Tough Love Doesn't Work: A New Approach to Helping Addicts

By Claire Gillespie 03/22/17

Instead, professionals suggest setting boundaries and asking questions like "What do I need to do in order to support my own self-care and help my addicted child?" "What do I need to achieve in order to feel safe in my environment?"

A helping hand reaching toward a sad young person.
Setting boundaries is better than shutting doors.

You love your child. Your child is an addict. Your child needs help. How do you carry on showing that love, without supporting or enabling the addiction?

It's an issue at the heart of Avi and Julie Israel’s mission. Their son Michael David died from suicide in June 2011 after years of being addicted to painkillers. In memory of 20-year-old Michael, the Israels established Save the Michaels of the World Inc. to create awareness of prescription drug addiction, overdose and suicide and to help parents make the best decisions to help their child recover.

In January, the organization opened the House of Hope and Community Resources Center in Erie County, New York, to offer the services of trained volunteer peer recovery coaches to treat patients who are coping with drug addiction. "We hope the center will help parents understand three things," said Avi Israel. "Firstly, they are not alone. Secondly, addiction is a very serious disease that strikes as fast as cancer and kills as fast as a heart attack. Thirdly, we will work to help them get their family back to some kind of semi-normal life where they can function and have order."

When Michael was addicted to painkillers, the Israels did not have a resource like House of Hope. The advice they were given ranged from finding a place for him to go to detox, to throwing him out of the house and changing the locks. "Nobody went into any detail about what was going on with Michael, what he was going through, what was happening to our family," said Israel. "All they suggested were negative approaches."

“The ‘tough love’ approach was common back in the day, but a lot of professionals have shifted towards a boundary-setting approach, as it combines firmness with self-care and support,” said Tina Muller, Family Wellness Manager at Mountainside Treatment Center.

This more humane approach to addiction teaches families and loved ones to establish boundaries, both to help the addicted person and themselves. “Questions families and parents can ask themselves are, ‘What do I need to do in order to support my own self-care and help my addicted child?’ ‘What do I need to achieve in order to feel safe in my environment?’” said Muller. “Once those questions are answered, you can approach your addicted child in a softer way. Instead of declaring, ‘If you continue to use you can’t live in this house,’ you reframe it as, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with you using drugs and alcohol, and I want this to be a safe and sober home. What can I do to help you stop using or support your recovery?’ It’s a gentler approach that might encourage more openness between parent and child. Being ‘tough’ with your child doesn’t necessarily mean they will obey your requests — they might, in fact, react more angrily or rebelliously.”

Derek Naylor, 36, agrees that as a general rule, “tough love” doesn’t work, and typically makes things worse. “Treatment is not ‘one size fits all’ issue for the addict or their family,” said Naylor, 36, who has been in recovery for 18 months and runs Northern Utah Cares, a nonprofit that focuses on helping families and friends of addicts better understand addiction. “’Tough love’ has a broad definition. The friend or family member of the addict may become disrespectful, stop showing compassion, stop letting the addict know they're still loved, shout at them every time they see them high or drunk, because they think if they act ‘tough’ the addict will suddenly start to take things more seriously.”

While in active addiction, Naylor experienced the tough love approach for himself. He had been clean for two years, then he relapsed. “My family’s tough love approach played a big part in my attempting suicide,” he said. “It's not their fault I attempted suicide, but their words and actions put me over the edge. I heard my family say terrible things about me, like ‘Maybe you would be better off dead’ and my dad basically told me to go live on the streets to figure myself out.”

In Naylor’s experience, the most helpful approach from family is “loving them more than ever and sharing that with them.” “You can't beat addiction out of somebody,” he said. “You can't yell loud enough to get them to stop. When I was in active addiction, nobody hated me more than me. I despised myself, couldn't look in the mirror and wanted to die almost every day. After working with and being in treatment with hundreds of addicts over the years, I can say that almost all of them feel the same way. We've destroyed everything around us, lost what we worked so hard for, caused our friends and families so much anxiety that they are suffering too. Imagine being an addict in that state of mind and having more negativity thrown at you by those you need to just give you a hug and tell you you're worth it and still a beautiful person? It's impossible to love somebody too much.”

Through the process of setting up his own nonprofit, Naylor came to realize just how little support there is out there for family members. “It’s a critical void needing to be filled,” he said. “Addiction is a family disease. Many relapses occur because the addict comes out of treatment in a spiritual, serene place, ready to get back to life, and lands in a family environment that is more toxic than the addict was. The hard pill for family and friends to swallow is they are often part of the problem, but they're too busy pointing a finger at the addict. In less extreme situations, it's simply the family saying the wrong things and acting in ways that cause the addict to lose their serenity.”

With families desperate for help themselves, organizations like Northern Utah Cares and Save the Michaels of the World are vital because they provide a safe space for families to heal alongside their addicted loved one.

Avi Israel hopes Save the Michaels of the World will teach families how to advance their own lives positively, while still supporting their family member. “Combining love, compassion and understanding with rules works better than tough love,” he said. “Never throw a kid into the street. When you do that, you show them how much you don't care.”

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Claire Gillespie is a UK-based freelance writer and editor. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.