I’m in recovery from an addiction that started when I was a kid. My wife and I have three young sons, and I don’t want them leaving my house with any kind of addiction like I did. I know I can’t control what they do with their lives, but are there things we can do in our home to make it less likely that they’ll have addictions?
Your sons are fortunate to have parents who ask these kinds of questions. Preventing and healing addictions requires tremendous intentionality from everyone involved. And you’re correct that even though we can’t control what our children choose to do with their lives, we can create conditions and build relationships with them that will set them up for positive outcomes and offer support throughout their lives.
Before we discuss prevention, please recognize that if your child ever goes down the road of addiction, it’s not an automatic sign that you are a failure as a parent. It’s true that parents have a significant influence on their children’s lives, but there are hundreds of decisions leading toward addiction that are the sole responsibility of the individual with the addiction. If this weren’t the case, then those who struggle with addiction would never have hope of using their own willpower to break free. We teach our children and allow them to be responsible for their choices.
When considering addiction prevention, it’s important to recognize the purpose addictions serve in people’s lives. Addictions are counterfeit attachments that help us regulate our bodies, emotions and relationships. They target the regulatory systems in our brains and bodies to numb, enhance or diminish reality. In my experience, individuals who struggle with addictions aren’t lacking willpower but are mismanaging their ability to regulate their emotions, relationships and thoughts.
When we’re born, we don’t have the ability to self-regulate our bodies and emotions very effectively. We count on our caregivers to touch us, speak to us, feed us, clothe us and offer us safety and comfort. These things regulate our bodies so we can sleep, feel calm and securely experience the full range of emotions available to us. As we get older, we’re expected to self-regulate without the constant support of other people.
Even though we all require some degree of co-regulation from others, healthy adults know how to manage the balance of self-regulation and co-regulation. However, managing emotions, physical bodies, thoughts and relationships isn’t always easy, and counterfeits can show up and lure us into harmful patterns of unhealthy dependency on behaviors, substances and relationships. These counterfeits show up as food, drugs, screens, sex, money, perfectionism, work and so on.
Even though addictions are complex and caused by multiple factors, here are two things you can begin doing in your home to help your children develop the ability to regulate their emotions and bodies in healthy ways: 1) teach them how to self-regulate, and 2) allow them to co-regulate with healthy relationships. I’ll explain each of these in more detail.
First, you can teach your sons to manage their uncomfortable emotions in healthy ways. You can teach them that all emotions are important and shouldn’t be dismissed, especially the uncomfortable ones. They can learn to slow down, breathe and trust that their emotions won’t overtake them. There are countless daily opportunities to teach our children to tolerate the distressing emotions we all experience as part of life.
Here are some common ways we unintentionally let our children avoid painful emotions:
- When a child is sad we give them food (usually something sugary).
- We might try and quickly fix any disappointments they experience.
- We sometimes over-coordinate with other adults to make sure our child doesn’t have to be uncomfortable (i.e., making sure they sit by a friend, make sure they have the perfect teacher, etc.).
- We distract them with screens instead of letting them feel bored, lonely or uncomfortable.
- We jump in and resolve their arguments with their siblings.
- We solve their problems for them.
- We do their homework for them.
Instead, consider the following alternative reactions to help children learn how to sit with and tolerate distress:
- When a child is sad, we allow them to tell us what’s on their mind and listen to them.
- When a child experiences a disappointment, we acknowledge the disappointment, express compassion and allow them to eventually accept the difficult emotions.
- We allow our children to enter new and unfamiliar situations and expect them to handle the uncertainty and vulnerability that comes with new people, new rules, new environments and other unknowns.
- Screen are used in a time-limited way as entertainment instead of as a distraction from feeling uncomfortable feelings. If a child is bored, lonely or uncomfortable, we can ask good questions and ultimately expect them to be creative and work to find healthy outlets.
- We expect our children to spend time working out their differences with their siblings in a respectful way.
- We ask good questions and allow our children to find solutions to their problems.
- We allow them to do their own schoolwork and accept any consequences for poor work, late assignments or missed assignments.
When children feel trusted by loving caretakers to handle difficult emotions, they develop a strong inner-confidence that they can do hard things and don’t require immediate relief from pain. You can allow your children to feel the natural pain that comes from making mistakes and learning from them. Our job isn’t to protect our children from making mistakes. Our job is to help our children manage their emotions, bodies and relationships when they make mistakes so they can grow into healthy, functioning adults.
Second, you can model healthy co-regulation by allowing your children to depend on you for emotional support. The examples for healthy self-regulation I listed above all include an element of co-regulation with a parent. Co-regulation isn’t the same as fixing things for our kids or rescuing them from their emotions. Instead, it’s staying with them through the difficult emotions. You want your children to learn that they are stronger when they are connected to others.
This is why regular family dinners, one-on-one time with each child, safe physical touch, compassionate listening and other healthy relationship behaviors are so important. These soothe our inborn need to co-regulate with others.
When you make it clear to your children that they can talk with you about anything and you regularly show interest in their lives by asking good questions and making time for them, they’re more likely to turn to you and others for support. They’ll also have more strength when they’re alone to self-regulate strong emotions.
And when your children make mistakes and mismanage their emotions, bodies and relationships, they will feel your support as you help them learn from these mistakes, feel the weight of their actions and move toward healthier behaviors with the loving support from their parents.
It’s common for parents to get polarized between requiring their kids to figure things out on their own or stepping in and doing everything for them so they don’t suffer. Both of these extremes fail to set our kids up to understand themselves and tolerate distressing emotions. Instead, we want them to have the ability to self-regulate and then know how to reach out and accept support from others. When these two are balanced correctly, we do much better regulating our emotions and protecting ourselves from the lure of addictions.
Do you allow your children to depend on you for support, or do you push them away and expect them to solve everything alone? Do you believe that people, especially boys and men, are weak if they ask for support and help? Your attitude toward seeking help and support will speak loudly to your sons, so make sure they know that it’s important to have a balance of being independent and also getting support from others.
You have a wonderful opportunity to create an environment where you allow your children to experience the full range of highs and lows of life with the intentional and loving presence of their parents. This combination will reduce the need for counterfeit attachments that would temporarily offer relief but rob them of the joy and comfort that comes from knowing they can manage themselves and turn to meaningful relationships with others.
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