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Parenting Through a Relapse: Addiction, Compassion, and Mindfulness

Watching a child struggle with addiction is devastating and deciding how to help an addicted child is one of the most anguish-provoking processes a parent can go through.

Like running a marathon, standing by a child trying to break free from addiction requires deliberate, purposeful, ongoing self-care. The good news is that mindfulness practices can help build the stamina and patience required.

Parenting through addiction can feel extremely lonely.  On one side you may have well-meaning friends who have gone through the process and are eager to share what tactics worked or didn’t work for them.  On the other side, friends who have not experienced addiction in the family may stare at you in wonder when you chose to let your child suffer the often serious consequences of their actions.  Ultimately, the decision to step in or stand by is unique to each family situation.

Unless you are in the minority of parents whose child got sober and stayed sober on the first try, false starts and detours are a part of the process.   Helping a child recover is like running a marathon.  Like any other chronic illness, we are in it for the long haul, but chronic illness does not necessarily mean chronic suffering.   Like running a marathon, standing by a child trying to break free from addiction requires deliberate, purposeful, ongoing self-care.  The good news is mindfulness practices can help us build the stamina and patience we need.

By practicing mindfulness, you can change your relationship to the stress of addiction and the recovery process, and maintain your deep love for you child.

A 2004 study that followed caregivers of family members with dementia (another chronic brain disease) revealed that a twelve-week mindfulness training that included yoga and meditation decreased caregivers depression and anxiety, and increased levels of self-efficacy (the belief that “I can manage this”) around caring for their loved ones.   Interestingly, subjective and objective measures showed that actual caregiver burden did not decrease.   That is, family members still needed high levels of care.  What did change through mindfulness practices were the caregivers’ thoughts about caregiving and their relationship to a protracted, stressful situation. 

By practicing mindfulness, you can change your relationship to the stress of addiction and the recovery process, and maintain your deep love for you child.

Five ways that mindfulness and other contemplative self-care can help you stay healthy through your child’s recovery from addiction:

Compassion for yourself

I don’t know any parent of a child struggling with addiction who hasn’t felt guilt.  Whether the guilt stems from something we did, something we didn’t do, or a passed-down genetic tendency, guilt will not help your child recover.  I have seen many parents make bad decisions based on guilt.  If you are struggling with guilt, learning the core mindfulness skill of self-compassion will help you make better decisions when it comes to helping your child.  Forgive yourself for the past, and make decisions based on present circumstances.

Compassion for the addict

It’s okay to feel resentment, even rage toward addiction-fueled behaviors like lying, stealing, and making the same mistake over and over.  Yet no progress is made by expressing harsh words, and hurling accusations.  Remember that addiction is a chronic brain disease.  compassion is a practice and a stance.  It is feeling sad without putting yourself in emotional, physical, or financial harm.  It is saying, “I’m sorry you are suffering.  I am here” without reaction out of or fleeing in fear.


Mindfulness practices build our ability to stay centered and calm in the midst of the craziest circumstances.  Try this:  Take a break from worrying every day.  Take a break from trying to force a solution.  Keep coming back to the present moment over and over.  Even a five-minute worry break will reset your nervous system.  Over time, you will build areas in the brain that will allow you to be less reactionary and make decisions that are free of judgment and condemnation.


It is human to want to protect your heart, especially in the face of repeated betrayals and disappointments.  It might be tempting to cut your child out of your life.  Even if you are temporarily estranged from a child struggling with addiction, wish them well.  Wish yourself well.  Always take care of yourself and keep yourself safe, but stay open to love.


By practicing compassion, equanimity, and open-heartedness, you will notice a growing sense of peace even if the problem of addiction is not completely solved.

Check out these additional resources for support:

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