Parents of Addicts: What You Do Right, Wrong, and When to Do Nothing

March 7, 2010 Amanda_HP

Raising a child is hard enough. Having a child with an addiction can be a living hell; a nightmare of constant heartache and worry. This week, on the HealthyPlace Mental Health TV Show, we're focusing on parents of addicts - what they do right, wrong, and how to draw the line in helping an addicted child (teen or adult).

Our guest is Catherine Patterson-Sterling, MA, RCC and Director of Family Services for the Sunshine Coast Health Center in British Columbia, a men’s drug and alcohol treatment center. In this capacity, Cathy provides families of substance abuse clients the support they need from the moment of the crisis before entering treatment through to their entry into family programming and beyond.

In addition to being a clinical counselor, Cathy is the author of Rebuilding Relationships In Recovery: A Guide To Healing Relationships Impacted By Addiction (2004) and Fingers On The Ledge: Healing The Lives Of High Functioning People With Addictions (2008).

If you didn’t make the live show, you can watch the video on Parents of Addicts.

Things Parents of Addicts Should Know

Cathy responded via email to a few questions on parents of addicts prior to her interview on the HealthyPlace Mental Health TV Show:

1) What is the most difficult or frustrating part of your job working with families impacted by addiction?

The most challenging part of working with families impacted by addiction is that family members of substance-affected people love the people with addictions who are spiraling out of control with drugs and alcohol and out of this care, they will often jump in and try to fix the problems of these individuals with addictions. Such a rescuing cycle can be problematic because rather than confronting people with the addictions, family members will often try and figure out ways to help their addicted loved ones solve money problems or other issues related to the drinking or drug-using.

People with addictions need to feel the negative consequences of their actions related to their choices of abusing drugs and alcohol. Some families are so scared of saying or doing the wrong thing that they will not confront the problem and instead focus on solving problems associated with the addiction instead.

2) What are one or two destructive things that families do in coping or dealing with the family member with an addiction?

Some families jump in and try to fix all of the problems with the fall-out from someone’s addiction. For example, they will pay off drug debts, give their addicted family member money for food knowing that other money will be used for drugs, make excuses for addicted people’s behaviors and so on. People with addictions need a caring confrontation so that family members challenge their addicted loved ones to see there is a problem and to get help for the addiction. A positive thing that families realize over time, is that the addiction will not magically get better by itself and the sooner family members challenge their addicted loved ones to get help, the better.

3) What is the role of family members in helping another family member who is an addict?

Family members need to stop worrying about doing or saying the wrong thing and instead confront their addicted loved one in a caring way. This is like holding up a mirror. Family members can say: “What I am seeing is….” as they describe the problem they are witnessing. For example, “Henry, I love you and I am worried. I see you drinking every weekend and struggling to make it to work. You are drinking a lot and driving everywhere. I think you are out of control and you do not have to live this way. You need to get help. Here is the number of a place to get support.”

Often addicted people will make excuses for their behavior and this is called “minimizing.” Families do not have to “suffer in silence” and they can ring the alarm bell in their relationships with people with addictions so that they can get the help they need. In the long run, so many of my clients are grateful that the ringing of this alarm bell saved their lives.

For comprehensive information on addictions, visit the HealthyPlace Addictions Community.

Share Your Thoughts or Experiences About Having a Child with a Substance Abuse Problem

Share your experience in dealing with a child (teen or adult) who's an addict. How has it made you feel? How do you react to it? What tools have you found to be effective? Please leave your comments below.

APA Reference
Amanda_HP (2010, March 7). Parents of Addicts: What You Do Right, Wrong, and When to Do Nothing, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Amanda_HP

May, 18 2010 at 1:56 pm

I think this really depends on the individual. I, myself, am an addict and I needed to find sobriety on my own. My family had attempted to confront me but never actually did it. They knew I, like many addicts, am too hard headed and would use the confrontation as a reason to use more. I cannot speak for all, as I am sure a majority of people do need family confrontation, but if and when confrontation fails, they find they give up all hope and give in to despair even harder.
It's important not to feel offended by the abuser. Care, love and patience are necessary, as we really have NO control over this abuse. We have fallen ill and it is not a character defect, the drug or alcohol has taken hold and many times hitting rock bottom is necessary. You have to go quite far down before you can come back up. Sadly.
My advice is if the situation is terrible to confront, if that does not work, do not take offense. Do what you need to keep your life intact. If that includes kicking that person out of the house, so be it. You will be doing them a world of good. They need to hit rock bottom. If they accept your help then thank the stars and do what you can to assist them.

April, 2 2010 at 11:19 am

I disagree about the Tough Love approach when your child or young adult loved one also has an emotional illness. I have a son who is recovering heroin addict. He went to the lowest places. But he was also a person with an emotional illness that began when he was 10 years old. It was Almost impossible to get him into a treatment program that would accept him on the medication that was most effective for his PTSD and Anxiety Disorder.
I recommend the book Addict in the Family for parents looking for real guidance. From people who have walked in their shoes. Sometimes it IS an emotional illness first, not an addiction. Folks in the helping professions need to stop the one size fits all approach.
I can say this with a degree of certainty, because my son is Clean 3 plus years. He has begun a new life in a new location. Away from all the triggers and systems that he was enmeshed in. This includes friends and Programs.
His cousin who's Family took the Tough Love route ? Well he is dead and buried, having had his detox screwed up at Las Encinitas. It is public record, so don't worry about the legalites of publishing this comment
.The one behavior we stopped ? As parents, we realized that each time we had a drink to relax or chill out, we were demonstrating that substances are ok. That is the key. Do not be a do as I say Parent. Model abstinence, and unconditional love.
The Recovery Industry really needs to take it's own inventory and change.

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