Is 'Financial Tough Love' the Right Approach for Drug Addicts?

Families wrestle with the decision to cut off drug-addicted loved ones.

ByJohn Quinones and Christine Brozyna
February 15, 2010, 11:00 AM

Feb. 15, 2010— -- A private family crisis played out for the world to see. The brother of American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan is now accused of killing his own father in an alcohol induced rage. Mark Kerrigan's problems with addiction have been ongoing for years. His parents even sued their son for more than $100,000, reportedly to push him toward recovery.

It's a dramatic show of financial tough love, but is it always the right approach?

Two years ago, Erin Brockovich, the famed environmental crusader played by Julia Roberts in a 2000 movie, faced a similar situation with her own daughter. Elizabeth, then 16-years-old, was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Her $500 a week drug habit was funded by money stolen from the family.

"As a parent, you want to believe your kid, yet you know something's wrong," Brockovich said. "I've cried myself to sleep. And I've honestly sat and shook in a corner."

Elizabeth refused to admit to her mother the seriousness of the problem, but Brockovich knew she had to take action. Not wanting to completely isolate her daughter, Brockovich continued to offer emotional support to Elizabeth, but cut the financial purse strings from her daughter.

This kind of financial tough love approach is one of the best ways parents can reach out to a child in trouble, experts say. Still, many parents are afraid to cut off their troubled child.

Parents often think they're helping their child by supporting them -- it's not a natural reaction for parents to turn their back on their children. But experts say that safety net may actually be hurting their addicted son or daughter.

"Many parents hold off taking action or getting help because they feel like anything they do is dangerous. What they forget is that the situation they're in is terribly dangerous," Dr. David Sack, a board certified psychiatrist and CEO of Promises Treatment Center, said. "How can you look at a mother whose child is smoking heroin and say, 'Yes. It's OK. Don't do anything. Nothing's going to happen to your child.' That child is at risk of overdose."

When to Step In

Sack advises that the time to use tough love approach is when the person is ignoring you. "Then you have to say, 'We love you very much, but we're not going to spend money so you can go buy drugs and end up in a worst predicament. We're not going to support your habit,'" Sack said. "So it means no money, no car, no food, no shelter because ultimately those are the things that can be converted to drugs."

But what if no more money means the child goes without food, threatens to harm themselves or ends up on the streets?

Experts advise parents to follow a few key guidelines including giving the child a new set of rules for what's no longer acceptable in the home, making it clear that you are serious and will follow through with consequences, and finally getting professional help -- no one can do this alone.

The decision was not easy for Brockovich.

"That's pretty bad, putting a lock on your door," Brockovich said. "But I had to, otherwise it was just going to continue on and she was just going to get worse and I was actually contributing to the problem."

Sack stresses that cutting off financial support is not by itself treatment, and certainly not a fix-all; however, "it's a first step toward moving that addicted individual toward reality."

But reality is farther removed for some drug addicts and a more severe stance is needed.

David Sheff, a journalist and author, knows this all too well. His son Nic, 27, struggled for years with a methamphetamine addiction, having first experimented with drugs and alcohol at age 11. Nic's addiction took him to emergency rooms and crack houses, and brought his parents to the breaking point.

Sheff took a much tougher approach with his son than Brockovoich, telling Nic he would only talk to him or give him money if he was willing to get help.

"When it became clear to me that if he didn't get into treatment he was going to die, everything I did was about trying to get him in some place where he could be helped," Sheff said. "It was hell because I always worried about living to regret that decision because it would lead him to some catastrophe he would never recover from."

Although not the first option parents should consider, Sack said Sheff's tactic is sometimes necessary.

"It's very hard to move them emotionally when their best friend is their crack pipe, so the emotional strategies frequently fail," Sack said.

Both the Sheff and Brockovich families are in much better places now.

The Brockoviches stayed on top of all of Elizabeth's spending -- only giving her $20 a week, down from $500. They also made Elizabeth bring home receipts and checked her change. Elizabeth says the approach helped save her life.

"I started to get serious when I saw that (my mother) was," Elizabeth said.

As for Nic, after multiple stints in rehab, he is two years sober. "If I had had any other option besides having to get into treatment, I would have kept using," Nic said.

Tough love from loving parents helped bring their children back from the brink.

David and Nic Sheff have both written memoirs about their family's ordeal:

"Beautiful Boy," by David Sheff and "Tweak," by Nic Sheff.

To find out more about where to get help with addiction, check:

HBO Addiction

HBO has joined the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to provide resources and information about addiction.

Visit for 10 questions you should ask any treatment program you are considering to sending an adolescent.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events