Having a child who is suffering from substance use disorder (SUD), whether with drugs or alcohol, can lead to disbelief, numbness, and heartbreaking grief for parents. The beloved child who once gave you much joy is now lost behind a mask of lies, lost opportunities, and distorted thinking. You fear for their life on a daily basis and worry about their future.
But you’re not alone. It’s estimated that there are 20.1 million people in our country with SUD and more than 40 million parents are going through the same journey.
Although substance use disorder has been confirmed as a mental health disorder, society still clings to the stigma that it is a moral failing. In a 2016 New England Journal of Medicine research study, the researcher concluded that SUD affects the brain in the following ways:
- Desensitizes the brain’s reward circuit, dampening the brain’s ability to feel pleasure and motivation in everyday activities.
- Increases the strength and intensity of conditioned responses, including reactivity to stress, which in turn produces stronger cravings for alcohol and other drugs —as well as negative emotions when cravings go unsatisfied.
- Weakens regions of the brain involved in executive functioning, like decision-making, impulse control and self-regulation — all of which increase your relapse potential.
All of this implies that a series of biochemical reactions take place in the brain of people with a substance use disorder. Once they use a substance, they crave more. This helps to explain the complex nature of SUD.
Many parents feel shame and guilt and take on this burden that their child’s SUD is somehow their fault. Luckily, this line of thinking is slowly changing as people are beginning to break the silence and share their stories.
Given all these factors, it’s essential that parents who are dealing with a child who has SUD to seek guidance and support. The following tips can serve as a guide to maximize your child’s chances of recovery.
1. Substance Use Disorder is a mental health disorder, not a moral failing.
Blaming yourself is counterproductive. At some point, your child made a conscious decision to start using and needs to take responsibility for their decisions. You can’t fix them. You can be supportive of their recovery but you can’t make them do anything.
2. Keep the lines of communication open with your child.
That means confronting him with your suspicions without being judgmental or angry. He already feels shame and confusion. Your calm demeanor can help set a welcoming tone. This is a challenge to maintain over the long haul as SUD is a complex, multifactor disorder with no quick fix. That is why it is imperative that parents develop a strong support system to guide and sustain this effort.
3. SUD is overwhelming, especially if it’s happening to your child.
4. You have to protect yourself from the terror of watching your child spiral downward from their substance use.
Set clear boundaries with your child and be consistent for the good of your child and yourself. Decide what you will not tolerate — for instance, use of drugs or alcohol in your home — and be prepared to follow through on consequences.
5. Keep loving your child without enabling them.
There’s a fine line between loving and enabling — such as not handing them money (which they can buy substances with) but giving them a bag of groceries.
6. It’s okay to not buy into the strategy of “tough love.”
And a word about tough love, a strategy embraced by the addiction treatment community when my son was in active addiction, “let your loved one hit bottom”, “don’t do anything for him.” I never bought into this theory of tough love. I feel it is so important to let your child know that you love them and will always be there to support them in their recovery. This doesn’t mean tolerating the intolerable. The thinking on this is beginning to change in the modern treatment community.
The tips listed above were the lessons I learned over the twenty-three years that my son was in active addiction. For all those years, I feared he would die.
Because I didn’t understand that substance use disorder was a mental health issue, I lived with shame and guilt that I somehow had caused my son’s drinking problem. I also was in denial as I kept waiting for him to “outgrow” his drinking. Out of desperation, I sought treatment for my son and myself. I slowly learned over time that the more I did for him, the less he would have to do for himself. I was the classic enabler who thought that my love would make a difference. But I learned my love was not enough.
Through counseling, Al-anon and my faith in God, I found hope to endure and my son eventually found sobriety.
Once I acknowledged and accepted that my son had a substance use disorder over which I had little control, I was able to let go of my need to fix him. I saw him a capable adult who was responsible for his own life. As a result, we both were free to live life on our own terms.