Can You Force Someone to Go to Rehab? What to Do When Your Adult Child Refuses Treatment

The difference between forcing someone to go to treatment and applying the right pressure for them to find their inherent motivation could mean a world of difference in their recovery success. Consider how you can empower your son or daughter with compassionate intervention and professional support.

Rebecca watched in shock as her daughter Denise lost her job and her hopes of becoming a partner at the law firm, her marriage of 13 years, her home, her cats, and eventually, her grip on what life really meant to her. Denise’s drinking began to escalate four years ago after a harrowing battle with breast cancer. She beat the cancer, but was overcome by hidden pain and self-doubt. Although drinking didn’t solve her problems, Denise found that she couldn’t cope without it, and in time she made it her priority above just about everything else.

The family reacted to Denise’s substance use in different ways, from anger to confusion to real action. Rebecca knew for years that an inpatient treatment center was the next right step for her daughter, but Denise consistently pushed against the option. Her mind wasn’t on what she had to lose or what she had to gain; her mind was on the next drink. It wasn’t that she didn’t care about what she had lost or what she might want for the future—in fact, she cared enough to use alcohol as a remedy for those preoccupations too. But she couldn’t put other priorities into perspective under the influence of alcohol and addiction.

Rebecca eventually came up against the question of whether you can force someone to go to rehab. She felt as if she was about to lose hope, but she feared that if she didn’t pursue the possibility of treatment for her daughter, no one else would. When she reached out to a residential treatment center, they spoke with confidence and clarity that she hadn’t felt in so many years. And they understood Rebecca’s concerns about the significant line between forcing someone into a rehab program versus the individual choosing and committing to treatment for themselves. Even though there are ways to mandate someone’s entry into rehabilitation for drug and alcohol abuse, their chances of real success in long-term recovery are immensely improved when they can reach a place of acceptance and interest in their own positive path.

Can You Force Someone to Go to Rehab, and Does It Work?

In short, it may be possible to order your son or daughter to go to treatment by way of the court. Most states support involuntary commitment laws when you follow the right application channels and can demonstrate justification for this legal action. If you are considering this course, take a step back to imagine how your child will react to this hard imposition. If they have a hard time trusting others now and accepting help, this will probably make it even harder. If they are harboring deep pains and struggles that are influencing them to drink, these challenges may just imprint more severely on their psyche. Because they are going to be one of their own greatest allies on the path of addiction recovery, their buy-in is critically important.

California has an involuntary commitment law which allows family members to petition for a court order to send their addicted loved one to treatment. Typically, a family will need to prove that the individual is addicted and that they are at risk of harming themselves or others. While this may be the most time-controlled option for getting your daughter or your son into treatment, it may not be the most effective approach in the end. In fact, it may undermine their ability to benefit from treatment as an opportunity for holistic transformation. Though it may feel like legal action is your only recourse after all you’ve been through with their addiction, it is not your sole remaining option.

Denise’s substance use is likely rooted in a complicated experience of pain, trauma, and insecurity. Being forced into a treatment environment—even if in the interest of her own health and happiness—may actually stir up more of these same fearful feelings and serve to build stronger resistance to help. Like Denise, most people who fall into a life of addiction have a range of problems to address, from the causes to the effects of addiction. Comprehensive treatment for substance use is the answer, but the questions and conversations between here and there are vulnerable, precarious ones. Asking the right questions and having compassionate, constructive conversations may just guide your son or daughter to say “yes” to treatment for their own sake. But how?

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Motivations for Entering Rehab

It’s important to face the reality that there is no easy or altogether pleasant route when your child is trapped in addiction. It might seem like the easiest path is to pretend as if nothing is wrong and hope that everything will be fine in the end. But, of course, you want to keep your son or daughter in your life, and for them to be happy and whole, and something has to give before more is lost than can be recovered.

By having the right conversations about what is going on in their experience, together, you can tap into the motivations that can actually fuel their recovery journey. Let’s look at the various possible motivations for addiction recovery treatment and the pros and cons of each:

The Risk of Harm

Pros: Any further decline in their health or things and relationships they may still have to lose can be reasons for people to stop using substances and stop the risk of harm in its tracks.

Cons: This motivation may inspire change only when the losses are imminent. In time, they may not feel that they are at risk of harm anymore and return to substances to cope with any pain or problems they haven’t yet worked out. While the risk of harm may be the pressure that gets them into treatment, they will probably need stronger, more meaningful motivation to stay on the recovery path for good.

The Threat of Deprivation

Pros: When someone risks losing the family’s support or other material allowance if they don’t agree to enter treatment, they might comply.

Cons: But if the motivation is to recover the support they risk losing rather than to actually get better, their lack of investment in the treatment process likely won’t amount to the progress necessary for real recovery. Additionally, a threat of deprivation furthers a disciplinary dynamic that disempowers the individual to take their well-being and happiness into their own hands.

Legal Consequences

Pros: Getting a court mandate for your son or daughter’s rehabilitation can cut them off from the dangers of their addiction in the near future.

Cons: However, it may create greater rifts between them and the family, and they will not have much chance of recovery success in isolation. Under the pressure of intense judgment and punishment, they may not be able to overcome feelings of shame, fear, anger, and resentment in order to connect with their responsibilities in recovery.

A Real Desire to Get Clean and Reach the Advantages of Recovery

Pros: With patience and unconditional compassion, an individual can connect with the desire for a better life than the one they are leading now—and the belief that they can actually reach that place of empowerment. That desire and belief, in and of themselves, are empowering and can outlive the other forms of motivation for truly lasting commitment to recovery.

Cons: It may be difficult to reach this perspective through the fog of substances and addiction.

Any combination of these motivations may be at work at any given time. Even if one of the first three pressures are motivating the treatment route, you can still aim to help your daughter or son to discover the vital desire inside themselves to reach a clean and sober place and the kind of life that is possible there.

How to Get Someone into Rehab and Set Them Up for Success

You’ve likely exhausted all the conversation possibilities you can think of, and it may be time for some fresh perspective. One option would be to follow the lead of a professional interventionist, who knows when to apply pressure, when to back off and listen, and which are the right questions for your son or daughter’s particular mindset. They will take the time to talk to you and your family prior to the intervention to thoroughly prepare for the discussion and for the most fitting treatment options. A successful intervention is not about force; it’s more about approaching a loved one with compassion, understanding, and empathy. It’s about wanting to understand the problems that your child is trying to fix with substance use and attempting to counteract those motivations with more positive and constructive ones.

Ultimately, if you don’t know what to do next, you can call an addiction treatment center and they can help you understand next steps based on what really works for those who are resistant to treatment. They can recommend an interventionist who is caring and responsive and who has had success with families in the past. No matter how unsure you may feel in the moment, you are not alone and the road back to life is open—with caring people ready to show your daughter or son the way.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned San Francisco Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.