How do I help my child if he/she is not participating in seeking help at all?

One of the worst feelings in the world is watching your child self-destruct. We spend our lives, from the moment they are born, taking care of their every need and being able to fix most things for them. It is literally our job. Unfortunately, when drugs and alcohol come into the picture, all of the rules change.

Addiction is defined as a disease because it creates structural and functional changes in the brain. We don’t like to think of our child’s brain being compromised, but the truth is that their executive functioning, which is what helps them plan, and their decision-making are affected. They are not the same smart kids when they are using drugs. The good news is that those skills can come back in recovery.

As parents, we have been warned about enabling. The worst thing we could possibly be was an enabler. The definition too often seems to include anything from letting our child know that they are loved to buying them a bag of heroin. We are wrongly told that anything we have done might be the reason our children turned toward drugs, and anything we might do to help could be the very thing that causes them to continue or relapse. I would challenge those ideas to say we are not that powerful. We do the best we can. If we educate ourselves about substance use disorder and connect with others who can help us make good decisions, then we can work alongside our loved one and help them find their best possible options. We cannot do it for them, though.

It’s my belief that educating yourself can never be detrimental. It wouldn’t have been possible for my daughter, in active use, to find a treatment center that was reputable and would serve her best interests. Doing my research was a part that I could play that was productive. Vetting treatment centers in hopes that she would eventually want to get well was one of the few things I could do.

However, we must realize that the final step of accepting help is left to the person who seems least able to make that decision: our child. As much as we want to be able to drag them to the steps of the best treatment center we can find, it is ultimately up to them. It is a fine line between helping and taking control of a problem that’s not ours to fix.

I would encourage any parent to do their homework. Educate yourself on the options available, connect with others who can support you, believe in your child until they believe in themselves, and know that as much as you want to do the rest for them, it’s going to be up to them to take that final step.

Reach out. You’re not alone.

Disclaimer: The above advice is not meant to be construed as medical or legal advice. If you need professional medical, psychological, or legal advice, please contact a doctor, lawyer, or medical center.

Maureen Cavanagh is a peer recovery coach and interventionist who works with families and loved ones supporting a person struggling with a substance use disorder on their own recovery. She is the founder of Magnolia New Beginnings and Magnolia Recovery and Consulting, and the author of If You Love Me: A Mother’s Journey Through Her Daughter’s Addiction and Recovery, published by Henry Holt/Macmillan. You can learn more about her at

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