The Problems Parents Have With Drugs

I am working with a couple who are very concerned about their son’s problematic usage of alcohol and other drugs. They have tried everything they could think of to make their son stop using. Sometimes they have short-term successes, but eventually Charlie starts up again, and too quickly, the problems also start again. They feel angry and depressed and powerless, and anxious. So very anxious. They worry all the time about what might happen. They grieve for the child they once had who has now changed forever. They are constantly waiting in dread for THAT phone call, the one that will tell them that their son’s pain has ended, and that theirs is about to overwhelm them.

These parents have come to me for advice. What can they do to help their son? How can they stop their child’s self-destructive journey? Where have they failed as parents?

They are so anxious that they have tried very hard to make sure nothing bad happens to him. If he uses up all his money, they pay for his car registration so that he doesn’t lose the ability to get to work by car; if he feels hung over in the morning they ring work and lie for him; if he leaves dirty clothes all over his bedroom floor his mother picks them up, washes them and puts them away for him. “After all’, she says to herself, “he is addicted and can’t look after himself. He needs my help to get through the day, poor kid. I hope he gets his act together soon, he is going nowhere fast”. She has learnt the difficult, painful lesson that arguing with him does not help and both she and her husband are feeling increasingly powerless over his addictions. They really hate feeling anxious and powerless

At one stage, they forced him into attending a drug detoxification unit, only to find that he began using when he left there. They have yelled, argued, cried, begged and bribed. Charlie still continues his seemingly self-destructive path. His parents are so anxious about what could happen to him that feeling anxious now feels normal to them

Unfortunately, in trying to cope with their distressing feelings, Charlie’s parents have forgotten their role as parents. We clarify their goal as parents as wanting to produce an independent adult who is able to be responsible for the consequences of his own actions and to make increasingly better choices in life, developing the ability to have mature, adult relationships. By treating Charlie as a child who is a victim of his own addictions, they are ensuring that he remains irresponsible and that his addictions will continue.

Charlie’s parents are also feeling guilty for some of the ways they treated him in the past and blame themselves for his addictions and his compulsive personality. “If only we had been better parents, he would not be having all these problems”.

We talk of what happens in “normal” homes. Children grow up, with the guidance of their parents. They increasingly become more responsible for themselves, and less dependent on their families. They make choices and increasingly listen less to their parents’ advice, making their own choices. The parents become increasingly powerless to control their children and move into the background. The best parents can hope for is to be able to influence their children, who are now no longer children. This is normal. This is the way children develop to become adults. Often parents experience a lot of difficulties letting go emotionally of their children. This process can become so difficult that they seek out professional help to better deal with their situation.

These problems are compounded when parents have an addicted child. It is with these problems that I can help these parents. I cannot help them stop their son’s drinking and drugging. No one can. But I can help the parents cope with their anxieties better. I can also help them find ways to influence Chalie to become more responsible for himself. This has to be their goal, instead of trying to control his behaviours.

One major issue that prevents us functioning well as parents in this situation is our anxiety, our fear for the future. However our anxiety is our problem, one we have to deal with. We cannot make our anxiety the problem of our children. This stops them dealing with their own problems, and increases the gap in communication between the generations. When we make our anxiety a problem for our children, we then become a problem for our children. Then the child focuses on dealing/fighting with us, instead of focusing on dealing with their own problems.

Constant use of alcohol, other drugs, or other activities (such as gambling) is a person’s attempt to reduce/eliminate the effects of problems involving difficult interpersonal relationships, thoughts, feelings, and/or memories. Eventually this attempt reaches its use-by date because it creates more problems than it solves. The addicted person becomes unaware of the real nature of their problems and focuses on battling their addiction. They can constantly lose that battle because they fail to realise that their problematic activity is an attempt at establishing a coping mechanism. They have to first work on discovering other coping mechanisms before being able to eliminate their addiction. This is where counselling plays a vital role in helping people gain control over their lives.

Hence if Charlie’s parents want to help him, focusing on attacking his addictions only continues the unwinable battle – the conflict between him and his addictions, leading to increased anxiety levels. He then becomes scared of losing his crutch. Increased anxiety then leads to increased addictive behaviour. Charlie’s sense of disconnection from his parents would increase. One way to help is to supportively try to increase Charlie’s sense of concern about himself, to help him deal with his own inner conflicts, without applying more pressure. He has huge amounts of internal pressure to manage in any case.

During our counselling sessions together, we talk about their guilt and self-blame and Charlie’s parents realise that they are feeling responsible for his addiction, and so are also feeling responsible for his cure. That is why they continually go through cycles involving talking, nagging, yelling, crying and begging. However, by acting as if they are responsible for his behaviours, they decrease Charlie’s ability to be responsible for his own behaviours.

In reality, the causes of Charlie’s addictions are Charlie’s issues. He has to work through them with his own counsellor. That is his responsibility – to recognise that he has problems that are his responsibility to deal with. His parents cannot and should not try to be his therapists.

His parents’ role is to help him become increasingly and gradually more responsible for himself by not rescuing him as often, and allowing him to increasingly experience the consequences of his own actions. This is how he will learn ways of resolving his problems himself and eventually better deal with his inner conflicts.

Charlie’s paremts have reached an important stage in the counselling process. They came to me because they could not change their son’s problematic behaviour and wanted me to tell them the magical formula that they were unable to work out for themselves. They are now starting to realise that there is no magical answer. They are also trying to deal with the consequences of this realisation:

1. They cannot change the behaviour of someone who does not want to change.

2. By rescuing Charlie, his parents are not giving him any reason to change. After all, Charlie is not experiencing any problems – his parents are. So why should he change his behaviours?

3. By rescuing Charlie, his parents help themselves feel less anxious and guilty, but then they end up feeling more frustrated, powerless and angry. In helping themselves feel better, they are helping Charlie maintain his negative behaviours.

4. The only way to change Charlie’s behaviours is to change their own behaviour. They have come to counselling to change Charlie’s behaviours and now are facing their need of support to change their own behaviours.

Some parents stop the counselling process at the stage of realising that they need help to change before they can hope to see any changes in their child. This is not what they expected to happen. Looking at their own coping strategies can sometimes feel too confronting, as it does for their child who also resists counselling. Some parents do not want to examine their own anxiety, anger, guilt, difficulties in emotionally separating from their children and their corresponding difficulties in separating from their own parents. It remains easier for some to blame their child and continue to feel like powerless victims. And so the status quo continues. As they say in Narcotics Anonymous – “if nothing changes, nothing changes”.

Parents who stop the counselling process at this stage are not yet ready to change. All I can do is hope that I have planted some seeds in their minds and hearts that will one day grow into a determination to face their own containment difficulties. Indeed, some parents do come back to continue their growth process at a later stage.

However, some parents remain locked in their powerlessness. These parents remain abused by their addicted children and everyone agrees that it is the parents’ fault that their child is so unhappy. The parents feel totally responsible for the addictive behaviours, and the child feels no responsibility at all. And they all share something else. Everyone is either very angry or very depressed.

However, Charlie’s parents do want to continue their counselling, and our sessions continue. Slowly and carefully, with great respect for their pain, I help them look at their behaviours – how they are helping Charlie to continue his addiction, and the price they are personally paying as Charlie’s self-destructive behaviours continue.

Charlie’s parents and I talk about their high anxiety levels. They increasingly realise that their anxiety is their problem, one they have to deal with. We cannot make our anxiety the problem of our children. This stops them dealing with their own problems. When we anxiously nag our children about a situation the problem for our child becomes the anxious nagging – not the situation itself. As parents, we need to avoid as much as possible becoming the problem!

When Charlie’s parents realised that coping with their emotions was their responsibility, this helped them begin to see their son as a separate human being, with his own needs and responsibilities. They began to see that for his own development, he needed to be treated like a responsible adult so that he could learn how to become a responsible adult. When they treated Charlie like an irresponsible child, he continued to act like one.

So, slowly and gradually Charlie’s parents began to change their behaviours. They developed better strategies for coping with their feelings. They felt increasingly more self contained. They stopped trying to rescue him as often. They reduced the amount of extra money they gave him, they stopped lying to his boss for him, and they stopped cleaning up after him. They also stopped arguing with him. When he got angry with them, they learnt ways of managing their anger to help him contain his anger. They eventually stopped being bullied by him. It was difficult going because Charlie wanted to keep blaming them for his problems. However, his parents learnt not to get sidetracked into arguing his agenda. They increasingly allowed him to experience the consequences of his own actions.

At the same time, Charlie’s parents worked to strengthen positive connections between themselves and with their son. The parents started spending time on their own as a couple, doing recreational activities again and not talking about Charlie. They also spent time with him individually, talking about other things – work, sport, politics, movies etc. They went to the movies and out for meals. They showed him in lots of ways that he was important to them and that they considered him to be a lot more than just a problematic addict.

They also developed the expection that Charlie demonstrate that his parents are important to him. Instead of expecting less of him, they negotiated increased expectations. Charlie began to wash his own clothes, talk in a more respectful manner, help around the house etc. He began to feel pride in his developing skills, and began to like himself more. He began to finally feel hopeful that he could manage his own life.

Eventually Charlie began talking about his drinking and drugging behaviours as being problematic. He wanted things to be different. His parents did not then blame or control. They talked and made some suggestions and left him to follow them up in his own way. Charlie thus took the next step on the road to recovery.

That whole process was difficult for all concerned because everyone had to experiment with and learn new ways of behaving and relating, not just Charlie.

Leave a reply