Is tough love the right way to treat an addict?


This is such a hard question. And no one knows the definition of this phrase. Everyone thinks they know it but it shifts and bends depending on the situation. What’s right for one family, isn’t right for another. But one thing’s for sure, you’ll get an answer one way or another when you set your boundaries.

Someone asked me if I felt like I should have approached my son’s depression and addiction differently?

Is tough love the right thing to do?

Keep in mind that I encouraged her to ask the question she was wanting to ask because she hesitated. It’s a good question with no “right” answer. Given that my son’s rock bottom was suicide, I’ve asked myself this a hundred times. But here’s what I can tell you.

Someone who is addicted sometimes ask for help once they are uncomfortable

If you have a teenager that is using and has everything paid for and just has to put up with the hassle of your nagging– it’s unlikely anything will change. They have to feel personally uncomfortable. But that doesn’t translate to weaponizing your love and digressing to the tough love myth.

Most of those who are addicted will say that the choice to go into recovery is often a pretty ugly back-and-forth process.

Something happens and the addicted person finally hits the point that they can’t live like that anymore. Is it the something “uncomfortable” that typically inspires recovery? And often that “uncomfortable” thing can be (or it might not be) the result of a boundary you set because you can’t take it anymore. Throw in a mental illness like bipolar or depression, it gets even more complex and harder. It works against our nature as parents.

Remember that the hallmark of addiction is that the drug takes over the mind and makes addicts do anything to satisfy their craving and keep withdrawal at bay. They are not doing this to get back at you. It’s an urge so strong, even a mom that once loved her child will leave her child for the sake of her habit.

After 4 years at Families Anonymous  (a highly recommended support group), I can’t tell you the right thing for you to do, but I can tell you that not setting boundaries means more of the same.

But setting boundaries for your sanity so you are not a doormat is not the same as “tough love.”

Setting boundaries

If you don’t set boundaries, you’ll lose yourself in the chaos of someone else’s addiction. At some point, you have to realize that this is their journey, not yours.

Does that mean you should throw them out? Of course that carries a risk. But keep in mind they can die in your house and they can die outside your house. I am still not advocating that this is the move you need to make.

All I am saying is that their being at home doesn’t necessarily mean they are safe. And most likely if you are living with an addict, you too, are at risk.

Drug dealers are not known to be stable people, they often carry weapons and they often make home deliveries right to your driveway. It might be your loved one is the dealer to support his/her habit.

Addiction is a deadly illness

Sufferers either find recovery. Or they die.

And only you know when you are at the point where you can’t live with it anymore and what exactly you are going to do in terms of setting and sticking to boundaries. Our stance? It was that we’d support recovery, but we wouldn’t support a habit.

I would recommend a support group to work that out for yourself. And for getting on the same page if you are a couple –which is very hard. You will hear what others have done in terms of setting boundaries and that is helpful.

If you are in an area that doesn’t have a support group, there are online groups. Our son obviously did not make the choice we hoped.  He died by suicide while involuntarily going through withdrawal.

I have heard amazing stories of recovery and it’s my hope you will come back to this site one day and publish that story. I hope that for you. It happens all the time. It can happen with your child and you cannot lose hope.

Look for CRAFT-based books and family support communities. This focus offers the most promise that you can inspire recovery in a loving way that allows you to set boundaries but not withdraw your love.

Published by

AnneMoss Rogers

AnneMoss Rogers is a mental health and suicide education expert, mental health speaker, suicide prevention trainer and consultant. She is author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind and co-author of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher's Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk with Kim O'Brien PhD, LICSW. She raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost her younger son, Charles to addiction and suicide on June 5, 2015. She is a motivational speaker who empowers by educating and provides life saving strategies and emotionally healthy coping skills. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now that's the legacy she carries forward in her son's memory. Mental Health Speakers Website.

6 thoughts on “Is tough love the right way to treat an addict?”

  1. When we understand that addiction is a chronic brain disease, it becomes obvious that “tough love” doesn’t help. In fact it leads to alienation and isolation at a time when connection is most needed. There are measureable changes in the pre-frontal cortex of the brains of those who are addicted. The hormones and neurotransmitters are affected. This affects impulse control and sets up vicious cycle of craving. We do not use tough love for heart disease or diabetes.

    You can google articles on the myths of tough love, or the myths of rock bottom. A quote from one of the articles I read recently: “We’ve been using punishment to try to treat a condition that is defined by its resistance to punishment.”

      1. Hi Anne. I agree about there being no clear path in dealing with addiction, even amongst the professionals. It’s a real conundrum isn’t it? it makes it hellish for parents seeking to help and be a part of the solution. I am in Texas and some of the small town AA meetings haven’t seen the light of current addiction research in decades. In our town the old timers frown on the use of antidepressants because they are “drugs”! They are quick to advocate tough love, which often only serves to escalatethe addiction , and can lead to other desperate measures by our loved ones. This fuels the shame and leads to a vicious and lethal cycle.

        I think we will see a revolution in the way we treat addiction in our country and it can’t come too soon.

        1. Wow. It leaves us parents with few resources on what to do. But I think one thing is clear not matter what. No matter if our child is using or clean, they need to know we love them no matter what and that withdrawal of love will never be the threat we use to try and force someone to recovery. Unconditional needs to be just that. And my son in the end thought we had given up on him. The mistake I made was not letting him know that we had not given up and that he was loved. While I told him, he needed to hear it every day.

  2. As always, your candor hits straight into the heart of it. You are helping so many people, A-M.

    1. I hope so Liz. Fills that hole in my heart. It will never be completely filled up but it helps the emotional healing

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