This blog was updated January 21st, 2020
If your son or daughter is struggling with addiction, you know what it feels like to hear the phone ringing in the middle of the night and wonder if this is the call you have been dreading. You know what it’s like to drive around the city looking for them when they disappear for days at a time. And you know what it is like to desperately want to save them without knowing how. Addiction is a heartbreaking disease that destroys both the user and their loved ones. And as a parent, your child’s battle with addiction also feels like your own. It is normal to be questioning every move you make, wondering whether it is pulling them closer to safety or pushing them further away from you. The truth is that everyone’s journey to recovery is different and in many cases, it may require you to make extremely tough decisions.
Tough Love: Punishment or Boundaries?
Whether you have done research online, attended a family support group, or asked others for advice, you have likely heard about the tough love approach – enforcing certain constraints or taking disciplinary measures in hopes that it will encourage your child to get the help they need. But does it work? And how much tough love is too much? The answer depends on who you ask. There are parents who say their child was headed for death until they presented them with the ultimatum: get help or get out. There are addiction experts who say that tough love can worsen your loved one’s addiction. There are others who say that there is a place for tough love in addiction treatment. And there are parents who say they never heard from their kids again after they cut them off.
Bruce Dechert, Senior Family Wellness Clinician, believes that it is important to find the right balance for your family. “We don’t want to look back and wish we had done something differently,” he says, adding that he never recommends for anyone to give up on their addicted loved one. Instead, rather than using tough love as punishment, he suggests creating healthy boundaries. What those boundaries look like depends on your family, however, there are some common boundaries that apply to most.
Boundaries to establish when your child is struggling with addiction:
- Do not make excuses for them or bail them out of trouble.
- Do not hand them cash or let them use your credit cards.
- Do not allow them to dictate your schedule.
- Establish a curfew and house rules.
The most common issue for parents is whether to cut off their child when they refuse to go to treatment. And while “cutting them off” can mean different things to different people, many parents reach a point when asking their child to leave the house becomes a reality. “Parents are faced with this dilemma: Do I help them get out of this in the short term, or do I let them experience the natural consequences of their behaviors?” says Kenneth Leonard, director of the Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo.
The choice is far from easy, but in many cases, particularly when there are other children in the home, asking your addicted son or daughter to leave is the best choice for everyone in the family. Dechert suggests doing this from a place of love rather than anger and letting your child know that you still love and support them and will always be there to help them when they are ready to seek treatment.
The choice can seem cold or even selfish, and it may not be right for everyone, but for many parents who have exhausted their finances and have been beaten down by their loved one’s addiction, it is the only way to save themselves and their family.
“It’s really hard in the beginning,” says Katie Donovan, whose daughter has struggled with opioids since her teens. Donovan used to do everything for her daughter, from ensuring she woke up for work to making her doctor’s appointments, but once she allowed her life to stop revolving around her daughter’s addiction, she found that both her and her daughter grew stronger. Donovan shares, “It takes a very long time to gain the strength, courage, and faith to say ‘no.’ I believe in loving with boundaries. She knows that, emotionally, I accept where she’s at. Am I going to give her money? No.”
Where to Draw the Line
Some boundaries are easier to set than others, but cutting financial ties can be particularly challenging. Not giving them money to support their drug habit is an obvious move, but when deciding whether to pay their cellphone bill or buy them a car so they can go to work, the right answer is not always clear. You may be worried about how you will communicate if they don’t have a phone or whether they will lose their job if they have no means of transportation, but sometimes you must let your child experience the consequences of their addiction. Find ways to support them without driving yourself into financial debt, such as helping them find public transportation that will allow them to get to work. Perhaps get your son or daughter a pay-as-you go phone they can use to contact you in the case of an emergency.
Deciding what to pay for when it comes to treatment is perhaps the most difficult choice. If your child is ready to give treatment a chance, you want to provide them with that opportunity. But often, those struggling with addiction will become fixated on a specific treatment or rehab that may not be the best choice. It is important to remember that recovery does not come from the California sun or luxury pools but rather from the knowledge and support that expert staff can offer. As the one who is financing your child’s treatment, you must decide which treatment center is right for you and your family. It can be difficult to put your foot down and say “No, you cannot go to treatment across the country, but I am willing to pay for this treatment center.” Picking a reputable treatment center can make all the difference. And you don’t want to waste your money on subpar treatment or place your loved one’s safety at risk simply to appease them.
Because relapse is often a part of recovery, there are many parents who have sold their homes, exhausted their savings, cashed in their 401(k), and buried themselves in thousands of dollars of debt trying to help their son or daughter get sober. For these parents, paying for another round of treatment is simply not an option. If that is where you are, do not despair. You can still support your child by helping them find a state-funded rehab or reaching out to a treatment center they have previously attended and asking them if they are willing to work with you on a scale. You can also encourage your child to attend 12 Step groups while you find the right treatment center. Know that as long as your loved one wants to get better and has your love and support, recovery is always possible.