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Parents: There’s No Family Handbook for Handling Addiction

Substance abuse is a family disease. Even if it doesn’t occur in every family member, this disease impacts everyone in the family.

Each family member’s experience will vary, but can include: theft, dishonesty, manipulation or removal of a family member from the home. In many instances, chemical dependency leads to an overdose death, and the family will grieve their loss for the rest of their lives. But the real tragedy is many of these lives could be saved with proper education and support.

It’s particularly hard for parents because not only do they blame themselves, they don’t know what to do if they suspect their child is using drugs.

When Substance Abuse Hits Home

Jennifer Howard, a mother from British Columbia, knows this all too well. In an interview with the Times Colonist, she describes how the alarming rise in overdose deaths across the nation serve as a regrettable reminder of her son, Robbie. Only 24 when he died from a fentanyl overdose, Robbie began using drugs just six months before his death.

In this poignant article, Howard advocates alterations to current drug policy and treatment options to prevent these unnecessary deaths. She states, “It makes me so angry to see the number of deaths increase when we know how to solve this problem.” She also would like society change their negative moral view of substance abuse.

She says, “There is no handbook for parents supporting a child with addictions and mental-health issues. You learn in the trenches and you come together.” And she’s absolutely right; no parent is prepared to deal with the chaos of their child’s substance abuse or mental illness. You aren’t a bad parent just because you’re unprepared to deal with these situations and it’s important to recognize you’re not alone.

There are a number of organizations and outreach services available to provide support, such as:

  • Overdose Awareness Day: International Overdose Awareness Day is held on August 31st each year. The aim is to raise awareness regarding overdose and reduce the stigma of a drug-related death. It also acknowledges the grief felt by families remembering those who have met with death or permanent injury as a result of drug overdose.
  • Moms Stop the Harm: This group, set-up by Jennifer Howard, is now a country-wide movement. It has a primary goal of harm reduction and the website provides information regarding drug safety, support groups, available resources, and details about their campaign to effect nation-wide change regarding the opioid crisis.

Dos and Don’ts for Parents

On a home level, you don’t have to feel powerless. While no parent wants their child to harm themselves or get into trouble, the reality is children tend to experiment. The good news is you can set healthy boundaries without pressuring them to follow your ideals. Be supportive of their need to express individual thoughts and feelings. This will allow your child to develop a strong sense of self and make them less prone to the pitfalls of peer pressure.

Scare tactics and threats could make your child feel like they can’t come to you for help. An open line of communication provides them with a trusted support network, should they get into trouble – especially if both parents present a united front. This safe, open, non-judgmental environment could make the difference between your child coming to you for help or isolating because they think you’re unapproachable.

So what can you do if you suspect your child is either misusing drugs or has a substance abuse problem?

First, know you’re not the first parent to experience this; there are multiple resources out there to provide you with assistance. Support groups such as SMART Recovery Family & Friends, and CRAFT (Community Reinforcement Approach & Family Training, have been proven to be more successful than just letting a child figure it out on their own or cutting them off. These methods advocate early intervention and human connection to provide your child with the appropriate support and treatment services.

One Child’s Cry for Help

Speaking from my own personal experience, I wish I could have talked to one of my parents about my issues. I felt like I had nowhere to turn with my troubles – I pretty much felt on my own. I wanted a way to cope with the uncomfortable feelings I experienced: bullying at school, trauma, mental illness with suicidal tendencies, difficulty learning, challenges integrating into several new schools, and substance abuse.

What I wanted and needed more than anything, though, was love. I wanted to feel protected. I wanted to know that I had someone who would to support me in my moment of need. I didn’t want to be shamed, dismissed, or cut off to hit my rock bottom. I wanted someone to hold my hand. I wanted their support to get the treatment I so desperately needed.

I was one of the fortunate ones. I attended support groups and found help. I had just enough hope to climb out of the depths of despair created by my substance abuse. Not every child or young adult gets that kind of support. Choose to make a difference by lending a supportive hand to get them there.

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