The Path to Parental Health – Eight Responses Many Parents Experience

Attendees to You’re Not Alone conferences have done follow-up conferences with Dr. Steve Nicholson, an anthropologist and former college president. As he talked to these parents and listened to what they were saying, Dr. Nicolson began to discover a process of recovery/growth for parents whose kids abuse drugs or alcohol. In some ways this process is similar to what Kubler-Ross discovered about the process of death and dying. After Dr. Nicolson did his study, we shared his thinking with other parents of kids who have abused or are abusing. They added further insights.

Our initial research, though incomplete and anecdotal, suggests eight common responses that parents of an abuser of alcohol or drugs may have on their way to becoming healthy enough to leave the issue in God’s hands and quit ruining their own emotional and spiritual health. Granted that every parent does not follow the same path or even experience all of these responses, the research has some validity and will help parents understand where they are and where they need to get for the sake of their own health. Furthermore, depending on the age of the child, responses can be different for each parent. In fact, parents may experience two or three responses at the same time.

Dr. Nicholson noted these eight responses as being common for parents of abusers:

Pain & Sadness
At a subsequent conference for Christian ministers and missionaries (not pastors) many of the participants talked about the pain and sadness they have experienced or do experience over their prodigal children.

Indeed the question was raised wondering if participants in Dr. Nicholson’s study mentioned pain and/or sadness. Rather than violating the validity of that study by trying to add to it, we simply want to add that a strong number of Christian workers and missionaries have experienced a profound sense of pain or sadness over their children’s behavior. Parents should understand that they are not alone when they experience those feelings; pain and sadness are legitimate feelings parents experience.  Wherever we are on this continuum we need to rely on God’s power, strength and grace to remain on the path to parental health.

Denial is not seeing or admitting the evidence of our child’s abuse of drugs or alcohol.  Certainly any denial is exacerbated by the intense feelings of grief and loss the parent experiences.  Denial can have serious consequences in the life of the parent if it is not recognized and dealt with.  In some cases denial has led to the disowning of the child or the retreating from the ministry – without ever dealing with the realities of the child’s addiction.

To accept the fact that our kid is abusing drugs or alcohol is very difficult.  We did not rear him/her this way.  Many parents struggle with the question, “What did I do wrong?  Did I cause this?”  Most pastors’ kids to whom we have talked said their parents did great jobs rearing them.  Their poor decisions to use/abuse were the result of their own rebellion.  Parents must accept the reality that they are not responsible…just as they must be honest with their fears for the future of their kids. Acceptance of these realities allows us to get the help we need for our own emotional and spiritual health.

The shock of the reality can be described as a huge energy-draining phenomenon that impacts the parent greatly.  The shock is so intense it often immobilizes the parent and keeps him/her from fulfilling normal family and ministry responsibilities.  In some cases, the pain and shock are so debilitating that the parent feels like quitting on God, quitting the ministry, or lashing out at God in anger.

Parents of drug/alcohol abusers often enable because they love their children and want the best for them.  We enable when we cover and make excuses for the abuser and don’t let him/her face the consequences of his/her actions.  However, enabling must be stopped.  Although the parents’ motives are pure, the effect of their actions is to deny the abuser the responsibility of seeing the error of his/her ways.  Parents must “learn to let pain do its work.”

Anger—or misdirected anger—can be directed at many targets: the child, the drug dealer, society, one’s spouse, or the church that is not sensitive to the pain of the parent.  Nevertheless, the parent must assume responsibility for his/her own anger and deal with it.  If left unchecked, the anger is very destructive.  It has been said, “Hurt feelings only hurt us in the end.”  The same is true with our anger.

Acceptance means we begin to apply the three C’s: (1) I did not cause this; (2) I cannot cure this; and (3) I cannot control this.  When we get to this stage, we begin to reach out to God and ask for His intervention in the life of our child.  We come to the realization of what we can and cannot control.  We accept the fact of our child’s abuse.  This realization allows us to pray harder and focus more of our energy on our own spiritual, emotional and mental health, while asking and trusting God for His intervention in the life of our child.

Marital Tension
Often parents are challenged in relating to one another.  Our basic temperaments cause us to respond or react to our kid’s abuse in different ways.  Our reactions and responses may vary across a broad spectrum: from practicing faith and feeling peace to wanting to control everything and feeling worried.  If these temperament differences are not recognized and dealt with as soon as possible, the parents’ marriage can suffer.  For help with this response, read Kim and Lynda Hodge’s talk entitled, “Carrying On When Your Heart is Broken” and John and Susan Vawter’s talk entitled, “How Drugs and Alcohol Impact Your Marriage.”

Faith: Loving the Addict But Leaving Him/Her in God’s Hands
When we begin to get our life in order; we realize that we can trust God with the life of our child.  Reaching the stage of trusting God is a tortuous journey, but we cannot give up hope.  Some call this response “detachment.”  The parent does not quit loving or caring for the child.  Detachment simply means the parent is learning to trust God and not be controlled by the abuser’s actions.  We find we often take two steps forward and one step backwards along the path to this response of faith.  As long as we understand that this is a goal, then we have something concrete to hang on to when the pain and grief are particularly intense or we are not doing so well in trusting God.  When we reach the highest level of this response, peace returns and anxiety, fear, and hostility melt away.  We trust the God Who loves our child more than we do to keep working in his/her life.

In conclusion, these eight responses were taken from the voices of experience of parents who have traveled or are traveling this road.  Their words give a path of understanding for those parents involved with a child who is abusing.  No definite time frame exists for these parents.  Each will follow at his/her own pace and must be careful not to let others force him or her into an artificial time sequence.  A marriage partner must be careful not to project his or her response onto his or her spouse.  Recognizing that others have walked the road and have achieved some balance and faith in their lives will help those now on the journey.

These eight responses are all descriptive.

In some cases, prescriptive solutions may be found in the Question and Answer section.

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