Recently, a prominent billboard lining Utah highways was taken down in response to a petition. This billboard stated “Addiction can be prevented; Parenting is prevention.”
While the sentiment was probably meant well, it’s easy to see how this can be a hurtful and false statement. It’s natural to see implied message: if effective parenting can prevent addiction, and you have a child who suffers from addiction, you didn’t do a good job and you should have prevented it. It’s difficult to change this message and mentality instead to one that can promote productive behavior.
However, when it comes to personal blame and the struggle of dealing with helping a child overcome addiction, the question is much more personal: is there something I did wrong? How could I let this happen? Even when we know better, hypothetically, it’s hard to make the self-doubting demons go away.
The Disease Model of Addiction
The disease model of addiction gives us a good format to use when we fall into derogatory self-talk and doubts. In this model, we look at addiction like other diseases. Take diabetes, for example. Yes, there are things that you can do to decrease the risk, if you catch the problems early and are knowledgeable about the solution. However, you can do everything right–eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly–and still suffer from diabetes, simply because of your body’s genetics and chemistry. While we can try to be physically and mentally healthy, some things are out of our control. Yes, there are situations that can increase or reduce a child’s risk of developing an addiction. But in the end, we can’t prevent everything.
Why Do We Blame Ourselves?
The self-blame game goes beyond problems with addiction. In fact, it’s a common phenomenon in situations like sexual abuse trauma, or in children of divorced parents. While it’s objectively unreasonable for someone to blame themselves for such situations, it’s actually a coping mechanism. It’s scary to know that bad things can happen, despite our best efforts. It’s especially scary to know that bad things can happen to our kids; things we can’t prevent or control. So we try to find a reason for it that we can control–something that we can avoid in the future, in order to prevent a recurrence.
In the end, we have to learn to navigate the tricky balance between control and acceptance. We can’t protect our children from everything, but we can still try. Sometimes we’ll be able to guard them, and other times we can only provide understanding, healing, and help when they fall.
Changing to a Productive Outlook
What’s past is past. Even if there were things you could have done earlier, had you known, even if there were ways that you feel like you fell short, all you can control now is yourself and your behavior today. This is something that we try to teach our patients all the time. Yes, take responsibility for your actions. However, don’t fall into a shame-spiral. Whether it’s justified or not isn’t really an issue. You need to look forward and have a plan for the future. You can only control the present, and those daily decisions and actions you make that will shape–or reshape–your future.