Parents are hardwired to love and protect their child from birth to death no matter what. That is how human beings thrive and survive.
When a child reaches adolescence and young adulthood and is unable to hit the expected benchmarks toward adulthood, parents begin to worry. When parents worry, they naturally bring out their best tools and try to help by encouraging, coaching, nudging, assisting, praising, punishing, teaching, modeling and as a last resort, seeking the help of professionals.
Parents of troubled teens or young adults ask themselves “Why isn’t my child succeeding in life? Is it my fault? Maybe it’s just a phase. Could it be the friends they associate with? I know my child. She wouldn’t take drugs or drink.” Denial and minimizing is a common first response for parents whose child seems to be slipping through their fingers.
When children are very young, the solution to a problem is typically in the hands of the parent. Parents do more of what they know how to do. Later on in their child’s development, parents feel lost and afraid when that approach no longer works.
Older children are a mystery to most parents. They have secrets. They don’t communicate. Their moods are up and down. They are changing at lightning speed, which is terrifying to a parent. When the underlying problem is addiction and/or serious mental health issues, no parent is fully prepared for the “tsunami” ahead.
In my years of experience working with two-parent families facing addiction (whether together or separated), the parents rarely agree on the appropriate approach with a struggling young addict. Their relationship dynamic begins to polarize on the “problem” where one parent is over-reacting and the other is balancing the scales by minimizing. The truth is that they are both terrified. Their world is falling apart.
In most cases, unless they get professional help, a pattern of unintentional enabling will begin for both parents. Tough love is counter-intuitive to loving parents.
Enabling Behaviors of Parents
Disbelief and denial that your child could be an addict
Covering up the problem due to parental guilt and shame
Attempting to make life easier as a solution by giving money or gifts not earned, expecting less from them, removing responsibilities, etc.
Overlooking bad behavior to keep peace
Obsessing about their child to the exclusion of others and themselves
Trusting the promises of an addict
Inconsistency – not following through with logical consequences, preventing natural consequences
Giving the addict the “benefit of the doubt” when they have not earned it
Forgiving too quickly
Blaming his or her peers
Seeking a simple and quick solution
Reluctant to face reality for fear of losing your child’s trust if you snoop
Believing the addict’s lies – the fact is that teenagers and young adult addicts will rarely tell the truth of their problem until they are ready to change
The Solution for Enabling Parents
Parents, even those who are separated, need to get on the same page and take their lives back – it’s important to get professional help for yourselves.
Educate yourselves about addiction and recovery.
Once you have found help for your child, it’s time to care for yourself.
Stick with it regardless of the status of your child. Addicts need to see that you are not going to continue enabling and may begin to help themselves. Be patient, it may take a while.
Find support in 12 step groups such as Al Anon, Parents Anonymous, Nar- Anon, or Parent Support Groups.
Be supportive of each other when you feel the fear of losing your child. Feelings come and go. Expressing them to your partner or a friend helps but don’t get stuck in your fear.
Accept the fact that this is going to be a long road with many ups and downs. Young people do not magically recover. Their immaturity and possible complications of mental illness makes it difficult to diagnose and treat.
Family involvement, including siblings, is essential for recovery to take hold.
Understand that your child needs to earn your trust slowly. Believe what you see, not what they say.
Your child who is struggling with addiction will be very angry at you. That is a sign of the beginning of change. Use self-care and tools to manage your reactions.
Remember that you and your family are important. Siblings of the addict deserve the love and attention of their parents. Be honest with them in an age appropriate manner.
If you are on the path to mental and emotional health, it is better for all concerned. Don’t go down with the ship when an addict is struggling. Continue on your path regardless of the status of others.
Parents who decide to seek treatment for their children should do their research in order to find the most appropriate program. There are many different treatment facilities out there that offer a variety of services, so it’s important to find the one with specific elements that best fits your child’s needs.
Many effective treatment programs take the load off the family when their loved ones are admitted, while still keeping them well-integrated into the treatment process as addiction is a family disease.
There are resources and materials that can help guide you when searching for the right treatment center, such as this industry paper.
Prepare to be changed for the better from this experience. Parents in recovery support groups that I have spoken to are committed to their own well-being and their family and say that through this trial, they have found a better way to live and improve family relationships.
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