Lesson 6 of 7 - Learn how to parent effectively

Options if a Minor Child
 in Your Family is - or
may be - Addicted

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/addicted.htm

Updated 01-23-2015

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      This is one of a series of articles in online Lesson 6 - learn what typical kids need as they grow, and how to fill their needs effectively over two decades without neglecting yourself. The range and scope of major social problems suggests that most U.S. parents are failing at this.

      This article is written to family adults and supporters who worry about a minor child's probable addiction and how that may be affecting their family. The article assumes your familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Website and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5

  • addiction basics, and perspective on hitting bottom

  • how to communicate effectively with kids and teens; and...

  • options for nurturing a "problem" child,

      This brief YouTube video provides useful background on addictions::

Q&A About Kids' Addiction

      If you feel one or more young people in your family are "addicted," you adults need to answer questions like these:

  • How can we tell a true addiction from a "bad habit" or "an obsession"?

  • What can kids become addicted to?

  • Why do kids become addicted?

  • Does childhood addiction differ from adult addiction?

  • What is "enabling," and what can we do about it?

  • How can we parent an addicted child effectively?

  • What if we're a stepfamily? 

How Can We Tell a True Addiction From a "Bad Habit"?

      The words "addict" and "addiction" evoke strong emotions in typical family members, which can hinder effective discussion and problem-solving. So it's important to know when to use those terms and when to avoid them. Four variables distinguish "a bad habit" or "an obsession" from a true addiction:

  • the degree of personal and family denial (none to vehement);

  • whether the compulsive behavior is stable or increasingly harmful;

  • the degree of personal and social harm caused by the behavior (minor to major); and...

  • "obsessions" are repetitive thoughts about something. "Compulsions" involve repetitive actions. True addictions are compulsive because they cannot be controlled by logic or "will power."

      Judging these variables is subjective, which promotes disagreement about whether a child is really "addicted" or not. Such arguments are misleading and pointless, because harmful habits and addictions are symptoms of the real problem: major family dysfunction.

      For more perspective, review and discuss these symptoms of a true addiction:

  What Can Kids Become Addicted To?

      The typical answer is "alcohol and other drugs." They can also become unhealthily dependent on..

  • Web surfing and social networking (like FaceBook and MySpace);

  • texting and talking to friends via cell phone;

  • overeating (note - food is a drug);

  • relationships (codependence);

  • sex, masturbation, and pornography (sexual arousal and release);

  • spending and/or gambling; and...

  • exercising and sports.

Note that typical hobbies are not addictions, unless they're compulsive and clearly interfere with health, education, socialization, and family well-being.

  Why do Kids Become Addicted?

      Pre-teens and teens in all socio-economic settings may become addicted because of a mix of powerful factors like these...

  •   all true addictions reliably reduce or distract from inner pain, so "addiction" can be viewed as unconscious self-medication, not a "character flaw," "illness," "disease," or "weak will;"

the unrecognized [wounds + unawareness] cycle causes some couples to conceive kids before they're able to parent effectively. They create low-nurturance (dysfunctional) families which cause their kids psychological inner pain.

  • typical psychologically- wounded people unconsciously choose other wounded people as mates, so if a child has one wounded parent, s/he probably has two - and up to four wounded grandparents. This promotes young kids not getting their needs met - and inner pain.

  • typical kids and teens don't know how to (a) identify their developmental and special needs and (b) ask for adult help in filling them in healthy ways. This is specially true for children in troubled, divorcing, step, and foster families; 

  • acquired cellular craving for some drugs like nicotine, alcohol, and some street drugs can turn experimental and recreational use into a compulsive dependence; and...

  • normal kids impulsively seek adventure, excitement, and peer acceptance and approval; and...

  • many kids get too little factual information about addiction and its toxic effects; and...

  • most parents and many professionals focus on "fixing" the addict, rather than on healing their dysfunctional family system (Lesson 5)  And...

  • pandemic global demand for addictive chemicals makes providing them highly profitable and available, despite legal and social penalties.

      Do these reasons for kids' addiction make sense to you? How many average parents do you think could explain these interrelated roots of child addiction?

  Does Childhood Addiction Differ From Adult Addiction?

      Yes and no. Yes, because kids have less knowledge, authority, resources (like money), responsibility, different family roles than adults, and fewer options. Kids can't change their family's nurturance level by themselves as their adults can. No, because addiction origins, dynamics, symptoms, and recovery (sobriety) are the same regardless of age.

  What is "Enabling," and What Can We Do About it?

      Relative to addiction, enabling means "promoting an addiction (inner pain) by not admitting or confronting the addict's behaviors and their effects." So family adults who ignore, minimize, rationalize, joke about, or intellectualize a child's addiction and what causes it are enabling their family's dysfunction.

      Enabling is a clear symptom of the real problem: adults' unawareness and psychological wounds. So if any of your family adults or supporters are enabling a child's addiction, they need to:

  • be respectfully confronted by other adults on their wounds and toxic behavior, so they may...

  • admit their wounds and enabling, and commit to self-motivated recovery. (ref. Lesson 1)

Note that parents controlled by false selves can behave paradoxically: they can agree that addiction and enabling are harming their child/ren, continue to enable their addiction, and deny or excuse this.

  How Can We Parent an Addicted Child Effectively?

      If you feel a child is probably or surely addicted, you family adults need to:

  • admit and work at reducing your psychological wounds via Lesson 1 or equivalent;

  • raise your awareness by studying and discussing this course;

  • guard your primary relationships (Lesson 4); and...

  • help the addicted (wounded) child within your limits.

      Let's look at the last of these targets...

Options for Helping your Child/ren

      "Helping" means "identifying and filling your child's current primary needs in a wholistically-healthy way."

__  All your adults study and discuss your child's developmental needs. Seek agreement on...

  • which specific needs have been unfilled, and...

  • how these unfilled needs rank in importance short and long term. Then...

  • negotiate which of your adults are responsible for filling which needs. 

__  If the child you're concerned about has suffered family separation and divorce and/or parental (or other) death, assess how well these common adjustment needs are being met. Unmet developmental and family-adjustment needs - including incomplete grief - cause inner pain for all family members, This promotes addictions..

__  Help your child to trust that s/he is loved and important to all you adults, and that you all are concerned (anxious) about his or her (specific) behavior and welfare. If your actions don't match your words here (the child doesn't feel loved, respected, heard, and important), claiming this will increase the child's hurt, resentment, and distrust (pain). Word <-> behavior mismatches usually indicate adult psychological wounds.

__  If any of you adults are addicted to substances, activities, relationships, and/or mood-states, you want the child to witness (not just hear) meaningful adult behavior changes. Otherwise you're sending the youngster a self-defeating double message ("Do as we say, not as we do.") Double messages suggest false-self domination...

__  Help your child to believe you don't feel she is bad or wrong for any (specific) addictive behaviors, and that you adults believe addiction is a family  problem - i.e. that you adults have been doing something that causes the child pain. This is only true if you feel your family nurturance level has been too low because of adults' wounds and unawareness.

__  Help your child gain a factual, age-appropriate understanding of "addiction," what causes it, and how it harms people and their families. Learn about Al Ateen/Al Anon, Families Anonymous, and similar lay and church support groups, and consider attending local or on-line meetings. Scan the Web for other resources. As you do, avoid the outdated attitude that the child is the problem. S/He isn't. Your family system is the problem.

__  Help your child know you adults are responsible for getting your family appropriate help, and that you're going to do so. That might sound like "So Nina, we want you to know that we're going to start family counseling, and we need you to help us by participating."

__  Consider hiring a veteran family counselor who knows about managing addictions and sees them a family problem, not just a personal one. Your child's school may suggest competent local practitioners

__  Avoid these impulses with your child, for they are signs of adults' wounds and unawareness. They will probably increase her/his inner pain...





















Keep in mind that addiction is not "rational," and logic will not persuade a child to change their self-medication for inner pain.

      More suggestions on helping your addicted child...

__  Help your child understand that you adults hold her or him accountable for behaviors and choices within her/his control, and that you're going to set limits (specific consequences) if s/he chooses to ignore the behavioral limits you set. Keep in mind that self-medicating people need help in hitting true bottom, and that setting and enforcing uncomfortable limits helps to do that. The toxic alternative is enabling.

__ Stay clear on the difference between changes and losses (broken psychological bonds). Inventory the child's major tangible and invisible  losses across his or her life. Then evaluate...

  • your family's grieving policy (healthy > unhealthy), and...

  • how well your child is doing at grieving her or his major losses (stuck > in process > complete).

Addiction is often a symptom of incomplete grief + wounded family adults in denial + a toxic or ineffective family grieving policy (including no policy). Review Lesson 3 for options and resources on healthy grieving.

__  Help each other to stay steadily aware of what you can and cannot control, and to turn over the latter to your Higher Power. You may also want to ask the help of any religious community you participate in if it is a high-nurturance (vs. rigid, judgmental, shame-based, or fear-based) organization.

__  Help each other and your child learn what causes guilt (e.g. "I caused my child to become an addict - I'm a bad parent!"), and learn how to reduce excessive guilt to normal.

__  If you have other kids in the family, help them understand in age-appropriate terms what you're trying to do. Teach them what "inner pain" is. Be careful not to imply or describe the addicted child as "bad," "sick," or "the problem." You adults are the problem!

      Pause, breathe, and notice your thoughts and feelings now. What did you just learn? Do these helping options seem realistic? Do you feel comfortable discussing and tailoring them with your family adults and supporters? If not - why? Beware just adopting these results as they stand. For optimal motivation, you need to define your own helping strategies.

  What if We're a Stepfamily?

      Typical stepfamily systems are far more complex than intact biofamilies. They have many more people, relationships, adjustment tasks, and simultaneous stressors - and a higher (U.S.) re/divorce rate. That means that an addicted child will add stress to a mix of other problems. So typical stepfamily adults need to:

  • study, discuss, and implement the suggestions in Lessons 1 thru 6 as a foundation;

  • study and discuss stepfamily basics, problems, and solutions (Lesson 7)  Pay special attention to Q&A about stepkids, and review their special adjustment needs.

  • agree that their ongoing goal is to maintain a high family nurturance level for all members

  • learn and discuss addiction basics; and...

  • agree on (a) which stepfamily adults are responsible for proactively trying to help an addicted child, and on (b) specifically what they're responsible for. Use the options above as a guide.


      This Lesson-6 article offers perspective and options for parenting an addicted minor child effectively. It builds on this article to answer these questions:

  • How can we tell a true addiction from a "bad habit" or "an obsession"?

  • What can kids become addicted to?

  • Why do kids become addicted?

  • Does childhood addiction differ from adult addiction?

  • What is "enabling," and what can we do about it?

  • How can we parent an addicted child effectively?

  • What if we're a stepfamily? 

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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