You Can’t Love Your Child Out of Addiction

A proven parenting tool that moves your child toward treatment without force or drama

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“He’s manipulating you.” 

“You know he’s lying right to your face!”

“If you do that you’re just enabling him.”

“He said he would never do that again, and there he goes…”

As the parent or guardian of someone with substance use disorder, these are common exasperations and statements that come from well-meaning people as they observe your life and decisions. Statements like these stem from an objective, non-attached person observing the erratic, illogical, and hurtful behavior that is one of the most common and infuriating symptoms of an addicted brain. 

From the outside, it looks so simple to fix, from the inside it’s an agonizing cycle of trying to figure out why someone you love to their most inner-being is hurting you, and themselves, repeatedly.

The last thing you want to do is encourage or enable their crazy and damaging behavior, but at the same time, you know you can’t put up a wall and give up on the person you love.

So what are you supposed to do


If you’re at that point (we all get there) please keep reading.

This tug of war we play with those we love in the addiction battle is physically and mentally exhausting, makes you guilt-ridden, and forces you to question every decision you make. Because that decision may be the one to send him or her back on the street, to their dealer – or – could also be the one that turns them in a positive direction – toward treatment, or even just one more hour or day without using. The problem is you never know what way it’ll go. And even if you did, it wouldn’t be the same from day to day because there is nothing even slightly predictable when you love someone who’s in a battle with addiction.

I wish I had learned more about the C.R.A.F.T. model (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) of intervention when our family was in the hellish middle of our son’s struggle because it teaches you how to naturally move the person in addiction toward actions that help themselves and motivate them to change. And it works.

The alternative is a debilitating combination of yelling, screaming, begging, pleading, shutting out, blaming, distancing, threatening…you’ve probably been there many times. The other alternative is sitting and waiting until your child hits the elusive “rock bottom” which does not have to happen.

The CRAFT model works to affect the addicted person’s behavior by changing the way the family interacts with him or her. It’s designed to accomplish three goals:

1. When a loved one is abusing substances and refusing to get help, CRAFT helps families move their loved one toward treatment.

2. CRAFT helps reduce the loved one’s alcohol and drug use, whether or not they’ve engaged in treatment yet.

3. CRAFT improves the lives of the family and friends around the person in addiction.

It may seem counterintuitive to focus on your own words and actions when it’s the person you love who needs to stop their addictive behavior, but the old saying is true – you can’t force someone to change, so start by changing yourself and they may just follow.

An important element of CRAFT is rewarding sober or healthy activities and discouraging actions that include drugs or alcohol. This approach to getting your teen or young adult into treatment leads to a lower percentage of relapse. Using harsh, confrontational MTV-style interventions tends to result in less successful long-term outcomes. The reason you focus on rewarding your child’s positive behavior is that when the reasons not to use outweigh the reasons to use, people are more likely to enter treatment.

So what would a CRAFT interaction look like with your teenager who’s getting deeper into drugs or alcohol? Here’s a common scenario:

You know your 16-year-old son is smoking pot on a regular basis, skips school pretty regularly and he’s also come home drunk after parties. You’ve done the grounding, took the car away, and tried the “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me!” conversation that ended with yelling and slamming doors. You feel powerless and pissed off. 

Today, you didn’t get the robocall from school saying he was absent, he came home not high, and thew all of his dirty laundry in the washing machine (all of it, whites, colors, towels, sheets, maybe even shoes.) He’s stomping around, not really very pleasant to be with and you’re tempted to say, “Ha, you actually went to school today?! What was the occasion?” and “Seriously, you can’t put all of that together in one load – do you not even know how to do laundry?”

A CRAFT response would sound something like this, in a genuine voice, “Hey, I’m really glad you went to school all day, and thanks for doing your laundry – it saves me so much time.” If a quick hug or shoulder squeeze is available, do that, smile, and shut up. The laundry will survive and if it gets faded or colored – that’s ok, it’s not as important as building a relationship with your son or daughter. 

The idea is to reward ANY behavior that is positive and doesn’t involve substances – regardless of whether you believe going to school and doing laundry are table-stakes for a 16-year-old. Find the good, reward it, and don’t ruin it.

I can speak from experience that using the recommendations of this model helped me move from feeling completely helpless and crazy with multiple unsuccessful attempts at getting our son into treatment to having a (small) level of sanity and control that allowed us to take a deep breath, put some guardrails in place and regain some of the power he held over the entire family. 

What didn’t work was me thinking I could love, worry, cry, or hope my son out of his addiction.

If a mother’s love could cure the disease of addiction our country wouldn’t be losing nearly 200 people each day from overdoses. 

The drugs are stronger than your emotions so you need to let go of the fantasy of solving this problem on your own and bring in expert resources.

The key is not to give up. Build a team of people and professionals around you that will help carry your weary body through this painful season. And know it’s a season. Staying in the game is hard, messy, painful, and exhausting. Taking the reins and changing your own behavior may seem unfair and a burden in light of what your child is doing, but isn’t his or her life worth it? Consider yourself now a first-responder.

After learning these skills, whenever I saw my son I would look him in the eyes and tell him I would NEVER give up on him. I knew my boy was in there somewhere and was determined to stay with the stranger that inhabited his body until the son I knew returned. Now, after nearly losing his life to a fentanyl overdose and 3 years in recovery, he’s able to recognize my actions and has thanked me, many times. 

For free CRAFT resources, visit the CMC: Foundation for Change

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