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“Tough Love” Isn’t the Only Approach to Helping Your Opioid-Addicted Child

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African American mother being hugged by son outsideIt’s a situation in which nobody wants to be. Yet a growing number of people are dealing with the heartbreak of having a child who’s addicted to opioids. Whether or not you have children, empathizing with the helplessness of the situation isn’t hard to do. The fear that one’s son or daughter will overdose is all-consuming, making it nearly impossible to function in day-to-day life when every phone call could be that phone call.

There’s no right or wrong way to respond to having a child with an addiction to opioids. Most people who find themselves in this situation will try a few different approaches, but nothing seems to make a difference. So it quickly becomes a test of perseverance.

One of the strategies a parent can use is sometimes called the ‘tough love’ approach. Typically, tough love is meant to essentially eliminate any chance that the parents could be enabling the addict’s continued substance abuse. They stop providing financial support — including no longer paying the addict’s bills and living expenses — and sometimes resort to making the child leave the family home. Of course, this isn’t something that they want to do or enjoy doing. More often than not, it feels like the only strategy left that’s not already failed. Although tough love may work in some cases, there are a growing number of tough love opponents who say that the approach is not a good idea and could, in fact, be a huge mistake.

Why should we retire the ‘tough love’ approach? And what’s a better alternative?

What’s Wrong with ‘Tough Love’?

In theory, tough love seems logical. Since many addicts steal from loved ones to support their habits, kicking one’s addicted child out of the home eliminates the possibility of additional theft, or at least decreases it. As well, there’s some reassurance when parents can confidently say they’re not supporting their addicted child’s happen in any way or form. Perhaps he or she will have so much trouble supporting his or her habit without the aid of parents that it will leave recovery as the only option. That’s a possibility, right?

Actually, there are a number of reasons why tough love is ineffective with opioid-addicted adult children. According to Dr. Gabor Mate — a renowned doctor and author who works with addicts at a controversial supervised injection facility — the best approach is one of compassion, concern and ‘kind love’ rather than tough love.1 With tough love, an addict feels like he or she is being punished. However, many people become addicted after using alcohol or drugs to cope (or to gain “temporary relief”, Mate says) with hardships and traumas they experienced earlier in life, so Mate asserts that tough love is tantamount to punishing someone who has already been excessively punished.

There’s another component to tough love that often factors into its use, and that’s the idea that an addict who has been resistant to help needs to hit ‘rock bottom’ to be more willing to accept treatment. Not only is this incorrect, it puts parents in a position where they don’t know what’s going on in their child’s life.2 Additionally, this actually communicates to the child that his or her parents don’t care about his or her well-being. The worst case scenario is that the final toll of hitting rock bottom could be an overdose, resulting in serious health emergencies or death. In this situation, parents will likely be haunted by uncertainty, wondering whether or not they could have prevented the son’s or daughter’s death if they’d been more involved.

Adopting the ‘Kind Love’ Approach

A number of other industry experts have begun to come to the same conclusions as Dr. Mate. In fact, the consensus is quickly becoming that it’s not just addicts who need to realign their states of mind. Adopting a more supportive, compassionate strategy has numerous benefits. It’s a much better template for dialog, conveys approachability and is a healthier tone for families overall. Best of all, adopting the kind love approach mostly just requires common sense.

One of the most important things that a parent can do for an addicted child is to take the initiative to learn more about the disease. Becoming more informed about addiction and recovery will help with gaining a much better understanding of what the addict is going through, thinking and feeling. In addition to learning more about the disease, parents should sit down with the addicted child to create some type of actionable plan and layout some ground rules. This will help get both the parents and the child to cooperate and communicate, which is important because addiction is very much a family disease.3 Plus, the child still needs boundaries and to know what’s expected of him or her. Only in the most extreme cases should the child be forced to leave, and only after alternative arrangements have been made.

As always, the addict needs unconditional love and support. Being in the throes of addiction is scary and lonely, and it’s very unlikely that he or she will regain sobriety alone. But with the patience and compassion of loved ones, anyone is capable of finding lasting recovery.


Written by Dane O’Leary