Raising a child is difficult enough, and dealing with a child who suffers from a substance use disorder can be even more challenging. Parents of teenagers who suffer from drug addiction or alcohol addiction are often confused about the right course of action to take. Watching a young person self-harm and do damage to his or her future can be hard to watch. Substance abuse in a child can also inflict major damage on the whole family. Enforcing rules and boundaries, voicing your concerns, and inflicting punishments can be tempting. On the other hand, punitive measures may risk alienating you from your child. It may be tempting to be unconditionally supportive, providing financial and emotional resources to your child despite his or her drug abuse. To many adults, the idea of withholding resources from teenagers who are using alcohol or drugs can be a scary thought; addictive behaviors can lead adolescents into dangerous situations. Withholding resources and parental support to children who have violated rules and boundaries can seem to put their lives at risk, especially for young people who are using dangerous illicit substances. While every situation is different, sometimes the “tough love” approach is indeed the best course of action.
Setting Healthy Boundaries with the Tough Love Approach
The “tough love” approach to addiction treatment was first popularized by David and Phyllis York in the 1980s with the publication of their book Toughlove. It involves setting clear boundaries and not supporting addictive behaviors. Tough love doesn’t mean hating or abandoning your child. In fact, some might argue that “tough love” is actually the healthiest way of expressing unconditional love for a child. It means wanting the best for them and not enabling addictive behaviors that put them in danger. Boundaries that parents can set include:
- Not providing financial assistance. While teenagers need money for a variety of reasons, including food and transportation, teenagers who are abusing drugs and alcohol are likely to use this money for purchasing illicit substances. By denying them access to your cash or credit cards, you decrease their access to drugs.
- Creating house rules. Creating a curfew and other rules for the home can make it clear to teenagers what your expectations for them are.
- Setting a clear schedule for yourself and not deviating from it. Rather than enabling your teenager by making yourself available to them at all times, it is best to make it clear to them when you are free.
- Refusing to bail your teenagers out of trouble. When a teenager goes into debt or suffers criminal consequences from their actions, it is important that they learn from their mistakes. Bailing them out is more likely than not to lead to a repetition of the initial behavior.
- Refusing to provide shelter. Kicking a child out of the house is usually a last resort, but if it is clear that your child is not respecting the rules of your home, it is often the only way to make it clear to them that they need to make a change.
If your child continues to engage in substance abuse, merely encouraging them to attend treatment centers is rarely sufficient. The tough love approach involves making it clear to them that they must attend treatment programs or else find somewhere else to live. All too often, people leave treatment centers because they know they can easily return home to continue their old habits in a comfortable environment. Helping your child understand that their options are limited will help them stay committed to recovery. Having family support for addiction recovery has also been shown to improve recovery outcomes over the long term.
Implementing the Tough Love Approach for Addiction Treatment
For young men struggling with addictions, the tough love approach is often the only effective resort. The best course of action is communicating your intentions with your child in a way that demonstrates care and love. An intervention is often the simplest way of helping your child recognize the need for change. Intervention specialists can help design an intervention and choose appropriate friends and family members for the occasion. During an intervention, loved ones nonjudgmentally and calmly work to help an addict recognize their substance use disorder. During this time, it is crucial to explain to your child that they must either pursue addiction treatment or lose access to valuable family resources.
A child’s journey through treatment programs often begins with a medical detox center. There they can withdraw from their substance of choice under supervised medical care. Caseworkers can help place them afterwards in treatment centers that meet their needs. This might involve residency in an inpatient treatment program offering 24-hour care. For people who are ready to live at home, a more flexible outpatient program might be more appropriate. It is important to maintain the tough love approach during this time. If treatment is successful, your child will likely be grateful that you prioritized their sobriety and expressed your care through tough love, even if they initially resented it.