20 Suggestions for Parents—Dealing with Addiction in the Home

Although many years have now passed since my husband and I went through the heart-wrenching, horrible experiences with our son, Jonathan, during his early years of addiction, it still reduces me to tears when I think about all the pain and agony we experienced as a family. While I don’t like remembering these things, I’m willing to talk about the problems we had with the hope that others will not make the same mistakes we did.

While the suggestions I give apply specifically to parents who have children abusing drugs and alcohol, they may also be helpful to the families of those suffering from any kind of addiction or compulsive behavior. While the faces and ages may vary considerably within the scene of addiction, the family problems every family has to deal with are predictable. Whenever there is addiction, everyone suffers.

We’ve been asked many times if we were in denial about our son’s drug use. The answer is, “Of course we were in denial.” If we couldn’t see it, it must not be happening, right? Wrong.

When I would lie awake at night trying to comprehend the insanity going on in our home, I would try to understand what other people were telling us, but it was impossible. My heart simply could not accept what my mind refused to believe.

The classic signs of substance abuse were all there—the change in my son’s appearance, the change in friends, the problems at school and decline in grades, the continual disruptions at home, the secretive life. I attributed all these signs to adolescence and my son’s desire for independence. It didn’t seem possible that he would reject everything his father and I had tried to teach him.

Neither my husband nor I had ever smoked a cigarette or had a drink of alcohol or tried drugs. We just cheerfully followed the religious teachings we had been raised with and thought we had taught our children to do the same. We didn’t have the personal experience or the coping skills to deal with something so totally foreign to our way of life.

We found out that drugs could be hidden anywhere. Secret hideouts were created in the most unlikely places inside or outside our home. Slowly we came to realize that our home was really not the protective, safe haven we had so diligently tried to create for ourselves and our children. The happy home environment we desired had been destroyed.

Fortunately, a “druggie” lifestyle can only be hidden for so long. Eventually, a person does hit a bottom—even temporarily—and parents do find out what’s been going one. For us, our son was experimenting with drugs and alcohol for about two years before our eyes were finally opened. We could not believe all the deceit that had gone on behind our backs.

The escalating drama of the druggie lifestyle, which we were being pulled into so unwillingly, seemed unreal One frightening night, a police officer showed up at our door asking to see our son. I found out later that as I was walking up the stairs to tell him to come down he hurriedly flushed his drugs down the toilet and jumped out his second-story bedroom window. Then he ran away and hid for several days. This kind of emotional turmoil continued for years.

I now encourage other parents to watch for both the classic signs of alcohol and drug abuse and also the subtle, hidden signs. If you see any signs at all, believe them. Do not do as we did. We just tried to continue living a “normal” life, like ostriches with our heads in the sand, hoping that the insanity would go away if we simply ignored it. We finally learned that a drug problem doesn’t go away by itself.

Addiction is a terrible, progressive disease, but it’s not an individual disease. It is a family disease. Whether we liked it or not, or believe it or not, the disease of addiction had an enormous, negative impact on every member or our family. It was a challenge we had to face together.

When talking about addiction, the issue of young people smoking cigarettes should not be minimized or overlooked. Nicotine is called a “gateway” drug because it is often the drug kids try first—and then it leads them to drinking alcohol and trying other drugs. Sadly, nicotine is often the last drug people are able to quit. Smoking cigarettes is a hard habit to break. Jonathan, who has been addicted to the hardest drugs, has said that the most difficult drug to get off of is nicotine.

If you find out your kids are smoking, drinking, or doing drugs, keep expressing your love to them, but do take a firm stand. Show concern for their physical and emotional health, and try to help them devise a plan to stop.

It is important to reach out and talk to other parents who have already dealt with addiction in the home and seek advice from good counselors and other professionals. Adolescence can be such a confusing time. Be the source of strength that your child needs you to be, and act like a mature adult, not an angry adolescent yourself.

Hindsight is always a great teacher, but sadly, hindsight doesn’t take away the emotional pain caused by making bad decisions. We learned the hard way that we should never make decisions when we were feeling stressed and upset. My counsel to other parents is to try not to overreact, like we usually did. When faced with challenges within your family, try to stay calm, look at things from a long-term perspective, and make decisions wisely—not in haste.

Take time to pray about your many decisions, and be sure to get a good night’s sleep before making all major decisions.  During the night, or in the early morning hours, you will often receive inspiration that will prompt you to go in the right direction. You can’t think clearly when you are angry, anxious, or depressed. You need a cooling-off period to make good decisions for yourself and your family. Through prayer, all correct decisions will be accompanied by a confirming feeling of peace. You will know what is right to do.

I wish I’d known many years ago everything I’ve learned about dealing with all the issues parents have to face when they find out their child is abusing alcohol and drugs—but maybe now I can help someone who is walking this path. These are twenty suggestions I would like to share.

1. Do not panic

When you’re emotionally distraught, you’re more likely to make rash decisions for your child and yourself that you will later regret. Try to replace the labels you might have put on your child—such as “bad” with “sad”—and you’ll do better keeping the drug issue in its proper perspective and maintaining your emotional equilibrium. In reality, your child who is addicted is dealing with great emotional turmoil, and possibly even physical pain, and needs help. You must always remind yourself to stay calm.

2. Do not blame yourself

You aren’t responsible for all of your children’s successes, nor for all of their failures. While you can contribute to both, children are responsible for the choices they make. Always remember—you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it. As a parent, your job is to let your children own the consequences of their choices. At the same time, you must be an anchor for them so they will be able to come back to you when they sincerely want help. Focus on the things you have done right as a parent and don’t dwell on the things you might have done wrong. Just try to do a little better each day.

3. Do not make excuses or shield from the law

It’s better to let your children suffer the consequences of their behavior while they’re under the age of eighteen and can still be tried under juvenile law. Once they turn eighteen, they’ll be tried as adults. The consequences they’ll receive will be much more severe, and their criminal record will be permanent. Be aware of how you enable your children. Enabling, or continuing to allow, your children’s irresponsible or illegal behavior not only prolongs the misery for you, but also for them. Don’t protect them from being fully responsible for their actions. If your children are already adults, don’t rescue them. They won’t change their behavior until they learn to be responsible by being held accountable for the choices they are making.

4. Learn all you can about the disease of addiction.

Knowledge is power. Learn about addiction and the many different philosophies regarding recovery. AA and Al-Anon use the original 12-step program and have enlightening literature, as do advocates of entirely different points of view. Reading about addiction from first-hand experience is especially touching and insightful, and there are many biographies written by former drug addicts. I believe there are many ways to recover from addiction. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. The Internet is a great resource for learning about addiction and now has many educational and informative websites available. Take the time to read and learn.

5. Get professional help

As with any type of problem, overcoming addiction will be much faster the sooner you start working on the steps to recovery. There are government agencies and many qualified doctors, counselors, and social workers who are trained in this field today and can help educate you on how to deal with addiction’s complex issues. When there is addiction in the family, everyone in the family is affected in one way or another, and the whole family needs help. It is important to discuss your family problems with a counselor who is well trained in the area of addiction. Be aware that there are many different types of counselors. Look around until you find the one that you feel is best for your family. A qualified counselor can look at all the family dynamics going on between the parents and the child who is addicted and give valuable suggestions from an outside point of view. It is imperative for the whole family to learn how to open up lines of communication and really share their honest feelings. Not only do you need to openly discuss your fears and frustrations, but everyone in the family needs an opportunity to express their feelings and opinions. You need to be willing to listen to your children’s points of view whether you agree with them or not. Your children will feel more valued and respected when you take the time to really listen to what they are thinking and feeling. This is where the guidance of a good family counselor is so important. But, do not ever blindly accept the advice given by a family counselor. Think carefully about all the advice you receive, and then be discerning about what changes you want to implement in your home.

6. Choose your rehabilitation program carefully

Rehabilitation programs do have some benefits, but putting your child into a short-term or long-term program is not a decision that should be made in haste. It not only affects the child who is addicted, but it affects everyone in the family. We learned that even if you are in a crisis situation your child can be admitted to a hospital or kept in another safe place while you take time to consider your options. There are some good, structured rehabilitation programs, but there are also some bad ones. Not all programs are what they appear to be on the surface. Some programs may acquaint your child with a whole new group of addicts. You have to weigh all the risks. A bad program has the potential of leaving your child with deep, long-lasting emotional scars. While all programs teach basic recovery principles, they may also be expensive, time consuming, and very disruptive to family life. If you have other children, you must take their needs into consideration also. They still need your time and attention. Try the less invasive programs first. Gradually go up the ladder of available programs when seeking help for your child and your family. Talk to others who have used the program you are interested in, and then carefully discern which program is right for your family.

7. Find a support group and ask for help

You cannot meet all of your needs alone. There is real power in some type of support group. As you cry and laugh together, you’ll comfort and strengthen one another in a way that can only happen with people who understand your pain. You may find support from community groups such as Al-Anon or ToughLove®, or informal groups such as friends, relatives, or church members who have gone through similar experiences. I found the AA 12 Steps, sayings and slogans, and Serenity Prayer, to be useful tools in gaining some peace and clarity back into my life when I was first introduced to them years ago. It will probably be difficult to learn how to accept and love the person who has caused so much pain in your family. A strong support system will help you set your own boundaries so that you don’t get stepped on, but also allow you to start living and loving once again. Addiction causes isolation. While your child who is addicted may choose to isolate from you right now, you must not isolate from your family and friends. Your children will see your example of gaining strength and moving forward in life and may be more willing to find the support they need to break through their own fears and reconnect with your family.

8. Use intervention

While it is true that most people will not stop abusing drugs and alcohol until they hit bottom, you can sometimes bring that bottom “up” with a carefully planned intervention that involves family members, friends, and trained professionals. Work as a team to confront your children and intervene in their lives when necessary. While your children may initially hate you for intervening, they may thank you one day. Often times, they know deep down inside that they are ruining their lives, but they don’t know how to get out of the whirlpool that is pulling them under. While you might make some mistakes in trying to help them, I believe it is better to do something than to do nothing. Hopefully over the years, your children will understand the love, dedication, and courage it took for you to take a firm stand and intervene in their lives.

9. Improve your self-esteem

The common denominator among all people who are addicted is not economic status, race, religion, intelligence, education, or family size. The common denominator is low self-esteem. While you cannot give your child high self-esteem, you can be a role model. If you suffer from low self-esteem, look at your own feelings of inadequacy, which may be masked behind some type of self-defeating behavior. When you don’t feel good about yourself, you sometimes quietly withdraw or ridicule and criticize others in an effort to make yourself feel better and then find yourself alienated from your family and friends. But, you can change. Be aware of your own compulsive behaviors (which we all seem to have) and work on your personal recovery. Begin to appreciate yourself for who you are. Accept your weaknesses but focus on your strengths. Learn to be more honest with your feelings and share them with your children. They will learn from your example. Feeling like you can be honest with those you love builds trust, and gives both you and them the freedom to really be yourselves. As you all become more “real” with each other, everyone’s self-esteem will improve dramatically.

10. Build personal and family relationships

By the time you discover your child is using drugs, your family relationships are most likely hanging by a thread. Usually communication has broken down, animosity and anger are filling the home, and no one likes being together anymore. As the parent, you must be the one to break the cycle. Stop being angry and start being nice. You can begin by taking a deep breath, smiling, and using a pleasant tone of voice. Let less important issues slide. Look for the good in your child, and focus on the positive. You have the power to change the emotional climate of your home. Using manipulation, intimidation, coercion, or force to try and control your child’s behavior will never work. Look for golden opportunities to talk to your children when they are receptive—no matter what time of day or night. Share your love and feelings with them when the emotional climate is right. Go on one-on-one “dates” with them. Listen more than you talk. You may hear things you would prefer not to hear; but if you want to get to know your children, bite your tongue and let them express themselves. Each positive experience you have with your child will add another thread of strength to your relationship, and family solidarity will gradually return.

11. Be patient

The personal problems that contributed to the drug experimentation and addiction did not appear overnight, and they will not disappear overnight. In the world we live in today, we expect everything to happen fast. Because of the complex issues that go along with addiction, there is no “quick fix.” You can’t take an antibiotic, get well in a week, and resume your normal life. Addiction affects every area of one’s life: the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and social. To heal completely, each of these areas needs to be addressed—one at a time. Healing from addiction is a gradual process that requires a lifestyle change not only for the individual, but for the whole family as well. Learn to accept the reality that now faces your family. There will be times when you will want to give up because you cannot see real progress, but do not be discouraged. Each time your children fall back into old patterns of behavior, they do not become weaker. Their distressing feelings of regret will actually strengthen their resolve to do it right the next time. Eventually, they can make it. The most important thing to remember about your children’s recovery is that you cannot do it for them. The only person you can really change is yourself. Be a role model for your children. Let them see the everyday happiness you enjoy because of your choice to live a drug-free life.

12. Take care of yourself

Your personal pain and sorrow can fill you with such overwhelming despair that you will not be able to function unless you find an outlet that will help you heal. Resist being codependent. Don’t be so caught up with taking care of others, or trying to control them, that you forget to take care of yourself. Praying and reading the scriptures will quietly strengthen you, ease your emotional pain, and help you see things more clearly and realistically. One thing I did for my outlet was to continue with my hobby of songwriting. I put the emotional pain and loss I was feeling into every song I wrote. I focused on how these songs would someday help other people stay away from drugs. I also kept attending church and gained great spiritual strength from worshipping God and seeing my supportive friends who were there. I forced myself to stay involved in different types of activities. I continued to go forward with our family traditions, even though our family was in chaos at the time. The security from these traditions became an anchor to me and helped me have the necessary emotional stability that I needed to take care of the rest of my family.

13. Get a complete medical and psychological evaluation for your child

Because there is often an underlying physical or psychiatric problem that contributes to children’s addictions, it is essential that they receive thorough medical and psychological evaluations. Some children self-medicate by using alcohol and drugs in order to deal with their continual feelings of depression, anxiety, fatigue, or some other type of health problem. Of course, this only makes their problems worse. Not everyone is in favor of using psychiatric medications, but I believe they are sometimes necessary—if only for a short period of time. When the appropriate medication is combined with good counseling, it can be extremely helpful and therapeutic. Many young people don’t want the stigma of going to a counselor or using psychiatric medication, but it’s a much better alternative than dealing with the serious consequences of drug abuse. With a little time and research, you may be able to find some natural ways of treating physical or psychiatric problems without the use of medication through nutrition, exercise, or other alternative therapies. The most important thing is to do something—don’t ignore medical or psychiatric problems.

14. Be less controlling and more consistent

No matter how much you may want to completely control your children’s lives, you can’t. Children have lives of their own. They think their own thoughts, feel their own feelings, struggle with their own insecurities, and fear their own uncertain futures. Regardless of what you do or don’t do, they will all eventually grow up, turn eighteen, and have the liberty to walk out your front door, live independently, and do as they please. Instead of just trying to control your children now, try to teach them self-control. Through the use of well-thought-out logical or natural consequences, they can eventually learn to be responsible for their own behavior. In the real world, every choice has a consequence. In your home, it should be the same. Make the firm rule that using drugs and alcohol is never allowed. Have consequences in place ahead of time, and follow through consistently whenever that rule is broken. There are many good books written on this subject that can teach you how to use natural or logical consequences.

15. Set your own boundaries

Children who use drugs often try to control the family through their angry outbursts or passive manipulation. They want everything to revolve around them. As the parent, you have to take charge of your own house. While you can’t control their behavior, you can control your own behavior and set your personal boundaries of what you will and will not do. Your life doesn’t have to stop because your child is acting out. There is no need to drop everything because unrealistic demands are being placed on you. Express your love to your child, but go on with your life.

16.  Pray to know what is right for your home

One of the hardest decisions you will have to make as a parent is if you are going to allow your child who is using drugs to live in your home. There are many differing opinions on this subject, and I don’t think there is one right answer. It is my opinion, that if children are under the age of eighteen, you should try to work with them in your home the best you can. If you have other children living at home, it will be difficult to explain to them why a rebellious sibling doesn’t have to follow the same rules they do. But, try to help them understand that a sibling who is addicted needs family support right now. Only through prayer will you come to know what is right for your family. But, you need to make sure your answer is coming from the Lord and not from your emotional heart strings that are being influenced by a rebellious, manipulative child. Always remember, if you feel like you are being manipulated, you are. If children who are using drugs try to abuse their siblings in any way, they should not be allowed to stay. You must always protect any other children who are living in your home at all costs. Children over the age of eighteen should be treated like adults. If family rules are not being followed, they should not be allowed to live in your home until they agree to do so. If they break the rules, they should be asked to leave immediately.

17. Empower yourselves as the parents

When you find out that your child is abusing alcohol or drugs, you need to quickly think through a plan as to how you’re going to deal with the problem. If possible, don’t interrupt children’s education, but if they are only going to school to obtain or use drugs and are failing their classes anyway, it may be necessary to remove them from that environment and the influence of their friends. Encourage your child to attend community drug awareness classes, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, or other type of support group. Stop giving any type of allowance or financial help—most likely the money will be spent on drugs anyway. You can also withhold what I call “house privileges” such as using the car, cell phone, television, radio, i-pod, computer, or Internet. If these restrictions don’t work, you may need to research and find an acceptable short-term rehabilitation program. If you ever feel threatened, do not hesitate to call the police. The safety of you and your family is your first priority. Keep the phone number of police in a visible place. Your child needs to know that the police department is one of your community resources for maintaining peace and order in your home. The strong message you must send to your child is that the use of alcohol and drugs is illegal, and will not be tolerated. As the parent, you must devise a plan, stay in control, and follow through with what you say you are going to do.

18. Accept the worst-case possibilities

Despite doing all you can do as parents, sometimes addiction leads to prison, disappearance, or death. If this should happen in your family, get outside support to help sustain you during this devastating time. Visiting your child in jail or prison is a heart-wrenching experience, but pray for the strength to handle it. Love can still be expressed while sitting in a large room in the company of other inmates behind a heavy, locked metal door or by talking on a telephone while looking through a glass window that separates you from your child. It’s important to do what your heart tells you to do as you maintain contact with them when they are locked up. Remember the scripture, I was in prison and ye came unto me (Matthew 25:36). When children disappear, and you don’t know if they are dead or alive, all you can do is pray and ask God to take over. There were many months when Jonathan was either living on the streets or choosing to avoid us, and we didn’t know if we would ever see him alive again. All we could do was keep hoping and praying that wherever he was that he would be safe. Thankfully, our belief in a life after death brought us a small measure of peace. We knew that through the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ, that even if Jonathan did die, he would also be resurrected someday, and we could be reunited as a family. Complete faith in God and reliance upon our dear Savior became our anchor. We had nothing else to hold on to during those uncertain years that were filled with such great, lingering sadness.

19. Keep an open door

If your children who are addicted are not living at home, help them understand that while you do not approve of their choices and behaviors, you still love them with all your heart. Invite them over for dinner and to family activities when they are sober. Let them feel that they are still an important part of your family unit. However, if you believe your children who use drugs are a danger to your family or to others, they should not be invited to your home. Visit with them somewhere else that you consider to be safe.

20. If you are married, take time to nurture your relationship

Finding out you have a child who is addicted not only puts a strain on your family, it has the capability of driving a wedge between you and your spouse and tearing your marriage apart. Don’t let this happen. Each parent has to deal with the truth about their child in his or her own way, and it’s not going to be easy. Most likely, the dreams you have had for this child since birth are now being shattered, and you probably won’t be able to handle it very well at first. You may both need time to grieve in your own way until you can reach a level of acceptance. But, all is not lost. As time goes by, there will be new dreams and a new relationship developed with your child. While it may be difficult, never give up hope for building a new future with your child. As you visualize it and pray for it, it can someday happen. In the meantime, you have to hold on to each other. Since you know realistically that neither of you are responsible for your child’s choices, don’t waste time blaming the other person. The best thing you can do for each other is to have a weekly date where you can go somewhere and be alone. Relive your dating days and the things you used to enjoy doing together, and reminisce about your lives before you assumed the role of being a parent. Forget all the existing stresses and worries of parenthood for a few hours, and try to emotionally and spiritually reconnect with each other once again. When you return home, you will be able to think more clearly and be better prepared as a couple to make the necessary decisions regarding your child. When you are united in all the decisions you make, your child will usually be more understanding and accepting of your boundaries. With your emotional and spiritual reservoir refilled, you will be strengthened as you care for any other children you might have and try to nurture each other on a daily basis. We have also found it helpful to go on an occasional overnight date every three or four months to relax, have fun, and really communicate together. Building a loving, happy marriage during these raging storms of conflict is not easy, but it is worth the effort. A strong, unified marriage will help build a strong, unified family.

Finally . . .

I know we made every mistake in the book with Jonathan—except one. We never stopped loving him. We are grateful that he lived as long as he did—to the age of thirty-five. We had a close relationship. We continue to pray every day for Christ’s healing power to be with our whole family.

What I would tell everyone to remember is simply this—you are not alone. There are many of us who have been where you are today. There are many of us who will come after you. But if we can join together courageously in this war against drugs, we will someday win. I am sure of it.