Girl looks down to mirror covered in pills.

Supporting a Child Through Addiction: How Divorced Parents Can Create Helpful Structures for the Struggling Child

We recently sat down with parenting coach and interventionist, Aaron Huey, to discuss the factors that can lead children into risky life choices that can result in addiction, and strategies that divorced co-parents can employ to help provide support for children in these situations. We want to include a disclaimer that the below conversation includes topics involving addiction, drugs, and self-harm.

In your experience as an interventionist, what are some factors that lead children to addiction?

“I think the first and most important thing for parents to understand about these bad choices that these kids are making is that, actually, they're not bad choices. As an adolescent who began to develop this maladaptive coping strategy to deal with the pain that was taking place in my own life from trauma, abandonment, abuse, I need parents to really understand and hear the words that I'm about to speak. When I was high, I was happy. When I was sober, I was suicidal,” says Huey. “Now, I had a lot of important and very knowledgeable people in my life telling me I should stop using drugs to get through every day of my life. But what I could not communicate to them was that this behavior was keeping me safe; safe from suicide. The depression, the anxiety, and the pain of what I had experienced, was that bad. So it wasn't a bad choice, was it? It was a survival choice. And yes, we can all agree without a shadow of a doubt that it was an extremely risky choice. What we miss when we're dealing with our teenager’s risky decisions, when the consequences stop mattering, when their decisions get worse and worse, is that these decisions are actually pretty resourceful when and only when, as parents, we discover what need is being fulfilled by the behavior.”

You mentioned that children often resort to substances to fill a need… can you expand on that thought?

“There are five basic human needs. There is safety, power, connection, freedom and worth. And those are developed mentally in order, and as adults we have all the needs at all times. Every decision we make is an expression of need. Everything we do as human beings is an expression of need. We don't get to rule out bad decisions, because when I was high, I was happy. When I was happy, I wasn't suicidal. There's my safety. When I was high, I had a group of friends that came up to my house every weekend, there's my connection. I became the drug dealer, there's my worth. Right?” says Huey.

Why is understanding these five needs important for parents who want to address the addiction and offer support to their child?

“This is a basic tool for parents to understand so that they can stop reacting to these risky decisions and start to say, 'Okay, now wait a second, which need is not being met in my child’s life, but is being met by this behavior?' Does that mean that parents can suddenly address it and change it? Well, absolutely not. What it means is very simply this, and this is the most important aspect of parenting: the moment you are doing the work to understand why your child is making this decision, you step out of survival parenting. You cannot parent well from a fearful, fatigued or furious place. Your best parenting decisions from fury, fatigue, or fear are bad parenting decisions. Your worst parenting decisions from a place of compassion, understanding, connection, and alignment, are going to be better than your best at your worst. Your worst at your best is better than your best at your worst.”

When it comes to co-parents working together to help support a child who is struggling with addiction, you’ve said that you don’t agree with the idea that parents need to be a unified front. What do you mean by that?

“Yeah, in the therapeutic world with family counseling, unity, or unification of divorced parents, has been a battle long fought. And this is because, as parents, we possess different concepts of what pro-dependency is,” says Huey. “Pro-dependency is the concept that this person is dependent on me for the promotion of their life and their existence. So when parents disagree, or when they’ve gotten a divorce and they don't like the way parenting is happening over at mom's house, or over at dad's house, or they don't like the new addition to their family, they don't have to follow their rules anymore. Isn't that one of the reasons why they split up? Their value system was no longer aligned. And in the mental health world, the idea that everybody has to just continue to sacrifice and compromise their value systems, so that everybody can work together, does not reflect society and reality.”

If unity in parenting styles isn’t the solution, what do you recommend for co-parents who are trying to provide support to their child from two separate households?

“Transparency is the new tough love, folks. Tough love as an experiment failed years ago. And also, let’s be clear, the moment you begin to build a relationship with your child off of venting about the other parent, you are now sacrificing your relationship with your child. Do not do it. It will blow up in your face. If your child comes to you and says, 'Well when I'm over at Mom or Dad's house, it sucks and it's not fair, and he doesn't...", you say, 'Then we need to have a talk. We need to have a talk with dad',” says Huey. “Nowadays, the moment that kid brings something to you, it goes to committee, because your kid knows how to keep power with you. Let's be clear: that kid knows how to triangulate, and manipulation and crisis always go together, parents. Never forget that: manipulation is crisis. So the moment a kid is trying to negotiate, navigate, or manipulate a situation with you using the other parent as a scapegoat, your relationship with your child is in danger. So you need to strengthen it based on connection and alliances with who they are and their value system. When it comes to venting about the other parent, it goes to committee. If the other parent’s not doing that, that's too bad for them. You keep your relationship with your child based on a value system and you modeling, not what you say, always what you do.”

To listen to the full interview with Aaron, you can download it via our firm podcast, Modern Family Matters. Aaron has a wide range of free and affordable tools available for parents who are in the difficult situation of trying to support their child through addiction, and he’s eager to help and provide insight.

To learn more about how to get in contact with Aaron, or to speak with one of our attorneys about your parental rights, contact our office at (503) 227-0200