As many of you know, I have been working on a book combining my education as a therapist, my experience in the field of addiction, and some personal experience to create a book about addiction recovery. You may also remember I recently promised to begin providing some excerpts from it in this new year. This is the first. I wrote this recently when finishing a chapter on family therapy. Although it addresses what a parent of someone addicted might experience, it also relates to partners, siblings, and at times, even the adult children of an addicted individual who might now have taken a parental role toward their parent. Additionally I believe it also relates to parenting in general. I certainly welcome feedback.
One of the biggest difficulties for family members when confronted with someone in their family developing an addiction is with issues of control. This is especially true when the addicted family member is the child, and the parents struggle between what is enabling, what is controlling, and what the best balance is.
I have recently been working with a family that provides an excellent example of this dilemma. In this family there is an intact marriage and three grown children, two male and one female. The addicted individual is the female. She is in her early twenties, and still lives at home, as do all of these adult children. She is addicted to marijuana, and entered treatment as a result of an arrest. She has maintained abstinence from marijuana but has admitted drinking excessively. As she appears to be trying to establish her own identity and also appears to be the current scapegoat in the family, she and her parents have engaged in family therapy.
Her parents are very loving and supportive parents. They had difficulty with their oldest son in the past which resulted in a clashing between the father and this child. But since then they have continued to maintain a close familial relationship. Their love and support for their daughter, as well as their frustration with poor decisions she has made are evident in the sessions.
On one hand, this young adult’s parents attempt to prevent her from further poor decision making by not allowing her to engage in certain activities. An example would be the forbiddance of her getting a hotel to celebrate her birthday. On the other hand, their consequences for her breaking of established rules has bordered on permissive. For example after an incident where she was said (by a brother) to have been intoxicated while expected to drive, the daughter’s punishment of no car was not adhered to. Within a very short period of time she was again utilizing the family vehicle to go out socially.
It is clearly difficult to decide what to do as a parent in these circumstances. And often there is no clear cut correct answer. One of the most important things to do in these cases however is to set appropriate limitations and then stick to them. I am as guilty as the next parent of saying I will do something if a behavior continues and not follow through. Often my threats of punishment are grotesquely exaggerated (making teenage children walk home when being annoying in the car, when the distance is far too great). Often my children meet my punishment threats with laughter, as they know I am kidding, while at the same time expressing my frustration. In my years as a parent I have learned to think about true consequences that I believe are both fair and that I will stick to. In other words, I don’t make serious threats of punishment without the intention and determination to follow through. I once threatened my oldest son that if we (his mother or I) found out again that he didn’t do his homework I would bag up every one of his toys and he wouldn’t have them. The day I did it, (within a week I think) I nearly cried at his anguish. (He earned them back daily by completing his homework). The point which should be obvious is to stick to the limits / punishments you state. This is especially true for addicts.
It seems addicts learn early that the horrible things possible from addiction don’t happen. They use a substance and find it wasn’t as bad as the news, D.A.R.E, or parents and teachers had said. As the drug (or alcohol) takes a slow grip of their lives, many threats are never materialized. Parents or partners threaten to throw them out or leave, but do not. Or they do, but it is temporary, and the addict through promises, charm, manipulation, or genuine remorse makes promises they won’t keep, but which get them back in the house. Although it can be a slow process, and although there are exceptions to the rule, the addict learns many threats can be circumvented. This is part of the reason for which limitations and consequences must be followed through.