FOR PARENTS ONLY:
6 Addiction FAQs You Need Answers To Now
At most support group meetings for parents of addicted children, the point of the gathering is to share, listen, and learn. This is incredibly helpful for parents. It certainly has been for me.
However, during these meetings, you’re generally not supposed to ask for advice from the group. Even urgent questions like: “My son is using drugs every day, I’m furious at him, I can’t sleep, and I’m worried he is going to die. What should I do?”
That’s word for word what I wanted to ask once at a parent support meeting. But I knew I couldn’t, so I didn’t. Desperate as I was to ask it, that wasn’t the venue for questions.
But this is. So I’m going to tackle six tough ones that many parents have about their addicted children. And yes, I include a question you’re going to recognize.
My answers are based on my experience as the father of a wonderful young man who was addicted to drugs and alcohol for 10 years, and who has now been in recovery for three.
I hope these answers provide you some comfort and clarity. You deserve that.
QUESTION #1: My son is using drugs every day, I’m furious at him, I can’t sleep, and I’m worried he is going to die. What should I do?
In answering this question, I go almost immediately to what you need to do for you, not your child.
Regarding your child, you probably need to talk to him about it and hopefully get him to be honest with you about what’s next and how you can support him. You likely need to insist that he seeks treatment, especially if he is living with you and wants to continue doing so.
And yes, you may want to help him locate an addiction treatment center and facilitate him getting there for an assessment to see what level of care he needs. If he’s not ready to take that step, urge him to see a doctor or family therapist. They can advise him on next steps.
Beyond those and a few other basics of support you can provide, some of the most important actions you can take right now concern you. These include:
- Setting up boundaries and expectations that protect you. Things like no drugs in the home, no entering the home high, always keeping in touch via text, and letting you know where she is if she is out late. In other words, anything that maintains order, routine, standards in the home, and helps you sleep at night.
- Sharing with your family and friends. This tough situation with your addicted child is not something you want to keep bottled up. It’s almost always better, and healthier, to share, vent, discuss, and seek counsel. Doing so can lift a huge amount of weight off your shoulders.
- Making (more) time for you. This means maintaining your exercise routine, getting proper sleep, eating healthy, continuing with your meditation classes (or starting them), and so on. Those things aren’t “nice to haves” right now. They’re essential for keeping your sanity.
- Attending therapy or parent support meetings. Both of these can be amazingly helpful to you during this tough time. In both cases, you’re hearing from the experts, which is a big comfort. And as with your exercise and health regimens, this isn’t selfish behavior. You need and deserve this support.
QUESTION #2: If my adult daughter keeps using drugs in our home even when I’ve told her it’s not allowed, should I kick her out?
Not to do a copout here, but this is a very tough question to answer. Because it depends on the circumstances. It’s case by case.
The big problem: If you allow her to stay, that means you’re probably enabling her, and her behavior will likely continue because of it.
Whereas, if you tell her to hit the road and not come back ‘til she’s ready to get help, you’re going to be terrified that something will happen to her once she leaves, and you may end up blaming yourself if it does.
That’s an agonizing choice. And it’s one my wife and I had to deal with more than once with our son.
Here’s how that went down…
In the first several years of our son’s substance use disorder, we almost always opted for allowing him to stay—with stipulations. If he abused our house rules, he would lose car or phone privileges, he’d be grounded, he’d lose financial support for certain things, and so on. The point was to make him feel some pain for his actions.
Long story short, this you-can-stay-as-long-as-you-do-this strategy mostly failed. Either we couldn’t hold the line, or we did hold the line, but that didn’t result in him modifying his behavior.
Eventually, we asked him to leave, and we stuck with that strategy for years. No, he didn’t find sobriety right away because of it, but at least he wasn’t using under our roof and causing disruption, anger, and constant in-your-face worry. We still felt all those things, we just felt them at a significantly reduced level because we weren’t witnessing his behavior. He had less power over us in that way.
For us, that was significant. It was progress. And I believe it hastened his movement toward recovery as well. It hurt him to not be part of the family. That had to sting. And it must’ve made him think, do I really want to live like this? Is this really who I am?
QUESTION #3: I want to help my son with his substance use disorder, but part of me also wants to leave him to his mess to sink or swim. Any thoughts on this?
I certainly get the urge to wash your hands of the whole thing. But in my experience and from what I’ve learned from other parents, it’s usually best to stay engaged and try to help—at least to a point. Because you can. Because you love him. Because you’re his parent. And because—whether your son realizes it or not—he needs your help.
The entire key, however, is to help him not enable him. The difference between those two can be subtle, but critical, so let me briefly explain it.
Enabling is allowing someone with SUD to continue in their self-destructive behavior by covering for him, making excuses for him, and bailing him out of his debts and his trouble.
Put simply, enabling is doing things for someone that he would normally do for himself if he were sober.
The usual result of enabling is further self-destructive behavior because the person with SUD doesn’t feel the consequences of his behavior. The enabler keeps bailing him out.
If you think you may be enabling, and are determined to help instead, you might start with this five-point plan:
- Stop doing things he can do for himself.
- Stop taking on his responsibilities.
- Stop rescuing him from legal trouble.
- Stop loaning him money.
- Stop making excuses and/or lying for him.
Helping, on the other hand, often aims at the longer-term, such as paying for a GED or college course, or pitching in a percentage of rent money until your child gets on his feet with a new job.
It also includes everyday commonsense support like helping him get to a meeting or therapy session, listening without judging when he opens up about his situation, and just trying to stay positive and constructive in your dealings with him.
Enabling is almost always about a short-term quick fix or bail out, because your child has gotten himself into an addiction-related jam.
Helping usually emphasizes, rewards, or supports a positive action or behavior, as opposed to fixing a negative one.
QUESTION #4: I’m frequently angry at my daughter for abusing drugs and alcohol. Sometimes, I feel like I almost hate her. What can I do?
For me, anger is about control. More to the point, we parents often get angry when we can’t control our addicted child.
You want to stop her from using and self-destructing. You want her to see what she’s doing to her life. And most of all you want her to get better. But when she’s not complying with any of that, there’s not much you can do about it.
And. That. Is. Maddening.
I’ve been there. Anger was my go-to emotion for the first few years of my son’s drug and alcohol problems. Usually it was triggered by my son’s attitude and behavior. Early on, I didn’t see it as an addiction issue, I just thought he was being an incredibly disrespectful, pig-headed, rebellious young person who wasn’t doing what he was told.
I wasn’t able to control his behavior, so I got angry about it.
However, once I realized that he was under the sway of substance use disorder, that he wasn’t willfully doing these things because of youthful rebellion, and that I couldn’t control it regardless, I was usually able to shift away from anger to more manageable emotions.
When I was able to attain it, my new mindset felt more like empathy, with a healthy dose of letting go. This helped me be more patient, less reactive, and way less angry.
QUESTION #5: My son is in recovery after many years of addiction. How can I best support him?
I have a lot of thoughts on this one. Here’s what has worked for us:
Try to forgive. Not just your son, but also yourself. With your son, chances are he did and said some things that really hurt you when he was in active addiction. People in that state often do.
But remember, that wasn’t really him. That was him on drugs or alcohol. So it’s important now to try and forgive him for his transgressions, and move on.
Chances are also good that you said or did some things during your son’s troubles that you regret as well. None of us are perfect, and we don’t always deal with our addicted children as well as we might. It’s a difficult situation and there’s no roadmap for it, so we do our best.
He’s in recovery now, so try to let yourself off the hook.
Be there for him if you’re needed. Let him know you have his back, and are 100 percent behind his recovery efforts. Also, try to keep the lines of communication open, as he may want to talk about his time in addiction, his recovery efforts, or his future plans. His outreach efforts may happen at unexpected times, so try to be open to them.
He’s in charge of his recovery, not you, but if he knows you still love and respect him, and sees that you’re still on his side, that will be a huge help to him.
Stay positive. This is a key strategy at any stage of your child’s addiction journey. You and your son have likely been through a lot, so celebrate the gift of recovery for as long as it lasts—which is hopefully forever. Let him know often how happy and grateful you are that he is committed to sobriety. Hooray!
Maintain a healthy distance. This is another strategy that works well at all stages of addiction. With your son in recovery, it’s important to strike a balance. You want to be there for support, but you can’t do the hard work of recovery for him. That’s his job.
Be wary of looking over his shoulder, and of getting into his business. That signals that you don’t trust him or are worried about him, which is understandable but probably not helpful in the end. Again, this is his deal. Give him some space, and hope for the best. You don’t have that much control over the outcome regardless.
Keep your expectations reasonable. When our son got out of rehab the final time, and finished his IOP, there was a long period of adjustment for all of us. For example, I remember having to come to terms with the idea that just because he was in recovery now, everything wasn’t suddenly rosy. His life, prospects, and attitude didn’t miraculously improve right away. He still had lots of work to do to make all that happen. And eventually it did.
Early on in his recovery, we all needed to get our heads around the idea of incremental change. Small adjustments. Steady progress. Two steps forward with the occasional step back.
Keep living your life. Once again, this one is so critical wherever your son is on the addiction/recovery continuum. If you let your life be taken over by your child’s substance use disorder or his recovery from it, you won’t be any good to anyone. Look after yourself and your other family members, maintain that focus on your job and other responsibilities, and keep doing your thing.
QUESTION #6: I feel ashamed and embarrassed that my daughter has SUD. What can I do about that?
Being the parent of a young adult with substance use disorder is hard. It’s one of the toughest things a parent will ever face. It’s scary. It’s a monster source of anxiety. And it can feel unrelenting.
But in my opinion, it doesn’t need to be embarrassing for us parents, or a source of shame.
If my son willfully committed a crime and hurt someone in the process, I would feel shame about that. If he had low moral character and often took advantage of vulnerable people, I would be embarrassed by that. If he only ever thought of himself and constantly lied to get his way, I would be ashamed and embarrassed that I raised someone like that.
Substance use disorder is completely different from those scenarios. It’s a brain disease like anxiety disorder or depression or PTSD. More broadly, it’s an illness or health condition in the same way that diabetes or cancer are illnesses. So I would ask you, would you be embarrassed or feel shame if your daughter had cancer? Diabetes? Depression?
From what I’ve read and from what I’ve heard from other parents, it’s often the case that when you feel shame about your child’s SUD, there’s a good chance you’re buying into the social stigma that is still associated with the disease. To me, that’s outmoded thinking.
It’s not accurate to believe that only bad, morally weak people become addicted. Or that people with SUD have less willpower than others. Or that people become addicted because their parents didn’t raise them right.
None of that has any basis in fact or evidence—clinically, socially, psychologically, or otherwise.
My bottom line: I’ve never been ashamed of my son, and never will be, for having SUD. He deserves better than that from me.