My child is an addict! What do I do?

Addiction is a complex condition that affects not only the addict but also their loved ones. Supporting someone through addiction is a challenging and overwhelming experience, but it’s essential to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

This article explores various aspects of addiction, including advice from recovering addicts, the signs of addiction, the argument of addiction as a disease, the significance of social support, and the crucial role of self-care while supporting a loved one through addiction.

We hope it will provide valuable insights and support as you navigate this challenging journey.

The Argument of “Addiction is a Disease”

The notion of addiction as a disease helps to remove the stigma surrounding it. The more we talk about addiction as something that can be treated with treatment and therapy, the less shame there will be around it, and in turn, there will be fewer people who feel they need to hide their struggles from others. In the video essay “Pleasure Unwoven”, Dr. Kevin McCauley, a qualified medical doctor, focuses on the critical question about addiction: “Is it really a “disease?”

While addiction can feel isolating, when we look at it as a disease instead of a moral failing, we can understand how many others are affected by it too. This perspective matters because it provides hope for those struggling with substance abuse issues or other addictions like gambling or sex addiction. When someone understands that there’s no shame in seeking help for their condition, they’re more likely to seek treatment themselves instead of feeling alone in their struggle.

Dr. McCauley says the end result is, “The power of choice is restored, and normal pleasures become pleasurable again.”

Dr. Bruce Alexander’s Rat Experiment

Dr. Bruce Alexander’s rat experiment studied how social and environmental conditions affect drug-seeking behaviour in rats. The experiment created two different rat environments: a standard laboratory cage and a spacious and enriched colony called Rat Park. The rats in Rat Park consumed much less morphine than those in cages, suggesting that social and environmental conditions significantly impacted their drug-seeking behaviour. The experiment has been widely cited as evidence that addiction is a complex interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors and that improving the quality of life and providing meaningful alternatives for people struggling with addiction could be more effective than punitive measures. However, the experiment has also been criticised for its methodological flaws and should not be taken as definitive proof or disproof of any theory of addiction.

What are the signs of addiction?

Addiction is a complex condition involving compulsive substance use or engaging in a behaviour despite adverse consequences.

There are several signs that someone may be using drugs, and you will get much information online. I have, however, spoken to parents of addicts to share their thoughts.

The first sign parents observed was changed behaviour. When your child has regular contact with you, and they are suddenly not connecting at all, and you know something is wrong but cannot quite put your finger on it, don’t ignore it. If you suspect drug abuse, get educated. Remember, someone who is using will NEVER tell you the truth. You cannot rely on whatever they tell you.

Abnormal actions. Several parents were held hostage by their children, who threatened to kill them. A father relays that his child scratched the grout between his floor tiles. They act out of character and seem like a different person.

Addicts need money to maintain their habits. They will steal and sell anything they can get hold of to be able to pay for the next fix. Personal and household items disappear.

Twitching is a common symptom of possible drug use.

Sores appear on their bodies.

A running nose and constant sniffing.

These are a few indications that must alert you to possible drug abuse. These signs may vary depending on the type and severity of the addiction.

Supporting a Loved One Through Addiction: Advice from Those Who Have Been There

To gain insight from the addict’s perspective, I had a few interviews with drug addicts in recovery. I asked them: “When you were in active addiction, what could your parents or other loved ones have done to support you and help you to stop using?”

All individuals are unique and have experiences, thoughts, and feelings that make them who they are. As Dr. Suess said: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is You-er than You.” It came thus as no surprise that the answers I received were diverse. Therefore, don’t expect this article to offer a magical solution, as there is no such thing.

I was told:

“Tell me it will be hard but take one hour and then one day at a time.”

“The tough love approach was the only thing that worked for me”.

“If you want to scare me away, use the tough love approach. It made me feel ashamed, unwanted, dirty, and guilty.” 

“I needed my family to get educated about what I was going through as addiction is such a lonely self-loathing place.”

“Confront me with understanding and love rather than judgement and abuse.”

“When I was using, I was sitting in the darkest places of my life. The more people kicked me out and rejected me, the more worthless I felt.”

“Come to me with understanding, saying that I know you are not okay, your mind is not okay, but we will always love you. Don’t give me money; give me hope.”

Remember that your child might be aware of their addiction but be unwilling to admit it.

  • A lonely road. This is a very lonely road. People will tell you they are there for you, but it is impossible. One parent says: “People can give you as much advice as they like; nothing works until they are ready to recover. You will lose all your money dragging them to rehab. If they don’t want to change, they won’t.”
  • Don’t blame yourself. It’s easy to feel like you should have done something different, but remember you are not responsible for your child’s addiction.
  • Don’t over-identify with your child’s problem. As a parent, it’s natural to feel that you must do something. But be careful not to over-identify with your child’s situation. Don’t let your child’s addiction become your identity or the focus of your life. This is especially true if you have other children and a spouse who also needs support during this difficult time. This thinking can lead to self-pity and guilt, which will only worsen things in the long run (and might even cause denial). It may be helpful for all family members involved in recovery from addiction (including siblings) to join a group where they can share experiences and learn from each other about how best to deal with various issues related to recovery.
  • It’s essential to avoid taking on the persona of an addict. This behaviour will do more harm than good. If you find yourself taking over responsibilities usually handled by your child, like paying bills or making excuses for them while they’re using substances and then resenting them when they return home, you may want to seek help from a therapist or other professional who can support you during this challenging time in your life together as parent(s) and child(ren).
  • An addict needs love, support, and someone to hold them accountable for their actions and decisions. Remember that talking to your child about their addiction is not just about the drugs. Addiction is a symptom of something larger, a lack of self-respect, self-esteem, and confidence. If we want our children to be happy and healthy adults, they must learn to respect themselves first.
  • Boundaries. You must set clear boundaries for your own survival and stick to them. As their support system, we must try to understand what is happening to them without rescuing or resenting them. They are accountable for their actions and choices, however hard it is to witness the consequences of those choices.
  • Be aware of the manipulation techniques an addict has mastered. Addicts often become masters of manipulation, using various tactics to get what they want or to continue using drugs or alcohol. Awareness of these manipulation techniques is crucial for the loved ones of addicts, as it can help them avoid being taken advantage of or manipulated. Some standard manipulation techniques include guilt-tripping, lying, gaslighting, and blame-shifting. By understanding these tactics, loved ones can set boundaries, hold the addict accountable for their actions, and avoid being pulled into the addict’s destructive behaviour. It’s essential to remember that while addiction can be a powerful force, it’s not an excuse for manipulative behaviour, and loved ones should not enable or tolerate it.
  • Embrace imperfection. We can’t expect our children’s lives to be perfect if we try too hard for perfection ourselves; instead, let go of any expectations and focus on being there for them through thick and thin. We also need them to know that we love them unconditionally, even when they make mistakes or behave poorly.

Social Support for the Recovering Addict

According to Johann Hari’s TED Talk, “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong,” the traditional approach to addiction treatment has been ineffective because it fails to address the underlying causes of addiction. Hari argues that addiction is not solely caused by chemical hooks, but rather by a lack of love and belonging, and social support. He stresses the importance of social connections and community in addiction recovery, citing examples of successful addiction treatment programs that focus on building relationships and creating a sense of belonging. By providing individuals with the love and support they need to overcome their addiction, we can create a more compassionate and effective approach to addiction treatment. This highlights the crucial role of social support in addiction recovery and underscores the importance of creating a supportive and inclusive community for those struggling with addiction.

Taking Care of Yourself to Support Your Child

Addiction is a disorder that affects the entire family, not just the addict. Addicts will be selfish and take every ounce of energy from you! It’s natural to want to focus all your energy on helping your child, but it’s essential to remember to take care of yourself as well.

A parent told me what stays with her is the “lonely, empty, helpless, hapless sadness that you as a parent experience: It is worse than death”, she said.

Self-care can help you maintain your physical, emotional, and mental well-being, which, in turn, can allow you to be a better source of support for your child. It’s necessary to ensure you have the strength and resilience to support your child through their addiction and recovery journey, which can be a long and soul-destroying time. Self-care can take many forms, such as exercise, meditation, therapy, or spending time with friends and family. It’s essential to find what works for you and to prioritise it in your daily routine.


If you have a child who is an addict, it can be a scary and overwhelming experience. But don’t let that stop you from doing what needs to be done: getting help. There are many support groups and online platforms to help the parent of an addict understand what is happening to their child. It is vitally important to reach out and educate yourself and your family.

Narcotics Anonymous South Africa provides a list of meetings designed to help the families and loved ones of addicts. These meetings include groups such as Nar-Anon, which offer support and guidance for those affected by addiction.

ToughLove is a self-help family support group that helps families of abusers recover from the effects of substance abuse.

Healing Wings is another organisation offering support groups for those with a loved one or family member in treatment. These groups offer educational tools, emotional and psychological comfort, and a place to share experiences with others in similar situations.

The Cedars, a rehabilitation centre in South Africa, offers professional services to assist the loved ones of addicts on their journey of healing. These services include a 30-minute complimentary consultation with a professional counsellor.

Houghton House also offers family support programs to educate and advocate for families affected by addiction. They provide information on how to help loved ones with addiction issues and offer emergency helplines for those in need.