When a community learns of a child with a serious illness, the usual response is to rally support from friends and neighbors — providing dinners for the family and offering rides for siblings.
However, when the serious illness is related to mental health, such as addiction or substance use disorder, families may feel hesitant to share the news. They may feel ashamed of their child’s condition and the reaction they receive might not be as supportive as in other cases of a child with an illness.
While parents are rarely to blame for a child’s addiction or other mental health disorder, they are likely to experience a variety of challenging emotions about their child’s condition. These feelings include shame and guilt, which could potentially hinder their loved one’s recovery.
Are parents to blame for addiction?
“When children experience suffering to the point of developing an addiction, it’s completely justified that many parents want to know what they did to cause these problems and how they failed to protect their loved one from harm,” says Lindsay Kramer, a marriage and family therapist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.
There are many variables that play a part in whether a child will develop an addiction, including genetics, environment and stressors. A child that is exposed to addiction in the home environment can either take to addictive behaviors as second nature, or be completely adverse to them.
“I think that blaming oneself comes with being a parent, as we try to shape and impact our children’s lives as effectively as possible,” Kramer says. “However, guilt or shame can hinder the recovery process if it results in not setting appropriate boundaries to support recovery.”
Why guilt and shame can hinder recovery
According to Kramer, when parents feel that they did something to contribute to their loved one’s addiction, they may loosen their parenting style to make up for these unresolved feelings. This guilt can lead to enabling, the idea that loved ones over-function for the addict in an attempt to protect them from their addiction.
This can look like:
- Making up reasons for your child’s absence at important functions due to their substance use
- Throwing away or hiding substances despite the likelihood they will quickly be replaced
- Giving your child with an addiction money out of fear that they will have to resort to risky ways to obtain money to fuel their addiction
“Enabling can very much be traced back to unresolved guilt and shame,” Kramer says. “By taking too much responsibility for why the addiction emerged, the guilty parent inadvertently gets in the way of their loved one being able to take responsibility for their own role in the process and develop the tools to recover.”
Kramer recommends that parents and children discuss their feelings of guilt and shame with a supportive audience, perhaps in family therapy or a support group. This allows for empathy, which is one of the primary ways to reduce shame; an understanding of the impact the feelings have and the chance to outline boundaries and plans for a healthy recovery process. Discussing feelings of this nature could also be a significant opportunity to clarify whether the guilt and shame are actually justified.
“Sometimes, a child in recovery doesn’t hold any resentment toward their parent or blame them for the development of their disease,” Kramer says. “Illuminating information like this can alleviate the weighty responsibility the parent has taken on.”
If a child does believe the parent’s role in their lives did impact their addictive process, an accurate understanding of the problem can be revealed. Having a developmentally and age-appropriate discussion between parent and child can effectively pinpoint the unresolved issue and allow for a more precise plan toward resolution.
How parents can help their child — and themselves — heal
Kramer says it is important for parents to show love; model forgiveness and help-seeking behaviors; and encourage their loved ones to receive the necessary support and treatment for recovery. However, it is equally helpful for parents to focus on the things that they can actually control.
Caring for a child in their addiction can take a toll on a parent’s sense of self to the point where they lose their identity as an individual. Parents should take steps to help themselves heal by forgiving themselves for the events, situations and factors that led in some way toward the development of their child’s disease.
“It’s crucial to remember that there’s only so much responsibility that we can take in trying to control and manage our loved one’s addiction,” Kramer says. “Providing a healthy balance of compassion, and setting the boundaries necessary to prevent enabling, allows for strengthening of the recovery process and proper healing to take place.”
Therapy — family or individual — and support groups offered by Al-Anon, Nar-Anon or through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provide education and normalization for families in these positions. “We cannot go about helping our loved ones to heal and forgive themselves if we cannot do the same for ourselves,” she says.
Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your or a loved one’s use of alcohol or other substances. Sharp McDonald Center, Sharp Grossmont Hospital and Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital all provide substance abuse programs to help define a recovery path that works best for you.