Substance abuse: How to practice tough love with an adult child

January 8, 2013 at 1:20 pm in Family & Relationships by VN Editors

You know that your children are supposed to make mistakes when they’re kids, but once they become adults you expect them to start learning from their mistakes – and stop making them. What if this doesn’t happen? What if your child continues to abuse substances? You need to learn how to practice tough love with your adult child, and find out how to stop enabling their behavior.

The Blame Game

Parenting Pathway featured an in-depth article about the guilt associated with having an addicted child, and how emotionally damaging it can be. When something is wrong in the life of an adult child, parents commonly blame themselves. You may feel guilty, even ashamed, because your adult child is abusing drugs and/or alcohol. This is a common reaction. Our children are reflections of ourselves, and when that image isn’t so pretty many parents feel pain, sadness, and guilt.

That’s what VN member jbwritergirl felt. She wrote about her experiences with her addicted daughter. One night, the feelings were so overwhelming she very seriously thought of taking her own life.

“I was ashamed that I could have let this happen to my girl,” she admitted. She couldn’t even go to Al-Anon meetings, because it just made the feelings of guilt and shame worse. Instead, she started writing. “This in no way stopped my daughter’s addiction but it helped me get through nearly a decade of self-loathing and hatred of her addiction.”

Her diary became a book, one she finished while sitting in the emergency room. Her daughter, on the way home from drug rehab, had overdosed on heroin. Like many mothers, jbwritergirl was the “glue” of her family. Her writing became the glue that held her together through this harrowing experience. But, she wouldn’t trade it. Living through her daughter’s substance abuse helped her find her voice, and more. “I am stronger than I think,” she writes. “I have the capacity to love no matter what… I have stamina and tenacity.”

And you’ve got it, too. Sometimes, it’s just not so easy to find. First, you have to stop blaming yourself. Your child is not drinking and drugging because you didn’t hug them enough, or because you weren’t strict enough. They’re on their own journey, and somewhere along the way they got derailed. This is not your fault. It’s also not your fault that you can’t force your child into getting better.

The Decision to Come Clean

“I am a 30 year drug addict,” said VN member Nettiedogg, who is now thankfully 6 years sober. She says addicts “will not stop” until they decide they’re ready to do so. “There is nothing that you or anyone else can say or do to make [your child] end that abuse… I went to jail and even prison, but not even a Judge’s order to rehab stopped me and I still came out and used each time.” Once Nettiedogg realized that she was killing herself, and took a hard look at her actions, she was able to decide to stop… and that’s when she did.

Addicts cannot change until they are the ones who want to change. No matter how strong your will, you can’t change them for themselves.

Stop Enabling

You can’t make their minds up for them, but there is something you can do when your adult child is abusing drugs and/or alcohol: stop enabling. Stop giving them money, food, shelter, assistance with any criminal charges… just stop.

“Truly you are only enabling [the] addition,” explains VN member Nettiedogg. “If [your child] always has a place to lay his head, food to eat, and money in his pockets…he will never get up and get those things for himself.” And the abuse will continue.

In the meantime, focus on keeping your life on track. Be compassionate, be forgiving, be ready to greet your child with open arms. Just don’t open up your pocketbook to them, not anymore. This is the first step in tough love: start giving only love. Love isn’t written on a check and it can’t be put in a grocery bag full of food. Love is warm and welcoming, kind and forgiving. You can give them all of that, but you cannot give them the tools to continue their addiction.

“I’m focused on my life and positives in it,” said VN member LucyBHoffman, who went through a sad break with her son. They stopped communicating because of his addiction, but she’s carrying on. “I am keeping my eyes on the wonders around me — those things that make me want to wake up in the morning and embrace the incredible good that has come my way.”

VN member jenib is a former addict. Finally, her parents cut off their financial support. It put jenib on the path to recovery – but it’s a rocky path, make no mistake. She stole things, and found other ways to get a fix. “Got prescriptions from doctors, returned things to stores for cash…even forgery which landed me in jail,” she wrote. “I thank my parents for saying no and making addiction too hard to deal with.”

Working Through It

You love your child, but that doesn’t mean you are equipped to deal with their addiction. Unless you are a trained professional or addiction specialist, you can’t help. Even giving them a place to live can be bad for you.

VN member ann athraby took in her addicted son in an attempt to help him, and suffered abuse for it. “He shouts at me, orders me about. Smashes things and now he is cutting himself,” she wrote.

Your child may need professional care. There are rehab centers and hospitals which can provide them with exactly what they need. “Call in the professionals and, whatever you do, stop feeling like you should be supermom and handle this all on your own,” advises VN member ThurmanLady.

That’s part of tough love, too – letting go. You might have to let your child go, or even force them to go, so they can get the sort of help they need. You can’t give it to them, and you have to be the one to realize that. Don’t just give tough love to your child – give it to yourself as well.

You can help and support them without enabling them. Good Therapy recommends paying for the treatment program, if and when they are ready to pursue one, but be sure to pay the bills directly instead of through your offspring.

Sometimes, you just can’t help. You have to watch them fall down without rushing forward to kiss the boo-boo, see them struggle and suffer without running to the rescue…watch them hit rock bottom, and hope they can survive it and be better for it. Tough love isn’t about the way you treat your child, it’s about how well you’re able to resist helping them.

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