A Message to Parents
Most parents of suffering addicts agonize over these questions: Why is this happening? Can’t they just stop? How can they be so self destructive? Why do they keep hurting themselves and everyone else? Is my son or daughter just a bad person? Are they simply insane? Why isn’t my help and love enough?
By Shayne Sundholm, CEO
Sick not bad
In fact, your son or daughter is not a bad person trying to become good. The addict is simply a very sick person who needs to get well.
A person deep in their addiction is temporarily insane. This is hard for many parents to comprehend let alone accept. Your child is not suffering from a character flaw or moral issue. They are suffering from a chronic disease that is often fatal if not treated effectively.
As parents, you are no more able to “cure” your child in active addiction than you would be if they had diabetes or cancer. However, parents can unknowingly make the situation worse if they are not well versed in drug and alcohol addiction.
Most well-intentioned efforts will likely have little affect, unless:
- You are a highly skilled therapist specializing in addiction,
- You are in recovery with a strong recovery program,
- You have successfully worked with someone in recovery,
- You have successfully recovered from drug and/or alcohol addiction yourself.
What to avoid
It is important, even critical, that parents avoid criticizing and name calling whenever possible. Addiction feeds on these things. It feeds on failure, disappointment, hurt and negativity. Your child already feels hopelessly lost.
Remember, as much as everyone else is affected by the addict, no one is suffering more than they are. This may hard for you to believe, but the guilt, remorse, and shame felt by a suffering addict is almost indescribable. It is a major reason why your child continues to use.
He or she is unable to deal with the pain of what they have done; they get high to numb it out. More destructive behavior occurs, and they feel even more guilt, remorse and shame. So what do they do? They get high again, and this vicious cycle continues getting worse each time.
If left untreated, the disease of addiction inevitably results in one or more of these things happening to the addict: 1) They end up in jail, 2) They are institutionalized, 3) They die directly or indirectly from the untreated disease.
As parents, you may be tempted to practice what some call “tough love.” In reality, love is never tough. Love is love and can be expressed in many forms, but “tough” is not one of them. While you want to help and support your child, be careful not to enable them. This does not mean tough love. It means you love your child enough not to enable them into further sickness or even death.
However, this can be difficult. Here’s why – A person in the depths of addiction may become extremely manipulative. This is necessary to continue to feed the disease – lying, stealing, cheating or worse are commonplace.
You have probably been shocked at how incredibly convincing your child has been in their deception. It is important that you recognize this behavior as a symptom of their disease. Giving in to requests such as demands for money, food, drugs or vehicles, will almost certainly do your child far more harm than good.
Giving in to these demands is not love although you may think it is. That said, not giving in to these demands is not “tough love.” It is a true expression of love. You are demonstrating to your child that you love them so much you will not enable them into the grave.
What can parents do?
The best advice for parents of an addict is to learn everything you can about the disease. Groups like AL anon can be extremely helpful. There is also a great deal of online content and many books that can be extremely helpful.
Familiarize yourself with the different programs and approaches. Try to empower your suffering child and urge them to seek treatment, whatever that might look like. In addition, there is a very high probability that you and your spouse may need to seek your own therapy.
Be honest with friends and family members and don’t minimize your child’s disease. This can be very tempting but also try not to rationalize your child’s behavior. Remember, addiction is nothing to be ashamed of. You would not be ashamed of your child if they had cancer, diabetes or any other disease.
Be an objective witness to your child, helping them understand that they are very ill and need help, possibly with the aid and advice of other people in recovery or experienced in recovery. Don’t make them feel wrong or judged.
Focus on the good
Most importantly, try to love your child unconditionally and focus on what is right with them. In many cases, they are very good people who have great lives and careers ahead of them.
They are often exceptionally smart and talented with much to offer society once they are well. Ensure that your child understands that you are there to support them, are willing to help them but you will not enable them.