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Families of addicts feel desperate to help their loved ones stop abusing drugs or alcohol. However, if their desperate, though understandable, responses to their loved one’s behavior are not informed by biblical principles, they will unwittingly and sometimes tragically do more harm than good. Here are some of the common mistakes families of addicts make, followed by tips on how to help families become aware of what they need to change.
Mistake #1: Trying to control the addict
Sometimes families try to control the behavior of an addicted member by limiting that person’s access to funds, monitoring his or her time, or keeping constant tabs on the addict’s whereabouts.
Unfortunately, this approach frustrates the addict and becomes an excuse for him or her to entrench deeper into drug or alcohol abuse. Though trying to control a loved one’s addiction is counterproductive, it is understandable. Families are desperate to keep their loved one from taking illegal drugs or drinking alcohol. And they may experience a small measure of peace when they know their loved one isn’t getting into trouble. But such a high level of control is impossible to maintain in the long term. Plus, exerting so much control stresses out family members who end up becoming more aware of all the many things they can’t control while trying to police their loved one. Dr. Joseph Troncale, medical director at Retreat Premiere Addiction Treatment Centers in Lancaster County, PA, says, “Family members with addicted loved ones would do well to consider becoming familiar with Al-Anon1 principles: (1) you didn’t CAUSE the addiction; (2) you can’t CONTROL the addiction; and (3) you can’t CURE the addiction.”
Mistake #2: Enabling the addict
Trying to love the addict, some family members enable that person to continue his or her destructive behavior. “They’re trying to please this family member and make him or her happy, and they do so in ways that are just encouraging sin. Rather than taking a stand and reproving, they’re encouraging the sin to take place,” said Dr. Mark Shaw, executive director of Vision of Hope in Lafayette, IN, and an ordained minister, biblical counselor, and certified drug and alcohol abuse counselor.2
The family may also enable out of fear of losing the relationship (e.g., a child has threatened never to speak to his parents again if they don’t pay his rent) or of violent retaliation (an addict may lash out violently if kept from her drug of choice). If fear for one’s safety motivates an enabling situation, you should address this first.
Mistake #3: Ignoring the needs of other family members
Often, families ignore the needs of other family members by focusing all their attention on caring for the addict. When this happens, those who are ignored can become bitter toward their parents or their addicted family member because the addict receives all of the attention, time, and resources. Siblings become bitter because their college funds are used to fund rehab. Spouses give up on marriages because their partners are consumed with their child’s addiction. Children who would excel in school don’t because a parent’s addiction robs them of the support and encouragement they’d typically receive. Neglected family members are often tempted to turn to unhelpful ways of coping with the pain and instability caused by living with an addict.
How to help the families of addicts recognize the effects of their actions
While it may be clear to you that the family is hurting their loved one or that they are not acting in his or her best interest, the family members may not be aware of this. In fact, they may believe that their approach is wise, is in the best interest of the family, and keeps the loved one from living on the street. So how do you get them to see what they’re doing wrong?
One of the best ways to do this is to ask them questions that help them see the effect their behavior is having upon their loved one. Author, counselor, and CareLeader.org’s own Dr. Jeff Forrey says that questions should elicit facts that help loved ones see the consequences of their actions.
He also points out that while it is important to help people understand the impact of their choices, it’s also important for family members to realize what’s not happening as a result of their choices. For example, ignoring the actions of an addicted family member may keep the peace, but the addict does not learn how his or her behavior is affecting others, and family members do not learn how to deal with conflict. Devoting hours to controlling behavior may not seem detrimental to the mother of an addict until she is led to realize how other family members are being neglected.
Guiding families to wiser responses
Once family members become aware of the immediate consequences of their behavior, you can also help them think through the long-term implications of their behavior. Once they realize the futility of their actions, here are a few truths that you may want to guide families of addicts to realize.
Truths for those who tend to control
Help family members realize there is so much that they can’t control. Consider reminding the family that God is the one who is ultimately in control of the situation and that He is able to rescue and work all things for good. Philippians 3:21 reminds us that His power “enables him to bring everything under his control.”
Families attempting to control an addict often fear the consequences of addiction. Remind them that God has a history of using bad things—even the consequences of sin—for good and, ultimately, His glory. This is a difficult truth for family members to accept, especially because ultimately it means wrestling with the idea that God could use even the death of their loved one for His purposes. Even the most mature believers may struggle to be at peace with the simultaneously heartbreaking and comforting realities of God’s sovereignty. So be patient with families struggling to embrace the idea that God is in control.
You can also explore other possible motives family members may have for trying to control the addict. A desire to keep others from finding out about the situation can be problematic, for example, when it is rooted in the family’s desire to protect its own reputation.
You can explain to families that the addict is worshipping the substance: the alcohol or drug has become his or her god, and no amount of human control can break the bonds of spiritual slavery at play.
As you suggest new ways family members can interact with the addict, a simple verse like Proverbs 3:5 can help family members: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Encourage family members to pray and trust that the Holy Spirit will help them learn to embrace God’s ways of responding to sin and not trust their instincts.
Truths for those who enable
Remind families with tendencies to enable that protecting the addict from experiencing the consequences of the behavior shows a wrong understanding of how God loves His children. The family members may think they are showing God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy, but forget that God still allows His children to reap what they’ve sown. When dealing with an addict, Christians can and should allow people to experience the consequences of their behavior.
Proverbs 3:12 reminds us of another side of God’s love: “The LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” And Ephesians 5:11 states that Christians are not called to hide but to bring to light the sins of others: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”
When counseling an addict’s family, help them consider whether their response is somehow facilitating addictive behavior. Disciplining an adult child, spouse, or other adult family member may not be possible or appropriate. But you can help them see that taking steps to stop destructive behavior (not enabling, but allowing people to experience the consequences of their behavior) is consistent with God’s character.