Any normal parent dreads the possibility of their child doing drugs, especially through the teenage years. Schools try to fight it, homes try to act like it doesn’t exist, and society has become too occupied and isolated to even care. A story is told of a man (let’s call him, Mr. Mbu) whose teenage daughter got so addicted to drugs while at school till she couldn’t help but smoke at home. An uncle one day notices a strange odour in the house and it’s when the family discovers she has been using drugs. Once the father was informed, he felt so ashamed and disappointed he decided it was best to send the young girl to live and stay abroad with the reasoning “let her go and get spoiled there, at least I won’t have to see it.” Not the best way to handle the situation though.

Talking about unhealthy ways to deal with a problem like this; – in many African homes, such ‘disgraceful’ behavior is treated the same way as teenage pregnancies. A child risks the wrath of their parents or guardians, anything from physical beatings, being thrown out of the house, and the threats of being ‘killed’. Many young people in such unfortunate situations find themselves stranded, they are afraid to tell their family the truth and when asked why, the answer is usually ‘my parents will kill me’. It is not confirmed yet as to whether parents carry out such threats but sure thing many parents only say it as a way to scare their children from straying or making wrong decisions.

Counseling should be very helpful in these situations but only when done right. This has nothing to do with professional counselors or rehab. Rehab should be the last resort when all else has failed and we should never let a situation get to that point without exhausting every other avenue possible. And the case for professional counselors may seem like a “luxury” for families that can’t financially afford it. So how should counseling be done in a way for it to be effective? Conversation!

Teenagers just want to have a conversation. Not a series of interrogations, lectures, preaching, and reminding them of the scientifically proven dangers that they already know so much about anyway. They want to be noticed and approached in a firm but friendly way by an exemplary person and one that speaks their language. They want to be understood before they are “judged”. They want to feel they are talking with just another empathic person and hate how sessions with professional counselors make them feel like they are ‘patients’, sick and almost beyond redemption. They want to have the conversation at their own pace, in bits without being forced or excessively pressured. And it helps if the conversation is in a more natural environment as compared to a very formal and strict office setting.

A conversation properly done can yield faster, healthier and lasting results as compared to traditional counseling. The conversation approach encourages everyone to be a ‘counselor’ of some sort. So how do we get the conversation going.

Be the Counselor: you can volunteer but the choice should be left to the child. They need will only open up to a person they trust, feel comfortable around and someone they respect. In other words, find someone they trust and respect and if you can’t then position yourself in such way to be that trustworthy and respectful person to them. Learn to listen, actively, thoughtfully and effectively. You are going to need all the information you can get and the most important person in the equation here is the child you are interacting with. This means you should forget all your cliché advice and rehearsed lines—if you approach this with a one-shoe-fits all mindset you are bound to hit a wall. This only works to your disadvantage, it shows you to be inattentive, inexperienced, non-empathic and absent. Have experience—this is not about a degree and the similar cases you have worked on or the thousands of young students you have talked to before. No! This is about you being able to relate to some of the things the teenager is experiencing at a personal level and you being able to partly share some of your own stories and how you dealt with them, truthfully and appropriately.

Find out the Whys: They say that our histories help us understand our present and predict our future. You cannot properly solve what you don’t properly understand. And sometimes you don’ even have to understand everything, try appreciating instead. This means that you won’t necessarily agree with whatever reasons, justifications or excuses shared, but at least you will respect them. Some teenagers just want to experiment because they are going through a phase of excitement and exploration; some are trying to escape from the difficult situations in their homes and schools such as violence and bullying; some are just unfortunate enough to come from environments where such is encouraged such as neighborhoods stricken with substance abuse or crime and homes that lack adult supervision; some are only succumbing to bad peer pressure and low self-esteem that make them desperate to “fit in”, some are dealing with ugly realities, secrets “dangerous” to share and “painful” to bear, such as sexual abuse or even realizing they contracted HIV/AIDs at a recent party and feel their world is closing in on them; some have resigned to a state of denial from the reality in their lives and think drug abuse will offer them numbness even for a brief moment; some are just rebellious and out to prove something, whatever it is, to the world or whoever may be listening. However many, teenagers tend to resort to substance abuse in a desperate way to compensate for the absence of parental attention, affection and approval.

Dealing with substance abuse and any other unhealthy behavior with young people can be tricky and a combination of healthy strategies can be most effective. Just make sure the teenager here is focused on as a major part of the solution for their problem and your major contribution is helping them paint the right picture for their situation and using the informationthey trust you with to guide them to the best solution. They should feel like they actually came up with the “brilliant” solution themselves because it’s the truth. Get them to commit to practicing the new changes and never get tired of engaging them whenever it is necessary until you are confident they can manage on their own but don’t fall into the temptation of “stalking” them, “watching their every move”, and don’t allow them to be overly dependent on you, instead encourage them to be “independent” and confident enough to take responsibility for the decisions in their lives.