.
The mother turned to her pastor and me. We decided we needed to confront the girl with the evidence of her behavior. With the mother, the pastor and I developed a list of people who could provide specific evidence of the girl’s drinking; it is essential to have such people at a confrontation. The mother then contacted them to see if they would be willing to help. The girl’s father, one of her brothers, and her close friend agreed.
The pastor and I then met with these people to go over what would happen and what part they would play. We told them they would need to do three things: (1) tell the girl what happened, including the amount of drugs or alcohol seen or used; (2) tell how they felt when it happened, the disappointment and anger; and (3) tell what they want the girl to do to change, to seek counseling or treatment. In this way, moralizing and anger are minimized, and the addict’s inclination to listen is increased.
To clarify their thoughts and to shape them into their most powerful form, we asked the participants to write out their speeches (although they weren’t required to read them word for word at the confrontation). Then we set a date when we could meet with the daughter at a time when the girl was least likely to have been drinking.
I asked the girl to come to a counseling session with her mother and father. She was not told it concerned her specifically; we wanted her to assume it had something to do with the parents’ divorce.
When she arrived and found all the participants seated in a circle, and her girl friend among us, she realized the meeting concerned her. She tried to leave, but I asked her to give us one hour of her time, and she reluctantly consented. I told her we were there out of concern and love for her. I asked her to listen to what each person had to say.
Then each person took a turn. The father told about seeing the girl drunk when she had been staying with him. Her brother told her he knew where she went to drink. Her friend described times when they drank together as well as how the daughter drank more than any of the other kids.
There were many tears. The daughter’s initial anger soon melted under the power of the group’s concern. When she agreed to seek help, there were hugs and more tears. Both the pastor and I were gratified and relieved.
When confronted in the above manner, most kids are grateful. Many say they had hoped their parents would do something to stop the addiction process. Some even tell of setting themselves up to get caught. They knew it had to stop, but they didn’t know how.
The Vital Last Step
Once the confrontation is complete, parents need help providing direction for the next step: obtaining treatment. Without treatment, confrontation accomplishes nothing. The pastor must persuade parents to seek it, even demand it, for themselves and their child.
I counseled one couple to confront their addicted son and then to offer help through treatment. If he refused to seek help, I instructed them to kick him out of the house. That seemed a bit strong to them, but I convinced them of the deep need for treatment and the need to insist on it. Although the mother was clearly reluctant, she finally agreed.
When the parents met with their son, they presented the evidence of his drug use and told him what they wanted. He said he’d move rather than go into treatment, so he packed his surfboard and went to a friend’s house. The parents thought they’d made a terrible mistake. It was not an easy night.
The next morning, however, their son showed up at their front door surfboard in hand, ready to obtain treatment. His friend had waited until morning to level with him, but then he told him: “You have a terrible drug problem, and you need help.”
After being kicked out of two houses in two days, the boy decided to get help and has remained sober since.
Pastors will want to consider carefully the treatment center to which they refer to young people. There are plenty of Christ-centered programs, in fact. But before pastors refer anywhere, I encourage them to visit the place and ask the staff how they work with kids and families.
In addition, pastors can encourage parents, brothers, and sisters to be involved in the treatment program. If the whole family is involved, there is a greater chance of full recovery. And if the pastor is willing to participate in the program as well, the chances are greater still.
From the pastor’s perspective, there is an added benefit of involvement at this stage: his or her own understanding of the how to shepherd the family will grow immeasurably.
Since pastors usually are the first professional contacted by people in a drug crisis, the more knowledgeable they become about alcohol and drugs, the more they will be the first step in a young person’s recovery. And that’s the beginning of an entire family’s healing.
This article “How To Drug-Proof Your Church Kids” written by Stephen Arterburn is excerpted from Leadership the 1991 winter quarter edition.