When a child battles addiction, he rarely does it alone. For better or worse, the disease impacts the entire family. The good news is that millions of young people are finding recovery, and many credit their parents with helping them achieve sobriety. In honor of Father’s Day, I asked a group of college students about the ways their fathers influenced their recovery and the advice they would give other dads whose children struggle with addiction.
Here are the surprisingly simple yet impactful ways dads can help their children beat the odds and face their addiction.
Dads send a powerful message to their kids by being there for them, especially when they are struggling. As one student said, “My dad would drive 45 minutes to come and see me and just take a car ride with me. We would talk about normal things. Somehow, these conversations would bring me back to center and give me the strength to keep living. Eventually, I was ready to get help.” Never giving up on your child means holding onto hope even when things seem bleak. While it may be difficult for dads to keep reaching out as their children struggle with addiction, this commitment made a huge difference for our students in recovery.
One student offered this advice to fathers whose emerging adult children struggle with addiction: “Learn to give up control of the situation but not give up on loving.” Learning to give up control and show unconditional love may be the biggest challenge in loving someone with an addiction. These students understood that the disease of addiction can cause anger but explained, “Be mad at the disease, not at me.” One student offered praise to her father and said, “My dad was never angry. He was only loving and believed that I could find recovery. His love was a big factor in my recovery.”
Giving up control and showing unconditional love is a process and also a choice. It starts when we understand the difference between what we can control and what we cannot. Addiction is the bad guy, not our loved ones. Unconditional love increases the probability that those we love will eventually reach out for help.
Boundaries govern who participates in our life and how. Healthy physical and emotional boundaries are crucial to our wellbeing. All of my students agreed fathers need “good boundaries.” They could trace their eventual recovery to their parents drawing firm and healthy boundaries. For example, one student said her parents were eventually able to let go of the anger and say to her, “’I’m worried about you. You need to get help because you can’t live here anymore.’ It was then I finally realized it was on me and I got help. Getting help the first time didn’t work but it was the beginning of me getting better.”
Boundaries can be drawn firmly without anger. One student’s words of advice on how to do this, “Show compassion and empathy and find your sense of separation.”
For other recovering students, these boundaries needed to be drawn with the offer of support attached. For example, “You can’t live under my roof and use drugs. But when you want help, we will get you the help you need.” One student indicated there were“no simple fixes in my addiction.” But, his father provided support allowing his son the choice to receive help when he was ready.
It was important to my students that their dads were present and willing to share themselves. One student indicated, “Even now in my recovery, he is always there for me. He isn’t afraid to share his experiences including his life mistakes so I don’t have to repeat them.” She continued, “My dad has been so open with me. I feel like we have created a reciprocal relationship. He shared what worked for him in life, not in a lecture or a preachy way, but from his own experience.”
Another student whose dad is in recovery stated, “I can share everything with my dad. We talk about the 12 steps as well as all I am going through. One thing that means a lot is he shares positive and spiritual things with me often.”
This Father’s Day, we thank our dads, especially, those whose children struggle with addiction. May their children—and all children—achieve lasting recovery.
Thomas G. Kimball, Ph.D., LMFT
Dr. Kimball serves as the Director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery Community and holds the George C. Miller Family Regents Professorship at Texas Tech University. He is co-author of the book, Six Essentials to Achieve Lasting Recovery, Hazelden Press. He is a Clinical Director with MAP Health Management, LLC.