Parenting Away From Addiction

Published on July 3, 2013

I am the father of two small children, an infant and a preschooler. And although I am a relatively new parent, I’ve learned a great deal about parenting over the years. Some of what I learned was gleaned from what my parents did that I do not want to perpetuate. Some came through active education, seeking out information when my wife became pregnant with our first child. Other information was given to me by my therapist as I sought to grow into the kind of man and father who would raise healthy, well-adjusted children. And a lot of what I learned came from daily work with addicts at the treatment center I founded – as I came to understand exactly how it is that parents help put their children on a path to addiction.

Parents are rarely malicious in how they raise their children. They seldom intend to cause the injuries that they do. Unusual in the extreme is the parent who consciously harms or exploits his/her children, though I do see those cases when the children have become adult addicts. However, the way we live our lives can and does sometimes put our children on a path toward addiction, rather than away from it. As parents, we have to be conscious and careful in the choices that we make.


When my parents had me – more than forty-five years ago when they were in their early to mid- twenties – they didn’t know a thing about parenting other than what they had seen in their own homes. The problems they created in the home that harmed me as a child and adult, were part of the context of the way they lived. For example, when their marriage failed, they didn’t break up in a way that would have as little impact on their children as possible. They didn’t know better. This I can forgive. Where could they have gotten the information they needed to be good parents? It wasn’t like we had Google then, as we do now, and decades of research on positive approaches to parenting. They did the best they could – and the best they could helped to create in me reasons to become a hopeless cocaine addict who nearly destroyed my life beyond repair.

Most of the people I see at Cliffside Malibu are people who have become addicts starting in part from situations and problems that developed in the family when they were children. Parents and other caregivers must recognize the role they play in creating opportunities for addiction to develop in their children; doing this can prevent the seemingly endless cycle of treatment centers and interventions to get their loved one help. Make no mistake; we can often prevent addiction before it begins. One great way is by parents educating themselves about child development, because really, if you’re uninformed about your children’s needs today, you just aren’t making that knowledge a priority. The information is readily available from the internet and various social service nonprofits and government agencies and very often, it’s free.

In parents who are both conscious and unconscious of the decisions they are making, we see a lot of the same maladaptive behaviors: exploitation, boundarilessness, lack of positive role modeling, abandonment or neglect, inattention, use of children to fulfill adult needs, and generally unstable homes. The problem with this is that children, unlike adults in unhealthy relationships, cannot walk away and get their needs met elsewhere.

Every child wants to love their parents

We’re hardwired for it. But what if a person’s parents are horrible or exploitative people? What if the parents are the boogey-man? In this case, the child develops a tear to his/her psyche. The struggle for love and acceptance becomes internal – because the child wants to love and trust the adult, but to do so, must learn not to trust him/herself. Not only is there damage to the child’s emotional aspect, but there is also a wrenching of the child’s belief system. As an adult, the child must learn the difference between who his/her parents are and who s/he wanted them to be. This can be devastating as the individual is bound, at least in part of the process, to feel unlovable. This too is a deficit from which addiction very often begins.

How can the adult-child deal with this situation? This is the most heart-breaking part of my work at the treatment center – to help some addicts recognize the truth of their lives – that their parents/families don’t love them, may be incapable of loving them, and in order to be right with themselves, they have to step away from the family system. Addicts sometimes have to realize that “if I trust you, it has to be at the expense of me.” This is utterly devastating, because it puts the addict into the reality of their lives – that they are in essence orphans who live without any real support system. The good news is that we can help them build the families and lives they desire with people who want nothing of them, as is the case in healthy families. But this process is long and painful – and should not have to be.

To those who are struggling

Adults who are good for you neither want nor need anything from you. You don’t have to do or be anyone in particular for them to be o.k. You do not need to validate any other adult’s existence in the world. Your parents may or may not see themselves as failures, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with you. If your parents cannot love and support you for who you are – in your flaws and your best traits – step away. A healthy parent will include an adult-child in decisions. They will support you.  They will love you and want what’s best for you no matter what choices you make. They may not always agree with you, but the love will still be there. If it’s not, your only real choice for health and happiness is to grieve the loss of the parents you wish you had. Work not only with a therapist in private sessions, but also join a group that is growth and development oriented, so that you will build relationships with people who truly care and want only the best for you. You can learn what strings-free love and support look like. You can count on people. You can identify what your needs are and ask for them to be met. You can, with help and recovery, have an opportunity to change not just your life, but also your children’s futures by parenting away from addiction instead of toward it.


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