Understanding Addiction: A Parent’s Guide

Watching your daughter battle addiction is often coupled with difficult and complex emotions: devastation, helplessness, grief, etc. While working with teenagers who struggle with addiction, I’ve heard parents express various sentiments including, “Why would she continue to use if she knows it’s hurting our family?” “Why can’t she quit if she knows it’s ruining her life?” “I just don’t understand it.” Increasing your understanding of why your daughter uses may help you in your process to healing alongside your daughter.

There are many reasons why your daughter may use and why she may become addicted. These may include family history, an already present negative emotional state such as depression, low self-esteem, high levels of stress and anxiety, and the teen brain which is not yet fully developed. Teenagers have often been compared “to a car with a fully functioning gas pedal (the reward system) but weak brakes (the prefrontal cortex). Teenagers are highly motivated to pursue pleasurable rewards and avoid pain, but their judgment and decision-making skills are still limited” (NIDA, 2014, p. 3).

Addiction and Attachment

A significant and essential reason why your daughter may continue substance use and develop an addiction is the principle of attachment. Simply put, attachment is how emotionally connected your daughter feels to you and to those around her. Without this emotional connection, she is left feeling lost, alone, and empty.

Imagine an individual with an empty void in their body where emotional connection would be. The need for that individual to fill this hole and to feel complete is very real and thus, when she begins using, she feels connected and temporarily complete. We cannot simply clean out your daughter’s void of its contents (i.e. remove the addiction) and leave it empty. If we try this approach, she will simply find something else to fill the emptiness with that may or not be healthy. Therefore, we need to refill it with the emotional connection and support that she is missing. This can happen with individual and family therapy and a supportive community of staff and peers. Rebuilding and reconnecting with your daughter can begin to heal some of the emptiness and loneliness she feels.

Tips for Parents

Working through your daughter’s addiction and emotional pain is a process. Your daughter may even experience a relapse. It’s important to maintain patience and hope that through the journey to healing is long and difficult, it is possible.

Another important tip for parents is to be supportive without enabling your daughter. Because addiction is difficult to witness, parents often want to protect or save their daughters from the pain that addiction causes. Rescuing your daughter can often create a continuation of the cycle in which she is stuck. Using an empathetic and supportive approach such as listening or attending a 12-step group, instead of enabling the addiction by paying fines, bailing her out of jail, or solving other similar problems for her will help break any enabling cycle that may be in place.

Finally, watching your daughter experience pain and heartache is one of the most difficult experiences a parent can have. It’s easy to forget that you need healing, too. This may also include your relationship with your partner or other children. Take time to help yourself heal in the process alongside your daughter.

References

National Institute on Drug Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Abuse. (2014). Disorder : A Research-Based Guide (NIH Publication No. 14-7953). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.