April 4, 2017

Addiction in the Family – A different approach

When fear, guilt and shame are the foundational component of our parental emotions, healthy and balanced decision making suffers. When our objective is to minimize the fallout or the publicity in a family crisis, the allocation of time to think strategically about the best options, solutions, and strategies is diminished. No parent wants to discover they could have made better decisions, yet they assume this risk every time their fearful, reactive behaviors drive the decision-making process.

There are two paths to dealing with that initial shocking experience that your child is in serious trouble with something like addiction. One is the path of fear, shame, and guilt. On this path, a parent projects their own feelings of failure and disappointment into the decisions, choices, and behaviors of their child. On this path, judgement and condemnation become an integral component of the interactive dynamic.

What were you thinking? How could you do this? Do you realize what this means for your life? Do you want to live like…? What are you going to do now? We are not going to let you ruin your life!  

I know the frustration, hurt and disappointment associated with being in an unimaginable situation. I couldn’t believe my son completely ruined what appeared to be a well-chosen path perfectly suited for his hopes, dreams, and ambitions. I was devastated when I realized he had lost everything. All I really wanted to do was shake him into an appropriate reality to the situation and help him realize what he had done to his life. Much of the tone of our conversations followed this path of my critical, judgmental thought, combined with an intense, intrusive effort to force a change in his behavior and get his life back on track.

Years later, I finally discovered what he was going through. It wasn’t until I realized what he was experiencing in his life, his struggles, and what he really needed from me was I was able to change my behaviors. He didn’t need my help to turn his life around as defined by my rules, requirements and expectations, he needed me to stand with him, to better understand his pain, his frustrations, and his difficulties. His addiction was about me, his recovery was about me.  He didn’t need it to be about me, he needed me, his Dad, and have it be all about him.

There is another path. It is called the path of love and understanding. Imagine the potential impact of this conversation when we find ourselves in this painful, difficult and troubling situation:

“Son, I love you more than you know or realize. Your mom and I love you so much we would do anything to assist you in getting through what you are struggling with. I don’t know what is getting in the way of your peace, your joy and your happiness, but we are going to work with you to figure it out and better understand what is going on. All we know how to do is love you. We don’t know what to do next or what you need from us. Please know that we are committed to walking through this with you. We may not always get it right as we continue to learn and grow through this experience; but, we hope that you will trust enough to know we will do our best and not bring ridicule, shame, or condemnation into this situation. The most important objective is that you are able to experience our love as we walk this out together. Please trust us and know we here. What can we do to help?”

Imagine the power that comes when a child knows they can be completely safe in their parent’s arms in their darkest, most difficult hour. Please, take a moment to reflect on what is possible as you release your own feelings to the power of selfless, unconditional love for your child and begin this journey of discovery and understanding together. Will it go smoothly, will it be easy, will it be simple? Probably not. This is not about easy or convenient, this is about living your loving commitment on a path designed to draw the family closer in their difficulty and learning to walk out this problem together.

From my personal experiences, the entire family dynamic relating to my son’s addiction changed when I started on this path. It still took a long time for my son to reach a point where he chose to work on his recovery. But, this was not why I chose this path. I embraced this approach because I was committed to healing our broken relationship. Despite his inability to make a personal commitment to his recovery, our interactions continued to improve as we discovered new ways to love and trust each other, even if everything wasn’t perfect.

I would love to hear from you. What issues are confronting you today? Where are you currently experiencing fear and shame relating to the struggles in your life? I have some pretty cool tools to guide you and would love to help.  Please let me know: dave@100Pedals.com.

Some other blogs you may find interesting:

Letting emotions get in your way

Ozzie and Harriet are long gone

Building a bridge to trust



Addiction in the Family, featured, Parenting and Addiction , , , , , ,
About Dave Cooke

  1. Hi Dave,
    What a beautiful blog. Thank you for sharing that we are not alone, and helping us be the best parents for our addicted children. Your words and guidance are so welcome each time I receive your work.
    Much Love,

    • Tammy, thanks for your comments. No one ever wants to think we have failed our children. Parenting is an awesome and beautiful responsibility. When things go awry, it is easy to think we may have messed up. Hoping these blogs help remind parents and refocus them on the opportunities to bring love, hope, and encouragement to their children in the “normal” chaos of life.

  2. This is so powerful, Dave. My husband and I are thankfully at the place of love and forgiveness after years of fear and anger. In our exasperation of trying to “fix” him, our son is now in recovery, though struggling with anxiety. He can work, but just recently lost his job. We are trying to be patient as he goes through the process once again of finding work.
    It is hard to not feel guilt having forced our son through “tough love” into some terrifying situations. But we are talking, and healing every single day.

    • Mindy, thanks for your comments. It is definitely a learning and growth process to be a parent in this situation. You are doing the work on yourself and discovering what healthy interactions look like. Guilt is a normal part of the process. Happy to hear you have found perspective and awareness that gives you the ability to distance yourself from areas that do not require your participation.

  3. Thankyou for your post,I can completely relate to this as I have lived with my son’s alcoholism for 15 years and sadly I got it so wrong until I sought help for myself I chose al-anon which made me realise it was me that had to change.although he continues to drink we have a peaceful and loving relationship with no blame, shame or conflict

  4. Dave, that conversation/letter to your son is so beautiful. You have there what so many concerned family and friends don’t get. If you asked anyone who has a substance problem if they are choosing to have the problem I guarantee, most, in an honest moment, are going to tell you of course they would rather not have the problem. They are not choosing to have it. Circumstances and contributing factors not all under their control brought them to have it. Unwinding the circumstances and contributing factors will get them beyond it eventually, but it was much easier going in than it will be getting out. Family members’ and friends’ empathy and understanding are the very best ways they can contribute because only then, when they ask how they can help, will they find out how they really can.

    • Spookie, thanks for your comments and the encouraging, insightful words. This requires a big shift in perspective for many. Once they make it, the impact is incredible. It doesn’t guarantee recovery, but it does promise a much more fulfilling interaction with the ones we love most.

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