For Father’s Day: Advice for Parents Whose Child Has a Substance Problem
This Father’s Day I want to share an important message to parents. As many know, I co-founded Lionrock with my daughter in recovery. Prior to the company’s founding, my wife and I fought a decade-long battle to help our daughter – a battle which included many of every parent’s greatest fears.
Parents are typically woefully undereducated on the topic of substance use disorders. As a result, we often focus on the symptoms of the problem – the drugs and alcohol. It’s hard for us to see past our anger to the real drivers of the problem. We’re enraged by the dangerous behaviors, the dishonesty and betrayal. We ourselves know the stress-reducing effects of drugs and alcohol (having a drink to “unwind” or relax), and we understandably assume our children are using them for the same reason. Except, our children don’t know when to stop. We think they just need a good kick in the butt, to get in line. Unfortunately, that line of thinking is wrong.
The underlying drivers are varied, but typically they culminate in an anxiety disorder. About half the time, there’s a genetic component. More often than we’d like, it’s the result of traumatic experiences. Our childrens’ substance abuse is a lot closer to what we do with Advil for a headache than it is to drinking margaritas at the beach. They are not “partying”, they are “coping.”
So what do you do?
- Number one, understand that you are dealing with mental illness. Get used to this idea.
- Do whatever is required to keep your kid alive and do it now. This problem is not going away on its own, and left alone, it will get worse. Though it doesn’t feel like it, you have considerable power. Use it.
- Play hard ball. Think of it this way: an alien invader has taken over your kid. People struggling with this alien monster become master manipulators. The chemicals change their brains – that’s why it’s a disease – and they will lie and steal, or do whatever necessary to satisfy this invader’s need for chemical relief.
Treatment experts tell parents to “detach with love”, and leave the decision-making to them. This view holds that parents often make the situation worse, even deadly, by “enabling” their son or daughter’s use. Doing what parents do naturally, trying to keep their children safe by providing for them, they unwittingly provide resources that get used to make the problem worse. Detaching with love means giving them nothing, and gently saying no to their manipulations, their promises of never doing it again, etc. While there is plenty of truth in all of this, remember, the professionals are involved only for a short time. You are involved for the rest of your life.
- In addition to engaging professionals, I used whatever leverage I had to create incentives for my daughter to make real changes. When I could force her to do something (like go to treatment), whether by statutory rights, threat of legal action, or subterfuge, I did. When I couldn’t force her, my terms were stark but generous: get nothing at all or get resources in proportion to concrete achievements made. I didn’t want my daughter to look for resources elsewhere, from people who didn’t have her interests at heart. But along the way, I didn’t believe a word she said. Verify everything. Pay vendors directly – don’t give out cash. Be ready to withhold resources. All the while, tell your son or daughter that you will never give up on them, that you will chase them to the gates of hell, and through if need be.
- Your knowledge and stamina are critical. This will not be over quickly. Once the drugs and alcohol are stripped away, the real problems will remain, and that’s when the real work gets done. That work will be painful for everyone in the family. Do the work with your kid even if it’s painful because this is the path to recovery.
- For most people, the road to recovery is a lifelong struggle to manage their chronic mental illness. But despite this bad news, many people achieve long term recovery and lead productive, happy lives. My daughter in recovery has been clean and sober for more than 14 years.
I never gave up. You don’t give up either. Ever.
Peter Loeb, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer