Detaching With Love: How I Learned to Separate My Son and His Addiction

My son Alex shoplifted to support his addiction. Needless to say, he got caught several times. The first few times when he was a minor, we’d get a call to come pick him up. He’d get a ticket and we’d pay a big fine and take him to court services for his probation and to a psychologist. This went on for a couple years.

When he turned 18 he was no longer a minor. With his record, they’d take him to jail. He’d make that phone call from jail, “Please come and bail me out. I’m never going to do this again.” Off we’d go. After a while, it started getting expensive. And my wife Darlene and I were not learning our lesson—and, by the way, neither was our son. We were doing the same thing over and over and our son was doing the same thing over and over. Nothing was changing. He’d make the same promises, we’d take the same action, and we couldn’t understand why he kept using.

This is where the idea of “detaching” and setting boundaries started with us. We decided we weren’t going to pay bail next time, but it wasn’t easy.

As a mom and dad, it is very hard to think of your child sitting in jail. In Jackson County, MO jail, he witnessed a person getting stabbed. The food is universally bad at jails and without money on your books, you can’t even get a toothbrush to brush your teeth. He had food stolen from him and at times had to fight to keep it. He spent two days in solitary confinement for defending himself against an inmate who attacked him. The jails are filled with criminals such as rapists and murderers… and then people like my son, who are addicted to drugs. It makes no sense to me.

It’s hard to think of yourself as a loving parent when you know that for just a few hundred dollars you could get your child out of those situations. You wonder: if I don’t pay the bail, am I really a loving parent? But eventually, the day comes when you don’t pay. We once let our son sit in the Johnson County, KS Resort for 11 days because we wouldn’t post a $50 bond. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?

This is what detaching with love and allowing natural consequences means. Your boundaries must match your values. It works for us this way. Overriding all is the value that we love our son. When you sit down to think about and discuss boundaries, this goes at the top of the list. Every single boundary is tested against that value.

Another value we hold close and taught our kids is that stealing is wrong. Stealing carries consequences and it should. Bailing him out removes or minimizes the consequences. Contrary to our values, we were bailing him out. We hated what he was exposed to in jail but he had established a pattern: he got caught, he called, we jumped up to save him with cash in hand.

Darlene and I sat down and determined where we would go and where we would no longer go. This began to help us establish our boundaries. You can’t cover all of the possible situations, you just cover what you can. You must know that once you learn how to judge behaviors and fight the instinct to enable by rescuing, the it becomes easier and more natural.

Once boundaries are determined, you must sit down with your child and explain where you will no longer go with him. In fact, you can even start each sentence with, “Because we love you…” and then, for instance, “We can no longer bail you out of jail. All of your life we taught you that stealing was wrong and you know that in your heart, so we cannot support your actions by bailing you out when you do something you have been taught all your life is wrong. I hope you understand this and can accept our decision.

For each boundary we had discussed, the conversation went like that. Our son hated it when we turned off the TV and asked him to sit down at the table to talk. This satisfied our need to tell him of our expectations, and it told him what to expect from us. Yes, he still called, begged, pleaded and cried from jail, but what we had been doing in the past didn’t work and was bad for all of us. We had to change the rules, but that didn’t mean we loved him any less, it meant we loved him more. It hurt us terribly to let him sit in jail.

Even with his begging and pleading we were still able to sleep at night and have a moment of down time. He was in jail and we knew jail was safer than being on the street scoring and shooting endless heroin. We then began to see jail as “protective custody.”

We detached from Alex’s crimes and actions; we did not detach from him. We still loved him, took some of the $10-for-10-minute collect calls from jail. On those calls, we always ended by saying that we loved him and asking him to please help himself. We were doing all we could and all that we knew we could possibly do. Detach from the actions, crimes, drug use, lying and every other terrible thing a drug addict does to himself and others. Love and support the person inside, not the addiction controlling his life.

Today, Alex is two-and-a-half years sober. We figured out a way to let natural consequences sink in, and that, combined with our love and support for him, helped him enter treatment and begin his life again.

Learn Skills to Help Your Family Heal

Community Reinforcement and Family Training, or CRAFT, is a scientifically proven approach to help parents change their child’s substance use by staying involved in a positive, ongoing way.

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93 Responses

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    March 19, 2017 at 9:18 AM

    How is your niece doing, it is now March. You posted back in Oct. there are no answers to addiction you do the best you can. You do need to set boundaries, on what you can and cannot do. My son is going to drug court after jail, I don’t know if he can get through it. I don’t know if forcing someone to quit works, good luck to you and your family.

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    October 25, 2016 at 11:54 PM

    Help. My niece is a drug addict. She hid it well from our family, and now, looking back – I see all the times when something just wasn’t right. We tried intervening when she was < 18, but her mother would not would not support trying to get her more intense, inpatient rehab. She continued on/off various outpt treatments for years. Counseling, suboxolone. She lost friends, flunked out of college, failed trade school, and has walked out on jobs because she couldn't handle the stress of addiction and responsibility. She was finally arrested on a heroin charge, and given several years probation. Custody of her young child was given to the father, due to her inability to parent.

    But she continues to struggle. She's been living with family members for months – we all trying to offer her support, but it's challenging. Last week, I spoke with her counselor and probation officer -giving details about her background / family life, & sharing all the triggers surrounding her (she's gone and seen friends who were also past drug users). We aren't sure where she's getting her money, and just want her to get the right help. Now, I'm regretting talking with the PO – will that just put her at risk for jail? The family is mad at me, for speaking up/telling my concerns to the PO…I am just trying to get her help, and no one else seems to want to do anything – or can do anything because – it's just up to the addict, if they want to change.
    The 'what if's' play over and over in my mind – what if she overdoses, because we've all conditioned to take care of her and providing tood, shelter, comforts of a home and excusing her days of withdrawl sickness. What if, sells drugs to someone and gets someone else addicted? what if she is under the influence and hurts someone? Did I need to share all details with the PO? No. I just want her to get help, and the PO seemed like they would help – to get her pointed in the right direction again to find outpt couseling. Now, the family is just afraid she'll have a felony (because of me) and end up in jail. Since her arrest, she's continually lied to us, missed counseling sessions, tested positive in a home test, and I'm just so afraid we are going to find her dead in her aunt's house. I know we can't force her to rehab, but I also don't feel that i need to protect her if she is making illegal actions and choices. Help. This is not a fun place to be in…and have to question my own values/ethics questioned. It's so hard, with such a broken health care system in the US, and limited options. The illness is just more than I ever imagine it to be. The only way I'm told for her to get 'real' treatment, is for her to plead guilty to felony and go to inpt rehab. That it would be best thing for her…but I don't know….

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      Carmen Allen

      December 21, 2017 at 5:43 PM

      I just took my son to inpatient rehab. He is 19 yrs old. It was the hardest thing I have ever done! I had to tell my son not to call me anymore unless he was in rehab or jail! He called me two days ago said he was sorry for all the problems and for messing up my life with my husband. He said he wants to get help! He said he was ready to go to rehab! Second heardest thing was dropping him off at rehab . But it’s the b st thing for him! We all want our kids to grow up and never do anything wrong. We try to keep them from bad people don’t let them watch r movies or play video games. Hell some of us don’t even swear or drink around them but they will be tempted by evil and all we can to is hope that what we taught them will shine ! It takes a tribe to raise kids! We all in this together!

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    Pat – Psychotherapist & Partnership Parent Coach

    October 17, 2016 at 9:09 AM

    Hi Veronica,
    I can understand how concerned you are and I’m glad you’re seeking help. You are not alone in feeling like you’re failing as a mom, but the truth of the matter is that you are not looking the other way, you’re seeking help and on top of the situation and that’s the hallmark of a great parent.

    This is a link to a Marijuana Talk Kit that covers this topic in great detail:

    Also, if it would help, please call our free helpline to speak with a parent specialist to talk about what to do in your circumstances. They can also connect you to a parent coach who has experience with a child’s substance use and can share skills that may be helpful to you. The helpline number is 1-855-DRUGFREE.

    All the best,

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