Having a child with an addiction is one of the most painful situations any parent can face. Most mothers and fathers are at a loss for how to deal with a drug addicted son or how to deal with a drug addicted daughter. Whether your child is a teen, young adult or a grown-up, addiction is devastating for the whole family.
Helping your addicted child may require you to act in ways that may not come naturally to you. “One of the hardest things for parents is they are worried that their kids are going to end up hating them,” says Jennifer Hearn, M.Ed., LPC, admissions director at The Right Step. “This results in parents continuing to engage in enabling behavior out fear of losing their child’s love. Or we see parents act out of fear because they are not in control of what is going. They are terrified about what might happen to their child if left to their own devices.”
So what can parents do? “Don’t be worried about hurting their feelings. Be worried about saving their life,” she says. “People with addiction need consequences, boundaries and limits. That’s why it important for parents to get involved. Parents can be a catalyst to make someone really look at themselves and consider making a change.”
Hearn and other experts recommend certain steps to get your loved one closer to addiction recovery:
1. Be willing to acknowledge the problem. At first, you can’t imagine that your child is abusing drugs. “Parents are always in denial in the beginning,” says addiction counselor Mark Levine, LICDC-CS, MAC. “It’s the emotionally safe thing to do. To acknowledge a problem would cause most parents to blame themselves – something they would rather avoid.” It is human nature to avoid it, but the key to learning how to deal with a drug addicted daughter or son is opening your eyes to the problem.
2. Learn the healthiest way to approach your child. Your first impulse may be to confront your child when they are on drugs, scream and yell out of frustration, or pile on guilt. It won’t work. “Parents should express their feelings without judging,” says Levine. “This is a slow process and patience is required.” He also recommends reaching out to other parents and experts. “Addiction is an illness and it’s vital to learn how to communicate with someone with a brain disease,” he says. “Normal avenues of evoking guilt will not work when speaking to an addictive brain. And neither will outbursts of anger or shame. “
3. Make sure to practice self-care. As difficult as it may be, put the oxygen mask on you first. “Addiction dramatically affects a family system,” says Levine. “Family members go through their own phases of addiction recovery, so self-care is critical.” Parents need to develop long-term coping skills. This may include individual therapy, support groups and 12-step groups like Alanon. It will also help to have a friend who can listen and a therapist to guide you. Parents may benefit from couple’s counseling while learning how to deal with a drug addicted daughter or son.
4. Set healthy boundaries to avoid enabling. Part of self-care is protecting yourself from harm and finding the strength to withstand emotional manipulation. But you also have to set boundaries for your child’s sake. “Boundaries could be a myriad of things parents are in control of,” says Hearn. “Don’t be afraid of boundaries. Kids thrive with structure and accountability, and that starts with the parents. For example, don’t give them money,” she says. “And trust your gut.” Also consider these boundaries:
- Go to the store with them if they need you to buy them something.
- Buy gift cards rather than offering cash.
- Don’t allow them to hang out with drug-abusing friends.
- Take away the car.
- Download apps that allow you to track their location.
- Don’t let them drink or use drugs in your house “because it’s safer.”
“There are many great resources out there, including family contracts,” adds Hearn. “These specifically outline actions or tasks the child must complete or must avoid, and what the consequences of not following through will be. They outline specific actions the parents agree to take or avoid and how they will be responsible for their actions. It makes both parties accountable.”
5. Protect material assets. Parents may enable addiction by unwittingly allowing access to valuable items. “Your loved one may be stealing things from you,” warns Katie Ziskind, a holistic family therapist. “You may find jewelry, a musical instrument or other expensive items missing from your home.” This is especially common with young adults, who may take items and pawn them for drug money. “Make sure you have a lockbox for valuables you do not want stolen.”
6. Remove them from the situation. Many people develop drug addictions in their teens and continue with a drug habit that impacts their ability to live a normal life. Others start using drugs in college or as young adults. As soon as you recognize the problem, try to remove your loved one from the situation, even if it means losing money on tuition or dorms.
7. Get an accurate diagnosis. Many parents discover there is an underlying mental health issue fueling their child’s drug use. A benefit of getting your child into therapy or residential drug rehab is that you can get a complete picture of co-occurring mental health conditions. In dual diagnosis treatment, your child can receive help for all conditions at the same time.
8. Professional intervention. You may feel you’ve reached the end of your rope as you try to figure out how to deal with an addicted son or daughter. A crisis, such as getting kicked out of school, losing a job, or getting into an accident or legal trouble, may illuminate the need for change. Some parents decide to stage an addiction intervention to help get their addicted child into treatment before things get worse. Professional interventionists help create a psychologically and physically safe environment to convince a son or daughter to accept drug or alcohol treatment.
Look for the Light at the End of the Tunnel
“The journey for parents can be long and hard. It can feel never-ending at times, but there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says Hearn. “I have worked with many young people who got sober and now work in the field giving back. The earlier the intervention, the better. Youth are resilient and don’t have to let the rest of their lives be defined by what they are going through right now.”
“Parents should know and remind themselves often that it is not their fault,” Hearn continues. “Addiction does not happen because of poor parenting efforts. It is a biological brain disease and there is treatment – not just for the addicted son or daughter, but for the whole family.”