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The Importance of Letting Your Adult Children Suffer

When it comes to the world of addictions, one of the themes that we regularly encounter is suffering. Beyond mere discomfort, suffering is seen as something serious which is inherently bad which must be prevented whenever possible. 

We know that suffering is not just restricted to people who are living with addiction; problematic substance use affects families as well. For the purposes of this article, we will be focusing on the suffering that is experienced by people with addiction. 

In addictions treatment, we often address this suffering not only from the perspective of the individual but also from the perspective of their parents. They are often doing everything they can to keep their adult child from experiencing it.

Below, we explore the important role of suffering, particularly in the context of supporting your adult child who is living with addiction.

A Parent’s Protective Role

There is no ambiguity as to the defenselessness of a newborn child. Unable to find its own food, or shelter from the elements, a baby relies entirely on its parents or caregivers to stay alive. Throughout their lifespan, children increasingly gain independence, and—assuming typical development—flourish into responsible adults themselves.

Parents and caregivers are tasked with supporting their child’s development, from a stage where the child is completely dependent on the parent for survival to a stage where the child is relatively independent. Protecting a child from suffering is certainly part of that role.

Should Parents Protect Their Child From All Suffering?

Geoff Thompson, Ph.D. is the Program Director at Sunshine Coast Health Centre. In a video that addresses this very topic, he encourages viewers to seek out perspectives on this topic by looking it up online.

“If you were to google something along the lines of is it okay to let my child suffer I think a lot of people would be very surprised at what they would find on the internet because a lot of people are saying of course… and they say yes, it’s important to let your children suffer.”

In the video, Geoff brings in perspective from psychologist Gordon Neufeld, based in attachment theory. Neufeld is a prolific speaker on this subject, taking suffering to be a fundamental part of human development. In this view, suffering is not only natural but necessary!

“It is foundational for children to experience futility—to experience failure. It is through experiencing failure that all sorts of benefits come to people,” Geoff says. 

What Can Children Learn From Failure And Suffering?

When you consider the benefits that can come from suffering, the whole perspective around protecting children from suffering changes. In fact, the opportunity to experience suffering can even be understood as something that should not be denied to a child.

“Through experiencing failure, they learn how to handle failure with dignity and courage. They learn to solve problems, to become tough and resilient. They learn that life isn’t over just because I screwed up in this just one time,” says Geoff. In short, suffering can make us stronger!

What’s more, keeping children from the opportunity to fail and to suffer may lead to challenges in later life. They may experience higher anxiety, an attitude of entitlement, a lacking sense of responsibility, and even a decreased ability to solve problems.

Geoff talks about the issue of helicopter parents. Parents who protect their kids from failure, suffering and futility at all costs. This can pose challenges for children in their adult lives, particularly in the context of rehab.

Letting Go Of Your Adult Children

As we’ve seen above, there are many benefits of letting your children suffer. Of course, this doesn’t refer to being heartless or to making them suffer needlessly, but rather the importance of letting them make their own decisions.

“We talk to the parents that we deal with a lot even though their kids are adults. How do you support your adult child in his recovery? Many parents want to step in and save them, and pay for everything… but we try to help them understand that the best way to support their loved ones is to allow them to be the authors of their life… to make decisions and then go through the consequences.”

Geoff makes the distinction between supporting your adult children (which is never an issue) versus rescuing them from suffering. Which he believes may have more to do with “their own feelings of guilt, or what they think they should do, or what they perceive society wants them to do,” rather than what their adult child is needing.

At Sunshine Coast Health Centre, we place a strong emphasis on authorship, and having the agency and autonomy to suffer is a key part of that authorship. For those who are looking to support their adult children in recovery, the message is clear:

“The best thing is always to support someone in becoming the author of his or her life.”

At Sunshine Coast Health Centre and the Georgia Strait Women’s Clinic, we support individuals in treatment with science-based holistic approaches. This also means supporting families and helping individuals and families develop the tools to deal with addiction.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction or mental health, give us a call today.

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