By the time her daughter landed in drug rehab at age 16, Leslie Cheney had grown used to all kinds of reactions to her wild child from family and friends, teachers and neighbors. But she wasn't ready for how differently people treated her. Suddenly she was confronted with unwanted counsel ("She needs more discipline") and Pollyanna predictions ("It's just a phase — it'll pass before you know it"). On one level, Leslie, a mother of four in Fairfield, Connecticut, understood.
"It was pretty clear that people didn't really know what to say or do," she says. "And instead of asking me how they could help, they offered advice that didn't help at all." But Leslie found little comfort giving others the benefit of the doubt. In addition to being terrified for her daughter, she also felt cut off and alone at a time when she most needed support.
It's no surprise that adolescence can be a very rough passage — for kids as well as their parents. Whether they're struggling with school, relationships, psychological disorders or substance abuse, "the problems today's tweens and teens face are enormous," says Rhonda David, clinical director of A Light of Hope, an outpatient treatment center in Santa Clarita, California. "And there are so many parents out there feeling like it's somehow their fault. They need support like never before." If you know someone in need, of course you'll want to lend a hand — and be there in all the ways that matter.
- Gain her confidence. It's natural for a parent whose child is in distress to pull away from friends, even close ones. "It may seem like she's backing off your relationship or being secretive, but she could simply be embarrassed and ashamed," says Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., a friendship researcher at New York University. The other possibility is that she's trying to guard her privacy. "No one wants word of their family's problems to spread like wildfire," says Levine. "The last thing she wants to worry about is gossip." As a friend, it's up to you to recognize and respect those feelings. If she doesn't return your calls, leave a few messages saying you are thinking of her and are there for her. It will be appreciated.
- Resist judgment. Once your friend opens up, don't play the blame game. "We all want to believe that if we do a good job, our kids will turn out well," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., a social psychologist and author of It Won't Happen to Me. "And if someone else's kid is struggling, we tend to assume the child has been poorly parented." So even if you've always felt your friend was too permissive or didn't spend enough time with her kid, push those thoughts aside. "At this point, the best thing to do is remind her that this setback isn't her fault — and that she's doing the right thing by addressing it," says Levine.
- Help her find support. Offering reassurance is important, but it usually isn't enough. If, for example, her son is acting up at school, urge her to meet with his teachers, the principal and the school counselor. In case of substance abuse, an eating disorder or mental health issues, "she should get professional care — for her child, herself and the family," says Tammy Granger, a director at Caron Treatment Centers. "Say something like, 'This is a serious problem, one you can't handle alone. You need help from a psychologist or clinic. Let me help you find one.'" Offer to accompany her to the first meeting or appointment and, if necessary, several more until she's ready to go on her own.
- Back her decisions. Don't question your friend's choice of treatment, even if you disagree. "You can't know all the details, and it's a decision only the family can make," says Cynthia Scott, a Melbourne, Florida, mom whose daughter had a terrifying middle school meltdown, turning from honor student to lying, fighting, defiant teen in danger of flunking. Cynthia and her husband, Jonathan, took an extreme approach, enrolling their child in a program that scares kids straight. "Those who helped me most didn't tell me I was right or wrong," says Cynthia, whose daughter, now 16, is thriving. "They held my hand, they were my sounding board, and they were invaluable."
- Remember the little things. Small acts of kindness go a long, long way. "Just inviting your friend to take a walk can be healing," says Granger. So is baking a casserole, offering to cut the lawn or taking her other kids on an outing — anything that lightens her load. A few weeks after Leslie's daughter started treatment, two of her closest friends showed up one evening with a fun movie, Wedding Crashers, and a bottle of wine. "It was just what I needed," she says. "They understood how desperate I was to think about anything but my daughter, at least for a few hours."
- Be there for the long haul. Reassure your friend that you're there for her now, and that you always will be. "That's the best thing anyone can do," says Carol Harrigan, a social worker in Somers, New York, whose own son had a drinking problem for many years before she found out. "My friends stood by me all that time, including when I was in denial and blamed myself for everything." And they're still fiercely supportive, even though her son has been sober for a decade. Leslie is also grateful for those who stood by her. After her daughter came home from rehab, Leslie spent a year attending support group meetings. It was a difficult period, and Leslie has no doubt that her friendships helped sustain her — and still do. "My daughter has been clean and sober since 2009," she says. "There's always the risk of relapse, but I know I'll find my way — with the help of my friends."
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.