If you are a parent of a son struggling with an addiction, you may often feel frustrated and powerless.
Young men are less likely to seek support for underlying mental health issues, according to research. A study looking at the role of masculinity found that masculine norms act as a barrier to seeking support.
Isolation, denial, and lashing out are common defenses against the fear of admitting to having an addiction or underlying mental health issue.
If your son is struggling with an addiction, how can you help?
- Don’t blame yourself
- Set personal boundaries
- Engage in helpful communication
- Find a counselor or support group
Each of these strategies will help you be the most helpful version of yourself while also recognizing your limits. Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas.
Don’t Blame Yourself
All the knowledge in the world cannot prevent someone from falling into an addiction. There are far too many variables involved, and it is impossible to control every single risk factor.
Even though it is unrealistic to take on the weight of self-blame, it is a normal response. In an article in the Washington Post, a mother shares her experience with this guilt and shame as she battled with her son’s addiction:
“…the feelings of guilt and shame are universal. Guilt for what we did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say. Shame for our imperfections and limitations, because even with all our endless expressions of love and concern, we couldn’t wrestle our children free of this demon of addiction. No matter how hard we fought, the addiction always seemed to win, leaving us alone with our anger, frustration, fear, helplessness, hopelessness.”
Although this self-blame is common and expected, it is helpful to step back and decide whether or not this is a helpful response.
Internalized anger only further contributes to the suffering in an already stressful situation.
Addiction is often thought of as a disease that changes the brain over time. It starts as a choice and incrementally becomes less within a person’s control.
How useful are thoughts like the following: “I’m a bad mother/ father… If only I did something differently… It’s my fault.” These kind of thoughts keep you living in the past, focused on hypothetical situations.
To be the most effective version of yourself, staying in the present moment is most helpful. If you find yourself continually struggling with thoughts of self-blame, consider trying some of the techniques I discuss in my article, “How to Stop Living in Your Head“.
Set Personal Boundaries
Setting boundaries can be one of the most challenging areas for parents. As a parent to a child with an addiction, you walk a fine line between being supportive and enabling.
Enabling someone with an addiction means having low personal boundaries, a lack of firm rules, and a tenancy to do things for them that prevents them from experiencing the natural consequences of their behaviors.
For example, if someone has a gambling addiction, enabling consists of paying off debts for the person.
Enabling consists of needing to “rescue” a person, stopping them from the opportunity to grow from adversity.
Addiction is the result of a learning mechanism in the brain. An addictive substance or behavior rewards the individual, taking away short-term pain. If the long-term consequences of that short-term relief are not experienced, it trains the individual to continue the addictive substance or behavior.
Setting boundaries that allow your son to fail can be one of the most challenging and most loving acts. Although enabling feels like a way of showing love, it prevents them from growing.
Consider areas you may be enabling the addiction. Are you paying for food, clothing, cellphone, or other living expenses that allow them to continue spending their extra money on substances, gambling, or gaming?
Depending on their age, it might be helpful to cut them off from certain areas of support. It may not be advisable to make your 14-year-old pay for food and rent, but this situation might change if your son is older.
It is a difficult decision to cut off support, and the decision might take time. There is no black and white parenting rule-book, and these decisions are often fraught with thoughts of “what if…”.
In the end, it is necessary to ask yourself the following question: Are your “helping” behaviors harmful in the long-term?
Engage in Helpful Communication
When talking to your son about addiction, you may face denial, anger, or a lack of clear answers. Young men and boys grow up in a culture that rewards them for their mental toughness. The mask of masculinity often hides deeper emotional realities.
When trying to get through to your son, it might be tempting to give “tough love” or “make” them see how they are wrong. If you’ve ever tried this, you know how it generally goes.
A more effective way to build a cooperative relationship with your son is to use powerful forms of communication. Here is one of my favorite communication lessons from former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, in his book Never Split the Difference. Rather than trying to get them to say, “you’re right,” the goal is to hear “that’s right.”
Although it may sound like an inconsequential difference in wording, it can mean the difference between temporary agreement and lasting change. When someone says, “you’re right,” that person agrees with the factual accuracy of your advice or feedback, or they are just trying to placate you.
When someone says, “that’s right,” they are agreeing with the fact that you have identified how they are feeling. You can make all of the factually correct suggestions in the world, but if the other person does not feel understood, they are not likely going to implement the suggestions in the long term.
The key to lasting change does not lie in your ability to make the other person think you’re right. The key to lasting change lies in getting the other person to convince themselves of their own reasons for changing.
Rather than seeking validation for your suggestions, you should be relatively invisible in the process, so the other person feels like they are coming up with the ideas and action plans on their own.
This listening skill takes a lot of patience, open-ended questions, and statements that show you understand what they are saying.
Although this approach is not guaranteed to succeed immediately, it plants the seed for future productive conversations.
For an in-depth guide to effective communication, see my article, The Ultimate Guide to Helping Someone Change.
Find a Counselor or Support Group
When trying to help someone with an addiction, it is easy to feel alone and become overwhelmed with stress. Getting your own counseling or support group allows you to maintain your own mental health.
Self-care sometimes feels selfish, but it allows you to be more helpful in the long-term. You can’t be useful for anyone else until you’ve become useful for yourself, first.
If you’re interested in attending support groups, Al-Anon and Nar-Anon groups might be helpful and are widely available. Having others you can relate to takes away the sense of being alone in the struggle. Support groups also help you get feedback on your own approach, keeping enabling behaviors in check.
In addition to seeking support for yourself, it is also helpful to have an idea of the services available for your son. If you can develop a strong rapport, you can collaborate on helping your son enter the right form of treatment.