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Re-defining Success In Parenting

Two steps forward, one step back.

When Bon Jovi is able to write a hit lyric based on a centuries-old Japanese proverb, you know that the myth of the overnight success is somewhat universal.

Understandably, we want the quintessential success story when it comes to our own families, but when parenting a child in need of out-of-home therapeutic treatment, so many aspects of our lives need to get redefined.

Redefining what “success” looks like is a crucial place to start.

Before your child comes home from a wilderness or residential setting, it’s helpful to get clear on what success can be for your whole family and how you can best support your child’s path to long-term wellness.

Guess what, we all relapse…

Relapse prevention is language commonly used in the treatment of addiction, but really applies to any behavior you want to avoid. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all relapse. Our relapses don’t have to include substances in order to qualify. We might relapse with our goals to quit negative self-talk, to lose weight, exercise, enable loved ones or bury our heads in the sand. The point is, we all have things we have tried to change…just think of every New Year’s resolution you have set. By understanding your own “relapses”, you can parent with more empathy. Empathy is key when supporting your child who is in or coming home from treatment.

It can be difficult for parents, who might have taken out second mortgages (or the equivalent) to fund their child’s treatment, to accept that their child will return home and struggle. No matter how big of a check is written, “success” upon return is not guaranteed. And for the child, who has often worked genuinely toward self-growth within a safe “bubble”, it is difficult to understand how hard it can be to put new tools into place.

Within the safe treatment environment, the child feels strong and empowered for the first time in what seems like forever. She has genuine faith in her skill set. As convincing as she may be, this is not the time to demand success ultimatums, make final decisions or ask about how she’ll react in hypothetical scenarios. It is the time for parents to have some perspective (and balance) to predict obstacles and plan for them as best they can.

A decision about when a child is ready to come home is not just based on what the child is leaving (i.e. the treatment program), but also based on what the child is facing in her home environment. This includes being able to head home to parents who have already made peace with redefining success. Redefining success to include moments of failure does not mean that a parent is giving themselves or their child permission to relapse. Rather it is a paradigm shift that can lead to a more balanced and supportive response to whomever has relapsed, which hopefully has the added effect of maintaining a strong relationship through the challenging moments.

Here are some general do’s and don’ts for redefining success


  • Have agreements with your co-parent about your “negotiables and non-negotiables” (what line are you not willing to have your child or your family cross
    Role model positive behavior
  • Assume your child is capable, has learned from the program and wants to stay on track
  • Look for patterns rather than responding to incidents as though the sky is falling.
  • Be aware of when your reactions are driven by fear. The old story can help you move forward with insight and it can cause you to overreact to an age-appropriate or situation appropriate behavior
  • Respond to the whole child and not just to a behavior. For example, a new driver who does not want to bring the car to the car wash by themselves does not make her entitled and irresponsible necessarily. Maybe she is anxious about doing something she has never done before?
  • Expect he will want to bend the rules sooner than later…with going out, with screen time, with walking the dog.
  • Earn trust through staying calm and having perspective. Your child will learn that it is safe for them to have moments of failure. Develop your own support network for feedback and ongoing learning (link to course page).
  • Have a supportive backup plan in place


  • Be vague in your expectations and set her up for failure
  • Respond with “you learned nothing in treatment” at the first, or even the second, sign of trouble
  • Let your child guilt you out of holding her to a set of values or expectations, as this teaches her that they are really not that important: “I’ve been in treatment and without Snapchat for 9 months. I know I am only allowed on it on the weekends but I just want to do one thing and I have already been deprived because you sent me away. I just want to let my friends know that I didn’t disappear!”
  • Don’t make excuses when failure becomes the pattern…know where your line is and be prepared with a back up plan it you, your family, your child, crosses it
  • Think that rigidity and consistency are the same thing. In some cases, there can be room for exceptions. For example, you have told your child that she needs to give you 3 hours notice at least if she needs a ride somewhere on a weekend. If she has only given you 20 minutes notice but it really does not negatively impact your day, make the exception AND, be clear that it is an exception.
  • Expect your child to have grown so much that she is acting like a high functioning 35 year old.
  • Make your child be the one solely responsible for all the growth…if you respond the same way to the same situations, then you are feeding the old patterns as well.

Portia Nelson gives a great example of redefining success after treatment. Although it might have already crossed your path in your own recovery, it’s a great reminder …

by Portia Nelson

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in.
I am lost … I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes me forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place
but, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in … it’s a habit.
my eyes are open
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street

Our parent coaching clients often ask, “how do I know if my child is just manipulating me to get home?” and the truth is, you never will. Part of the job of the treatment professionals is to look for congruency over time with new habits and to prepare the child to the best of their ability for life outside of treatment. Part of your job is to create a home environment in which your child can overcome obstacles and learn how to sustain all that he or she gained in treatment.

Hilary Moses
Co-founder, Solutions Parenting Support

PS If you’d like on-going support with your struggling teen or young adult, would like help in creating and implementing a transition plan or need a refresher session (if you’ve worked with us previously), please contact us for one-on-one parent coaching options.

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