The single most pressing concern for the parents I see in my psychotherapy practice, whether their child is 4 years old or 24 years old, is “How do I keep my child free from addiction?”
These parents may themselves struggle with addiction, or have a partner who does. They may have grown up with an alcoholic parent, or a sibling who has gone down the dark path of an eating disorder. They may have watched as young people in their community fall into destructive holes of addiction.
Addiction is powerful. Dependence on drugs, alcohol, food, sex, overwork, and gambling can rapidly become deeply entrenched. The addictive pattern takes hold neurologically, physiologically, emotionally, and mentally. Sadly, it can happen no matter what parents try to protect their children. Having a child with an addiction, or unable to recover from an addiction, does not mean that the parents are to blame.
That said, there is a tremendous amount that parents can do to help their child be less vulnerable to addiction and better able to break free from the addiction in case they start to become hooked.
While important information abounds on topics like healthy discipline and values, I have found that there is not nearly enough guidance for parents on how to strengthen their children against addiction on the deeper psychological level.
The Key is Compassion
On this deeper psychological level, the fundamental skill for strength and resilience is compassion. Compassion is the recognition that each of us is a human being, and all share the realities that come from being human. Sometimes people reject the notion of compassion because they believe that compassion means approving of cruelty or destructive behaviors. They do not want to excuse bad intentions or bad actions. Compassion, however, does not mean loving everyone or approving of everyone’s behaviors. It does not mean being okay with everything. It is not permission to not try harder to make good choices.
Compassion is like a pair of corrective eyeglasses: It allows us to see and accept that we are all in this business of being human. We all belong, like it or not, to a group that has some serious limits. We have choices about how to live within those limitations, but we do not have the power to erase our human limits.
The result of our limitations is that we are all stuck with some ‘rules’ that can make life challenging, confusing, and painful. For example, we do not have magic crystal balls that tell us the future. We do not have a map that allows us to decide exactly where we are going. We must continually make choices based on limited information, and not knowing for certain the result of those choices. We have feelings that continually change. We are in some ways always a mystery even to our selves. We get injured, we get ill, our minds and bodies break down, and we die. We can’t meet all of our own needs or the needs of others, so we keep disappointing ourselves and other people. We often do not get what we want. We lose people we love. The people we love don’t always love us back.
All of this would be fine if we weren’t also born with an intense drive to have the power to get what we want, to know the answers, to prevent pain, to never feel loss, and to meet all of the expectations we have of ourselves as well as the expectations others have of us. We want all of our creativity and insight and intelligence and beauty and love to be seen and appreciated in our lifetime.
The way that we pursue these desires, within our human limits, is life. And it is seldom an easy process. Compassion allows us to see and accept this human journey, instead of using our energy to try to opt out from it.
Without compassion, we will chronically feel sure that we are doing something wrong, or that there is something wrong with us, for being on this challenging human path. When we lack clarity, or make choices we regret, or don’t feel loved by someone we love, or don’t feel appreciated for our gifts, we conclude that it must mean we are messing up. After a while of reaching these conclusions, we start to feel like we are fundamentally messed up. We decide that we must be a failure, a loser, or a bad person. We then have only two choices – give up on living a good life, (because what’s the point of trying when we still keep getting disappointed?), or try to find a way to escape and fool ourselves into thinking we have the power to opt out from the pain and ‘rules’ of being human.
When we are psychologically prone to giving up or trying to escape reality, we become extremely vulnerable to the physical and social hooks of addictive substances or behaviors. Our overuse of these substances and behaviors reflect both our ‘giving up’ and our attempts to escape from the rules of regular life.
Also, once we are hooked, our lack of compassion keeps us stuck in denial and depletes our motivation to try to change. Facing the facing the reality of our situation would only confirm that we are a horrible and shameful person, and, again, what’s the point of trying when we will always end up feeling not good enough?
Compassion offers a more resilient way to approach life. Once we accept, through compassion, the realities of being human, we can use our energy to do absolutely everything we can to pursue knowledge, share our gifts, be loved, and reduce suffering for ourselves and people we love. We can enjoy those moments when we do get what we need and want. We can be kind and supportive to ourselves as we inevitably make choices we regret and fall short of our goals. We can accept our ‘mistakes’ and disappointments as opportunities to learn how to be ever more caring toward ourselves when we feel hurt or sad, and to learn new information to use for our next choice.
So, how can you teach your child compassion?
You can model it by treating yourself with compassion and treating your child and everyone in your life with compassion. You can recognize that painful experiences and choices that lead to unwanted consequences are a part of being human. Above all, you can be WITH your child through the ups and downs of life, together in this amazing human journey, as both of you keep learning, keep hurting, keep failing, keep flailing, keep trying and keep going.