The Things I Cannot Change: Why Parents of Addicts Should Stop the Self-Blame

Watching your child struggle with addiction is heartbreaking in a way that is nearly unspeakable, and in the midst of that heartbreak many parents turn inward to find answers to their child’s pain. You may compulsively retrace the course of your life in an attempt to examine the lineage of addiction and identify where your errors were made. Was I too harsh on him as a kid? Was I too lenient? Did I not listen enough? Did I not say the right thing? Should I have stayed home? What did I miss? What didn’t I see? When could I have stopped it? Where did I go wrong? The second-guessing of your history can become all-consuming as you relentlessly search for answers in the smallest of details, leaving no stone unturned, desperately looking for a genesis story and someone to blame, especially if that person is you. The fact that addicts too are often looking for something to blame doesn’t help. Their desperate desire to pin responsibility for their pain on someone else and your own instinctive drive to take responsibility for your child often dovetail to confirm your worst suspicions about yourself.

But finding faults in humans is like shooting fish in a barrel. We are inherently flawed creatures and taking inventory of your parenting history will invariably lead to the discovery of mistakes, and when you find them, you may hold onto them for dear life. “That’s it!” you think, and while the pain of self-blame may be piercing, finding an answer is also a kind of relief. Self-blame can be a psychological magic trick to give yourself the illusion of control; the real causes of addiction are too messy, powerful, and out of reach, but identifying the seeds of addiction within yourself puts it within your sphere of influence. It also gives you a concrete target at which to direct your anger, which can, in its own masochistic way, give you some small measure of comfort.

Self-Blame as a Coping Strategy for Addiction


Addiction is an illness caused by a complex mix of biological and experiential factors that coalesce to create a compulsive drive for substance use.[1. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/02/10/what-is-addiction/addiction-is-a-disease-and-needs-to-be-treated-as-such] Etiologically speaking, “bad parents” has yet to be recognized as the point of origin. For some, understanding this is profoundly liberating and instantly helps them reorganize their approach to both their addicted child and themselves. For others, blamelessness translates to powerlessness and brings no comfort. Confronting the reality of addiction requires not only disrupting deeply-held beliefs about yourself, but giving up your tenuous sense of control against every protective instinct you have as a parent. If it wasn’t you, it was something larger, something unwieldy and overwhelming that you can’t fix. You can’t stop addiction by acting differently, by being better, by saying the right thing, by apologizing for every misstep you took on your parenting journey. And that realization too can be heartbreaking.

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The Serenity to Accept the Things I Cannot Change


In the Serenity Prayer, recovering addicts say “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The same desire should be present in the parents of addicts. For addicts who don’t face the truth of addiction, recovery is not possible. For parents who don’t face the truth of addiction, self-healing is not possible. Self-blame works to keep you trapped in denial, blind to the reality of your child’s struggle as well as your own, and drifting from the real path to healing as you chase phantom solutions. Only when you stop blaming yourself will you see the real picture of addiction and be able to move forward with renewed strength.

What You Can Do


Parents of addicts are often told what not to do. Don’t accept responsibility for things that are not in your control. Don’t name-call. Don’t judge. Don’t enable. Don’t coddle. Don’t help your child hide from the consequences of their addiction. But as a parent, you are probably hardwired to want to do something, but what that something is can be hard to decipher above the chorus of “don’t”s. Here are some positive, proactive steps you can take to fortify yourself and support your child’s recovery:

  • Educate yourself about addiction, treatment, and recovery. Regardless of where your child is in her or his journey, having the knowledge to understand what is happening and ability to offer meaningful support is invaluable. At the same time, understanding how addiction affects families can help you make sense of your experience and break through the self-blame, isolation, and shame you may feel.
  • Connect with resources designed to support you, whether in the form of therapy, Al-Anon, Narc-Anon, or another support group. Learning from and sharing with others who know what you are going through can be a powerful and healing experience and give you real ways of coping.
  • Offer compassion and understanding for both your child and yourself.
  • Establish boundaries with your child that keep you safe emotionally, physically, and financially. For some, this is a difficult process that requires you to act against your strongest desires, but it is necessary in order to protect both you and your child.
  • If you feel it is appropriate, provide a safe and sober environment for your child.
  • If you want to offer your child financial support, purchasing goods or paying service providers directly is a better alternative than giving them cash, which may be used to prolong their addiction.

Although only the person with the addiction can ultimately make the choice to recover, fortifying yourself emotionally and practically will allow you to act as an invaluable support resource when they are ready to accept that support. If your child expresses a desire for recovery, help them find a treatment center that will give them the best chances of success in the fight against addiction and that offers specialized programs to help families heal. Together, you can move past blame and toward healing with clarity, strength, and grace.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with addiction and integrates family services to support these critical relationships. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one on the journey to recovery.