The 12-Step Program: What You Should Know as Your Loved One Goes Through It

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When your child, your brother, your sister, or your best friend enters an addiction recovery program, it can be a very emotional time for you as well. Relief, anxiety, fear, and hope are all very common. But you may experience a healthy dose of curiosity as well—healthy, because understanding how the 12-step program works will help you support your loved one and understand what they are doing while in treatment.

What Are the 12 Steps?

First, you need to know about the program. Knowledge and awareness can breed understanding and compassion—both for your loved one and for yourself.

12-step programs are a form of group therapy that emphasizes spiritual healing. The philosophy is not religious; “spirituality” simply encourages clients to recognize a power higher than themselves, like God, the Universe, nature, love, or some other influence. The steps provide a guide for individuals to determine the things that are within their control and those that are not. This can offer a sense of clarity and empowerment as clients also seek to understand the nature of cravings and the power of making amends.

These programs build a community of people who are undergoing a process of change, a process of self-improvement and growth. Each individual has a sponsor, someone who has successfully completed his or her own 12-step program. Sponsors provide individual support, understanding, compassion, and encouragement.

In 12-step programs, individuals continually make self-evaluations and reflect on their previous wrongdoings and current progress. Group meetings are a safe space to share experiences and gain support and self-understanding.

The steps themselves help individuals lay a foundation for their lives and relationships:

  • Step 1: Admit you have a problem.
  • Step 2: Believe a higher power can help you return to a healthy state.
  • Step 3: Make a decision to turn your will and your life over to that higher power.
  • Step 4: Admit your faults to yourself.
  • Step 5: Admit your past errors to others.
  • Step 6: Accept that it is time to change; accept responsibility for the change.
  • Step 7: Ask a higher power to remove your shortcomings.
  • Step 8: Make a list of all those you harmed and become willing to make amends.
  • Step 9: Make direct amends wherever possible.
  • Step 10: Continue to make personal inventories. When you are in the wrong, quickly admit it.
  • Step 11: Take time each day to reflect, seek the help of a higher power, and resolve to improve.
  • Step 12: Pattern your life with these steps. Share this message with others struggling and thus give back to the community.

How Can I Help My Loved One Through the Program?

Even when your child or loved one is receiving the care they need with the help of a 12-step program, no supportive community is more important than his or her own friends and family. It may sometimes be a difficult process, but remembering the following principles can guide you in this process.

  • Learn about addiction. Knowledge really is power, and learning about your child’s addiction will be a powerful way to be involved in their recovery. Learn about the drug specific to your child, but also learn about other addictions. This can help you in the long run as you keep an eye out for future potential cross-addictions. By learning about the recovery process, you will know what to expect in the coming weeks and months.
  • Talk—with your loved one, with their support group, and with those in similar situations. Ask questions. Your involvement can really demonstrate your care and concern for your loved one, and asking him or her questions about what he or she is thinking, feeling, and experiencing will provide an opportunity to communicate openly with those your loved one cares about.
  • Accept amends. Although this may be a challenge, the most important thing to remember when your love comes to you and asks to make amends is the human capacity for transformation.

These three simple considerations will help you support your loved one during their recovery program, paving the way for a truly transformative process.

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