Self-Parenting to Prevent Relapse


Early recovery is a tricky time.  Early success, feeling fragile. Going one day at a time, often for the first time. Relapse lurking at the gates of a new sobriety. The senses are finally being thawed; the mind is beginning to clear.  Knowledge begins to pour in; new skills are learned.  And beneath this exciting surface is a seemingly dark undertow that many mistakenly try to keep at bay — family issues.

Some feel that early recovery isn’t the right time to address these concerns, that indeed even raising family issues may promote relapse.  They feel that family issues are better dealt with later in the recovery process.  While in an ideal world this may be accurate, this stance does not take into consideration the complexities both of memory and of the human heart.  There is no effective way to keep clients from remembering.  Nor do we need to.

Self-Parenting—a healing adjunct:

Memories will and do come up, sometimes flooding the person, particularly when there is a history of trauma.  In this circumstance it is not healing to advise the person simply not to think of what is so much on their mind. Rather what they need is way of holding these memories and associated thoughts, making sense out of them and feeling that they have some tools with which to deal with them. What Self-Parenting offers is a mid-position in this debate of to deal with family issues or not, by offering tools to deal with triggered memories.

Self-Parenting provides assistance to those flooded by memories of abandonment and abuse by offering the perspective that they do not need to be held hostage by what others have or have not done to them, for they can learn to parent themselves, and in doing this they can learn to heal themselves. They can learn to take care of their own needs, by organizing their responses to both memories and thoughts, and to those individuals that are in their lives.

Self-Parenting is an organized way of reminding and reinforcing within the client that they have the inner knowledge, resources and support, from their rehabilitation program or facility, to respond to these thoughts and feelings and still make progress in their recovery.  That instead of these memories and thoughts being considered as a threat to recovery, these feelings can instead augment the recovery process by surfacing potential relapse triggers. But how to deal with these triggers has been a question with which many facilities and programs have struggled. The answer is to provide specific skills in an organized program such as that found in Self-Parenting.

Part of the positive psychology movement, Self-Parenting is an optimistic practice that has been in use for over twenty years.  The premise of Self-Parenting is that each individual has within themselves, the ability to positively respond to painful memories and thoughts by literally holding these feelings while they comfort themselves. Yes, they are reminded that they, the adult, can comfort themselves while they have a memory of the child that they were, their inner child, at age 3 or 7, or 12.  That they have the ability to hold a painful memory or thought, comfort themselves in the moment, and go on with their lives.

They are also instructed that they do not need to live their lives while their inner child is in charge of their decisions.  That they do not need to make the complicated decisions of an adult about how to respond to a slight, or an opportunity, from their 6-year-old self.  Rather they can have their adult in charge of their decisions, while they actively hold, honor and comfort the younger part of themselves that feels wounded, excited, or angry.

In this process the client is reminded that they are not the same as their thoughts and memories.  That their feelings have a place in their lives, but that place is not to take over their lives.  That to be an adult is to understand and to embrace that there are thoughts and memories that take us back to an earlier time, but remembering is simply that, remembering.  Remembering is a momentary process, one that requires compassion for the child that they were.  Remembering does not have to be the same as reliving, if we can learn to intervene with our adult at this point.  This is the premise of Self-Parenting.

There is also a spiritual component to Self-Parenting.  Similar to the concept of higher power, here the concept of Higher Parent is introduced as a positive, guiding inner resource that each person has to shepherd them through the process of honoring old hurts when they stay in the present and deal with them as memories.

A 12 Step Approach:

Self-Parenting is built on the premise of the 12 steps of AA, NA, and Al-Anon reinterpreted for inner child work.  The steps reinforce the core beliefs found in the 12 steps, strengthen 12 step orientated programs and can easily be used together as the compliment each other.

Examples of the Self-Parenting 12 Steps include:

1. Admitted our powerless to change our past – which our lives had become unmanageable and became willing to surrender to our love and not to our fear.

2. Found hope in the belief that recovery is possible through faith and an acceptance of the fact that we are never really alone.

6. Became ready to change by giving up the demand to be perfect.

10. Practiced self-acceptance and learned to live in the present.

11. Allowed the divinity in us to shine forth by surrendering to our Higher Power (Oliver-Diaz, O’Gorman: HCI, 1988)

Case example:

Jim is one example where Self-Parenting made a huge difference in his recovery. Jim, an addict was in a recovery program.  He was having a rough go. Argumentative to the point of being combative he challenged not only rules, but the basic tenets of recovery.  Things were at the point where removal was being considered which was fine by Jim as he was about to quit when he attended the lecture on the family.  A new counselor gave this lecture and was heartened by Jim’s response.

He asked that Jim be moved to his caseload and began to include work on Self-Parenting along with his addiction counseling.  It worked.  It turned out that Jim was panicked about the negative impact his alcohol and drug use had on his children.  A panic he covered by his combativeness.  Being sober also triggered Jim’s remembering the many abuses he suffered in his family of origin with a mother who had alcoholism.  Things began to pile up on him. His family memories, combined with his realizing how his children were affected was also compounded by what he did for a living.  He was a firefighter.  He also had witnessed many traumas.

“Looking back now I realized that I was being triggered into remembering my past all over the place.  Every time I pulled a scared kid out of a building, or saw a child in a wreck, I knew how he felt.  I was that frightened child not knowing what to expect from my own mother.  Alcohol and pot were great to help me forget.

AA along with Self-Parenting is helping me heal, me and my family.  AA helps me stay sober. Self-Parenting helps me realize that the past is the past, remembered in moment, but not needing to be acted upon in the present, except to honor the feeling that has just popped up.  By Self-Parenting I realized that I begin to heal my ‘inner child’… I’m in aftercare now and I’m sure that without both I would have been triggered back into using.”

Jim is not alone.  Thousands of those in recovery are finding that Self-Parenting is a crucial addition to their recovery process.

Self-Parenting, through its affirmations at the end of each step and reflective points and stories work equally well as part of individual counseling or in group work. In fact it is recommended that Self-Parenting be integrated throughout the addiction counseling process as another tool to be used.


Self-Parenting offers much to support the client and help prevent relapse. In this way it can support the bottom line in treatment programs and also enhance aftercare.  By offering specific tools to deal with memories that are triggered within a familiar 12 step format, Self-Parenting has easily fit into many recovery programs. Results from programs that have integrated Self-Parenting reveal that the investment in this approach has produced results that are beneficial to individuals as well as strengthening those overall program.

Oliver-Diaz, P. O’Gorman, P, Twelve Steps to Self-Parenting, HCI: Deerfield Beach, Flo. 1988.

To learn more about Self-Parenting content and techniques feel free to contact me through my web site or call 518 392-2902.

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