How Clean Language Helped Save My Relationship With My Daughter

Clean Language

Sep 08

All I could picture was my heroin-thin daughter running down the road with her coat flapping in the cold wind, thinking, “Oh my God, she’s going to die! She’s going to die.”

smoking-heroinThere is an epidemic of drug use among young Americans, as well as in many other parts of the world. We’re seeing a generation of college-bound, middle class kids falling into using heroin as a party drug. The consequences can potentially be devastating for the young people.

But what about parents?

How are parents equipped to deal with this when it enters their families and homes?

Tragically, over the past couple of years, I found out for myself. It was hard. To tell the truth, it almost destroyed my relationship with my college-age daughter.

I believe that I was so lucky to have the resources of Clean Language available to me. If I had not, I don’t know if I would have gotten through what happened, and that precious relationship may not have survived.

I would like to share my story, in the hope that it may offer hope and help to other parents or professionals who have to deal with drug use.

In the autumn of 2013, I had started to notice my daughter, Taylor seemed to be having difficulties. I kept an eye on what was going on with her, and it became apparent in April 2014 that she was using heroin. (She was smoking it, which at the time I didn’t even know you could do, and that gives you an idea of how little I knew.)

Although Taylor was managing to hold down a part-time job, she had failed two semesters of college, and I couldn’t help seeing that she was getting “heroin-thin.” So the drug use was interfering with her school, was starting to interfere with her work, and it was definitely negatively affecting her health.

I brought Taylor home from college, and offered her a choice. She had the option to stay home and do her best to clean up, and she had the other option to find her own way, which would mean she did not live under our roof.

When I asked her, she made it clear that living on the street was not an option for her. So we started the process of getting her off the drug, and facing the inevitable withdrawals.

Something I learned later, in my journey to understand more about heroin, is the way it affects the future-thinking part of the brain. So Taylor wasn’t really able to think about “what’s next,” it was really hard for her.

We decided we needed more help. Taylor agreed to go to the drug and alcohol program near where we live.

“Deep, Dark Trauma”

On her intake interview, she was interviewed for about twenty minutes, then they brought me into the room.  When I was there, the girl, who must have been in her mid-to-late twenties, looked at my daughter and said in all sincerity,

“You know, most girls, with the kind of drug use that you’re showing, have had a deep, dark trauma.”

At that point, I just bit my lip. I didn’t dare open my mouth, I was so mad. I noticed my daughter look from me to the woman and back to me. Neither one of us said anything.

I remember thinking to myself, “I bet you do find that. Because, if they don’t have a deep, dark trauma when they come in, I would imagine that you guys just pick away until they make one up.”

When we got in the car to leave, my daughter looked at me and her eyes got wide and she simply said, “Deep, dark trauma my ass!”

We both knew there was no unusual trauma in Taylor’s life, beyond the normal childhood stresses. I asked her later why she was using, and her explanation was that it took her to her happy place, and that was all.

I learned that, for Taylor, her initial use was all about pleasure, not about running away from any trauma or pain. But, of course, that didn’t fit with the support system that was available to us.

To her credit, Taylor attended that service for several weeks, but eventually had to give it up. The staff could only keep digging away to find some alternate, dark reason why she was using, as though they couldn’t believe that somebody might actually use drugs for pleasure. Their whole mode of working did not work for Taylor.

End-of-therapy-3DDangerous Therapy

I remember the addiction worker’s comments threw me straight back to a time when I was working with my own memories of sexual abuse, and how sick the system was. I spent ten years as a client of therapy, immersed in its victim mentality, until I decided to break free.

My own family had started in therapy when my brother was quite young. I remember he was described as “out of control” and he was prescribed various ADD medications. When that didn’t work, they put my mom on Valium — which really didn’t work for someone with four young kids!

That was followed by two years of Transactional Analysis. Over all that time, I did not notice any positive change in my brother. In fact, he ended up creating his own demise aged twenty-four, the victim of a drug-related murder.

In my book “The End of Therapy” (2015), I write at length about how frequently therapists make massive assumptions, even when they do not mean to. I also describe how those assumptions can hurt the client, unless either the therapist of the client is able to discern them.

Let’s be clear that I am not saying that no cases of drug use are in response to trauma. What I do say in the book is that forcing people to re-live the “reasons why” they have suffered may not be most beneficial for them.

Reprogramming our thought patterns or behavior using NLP or CBT may help to a degree, but I have always imagined a better way, which engages a client’s imagination and passion towards a life that they want, and then help them find the behaviors and actions that will help propel them, in an observable way, towards that outcome. “The End of Therapy” explores my journey that resulted in my finding that better way.


Over the next eight months, Taylor iterated with using on and off. However, I soon realized that when you have been using drugs habitually, and you have friends who still use, it is incredibly difficult to stay off them.

That cycle continued until it brought us to the point of breakdown.

On one occasion I remember Taylor was coming into the house carrying armfuls of clothes or belongings. I said something to her and she replied “Yes mother,” in a sarcastic tone.

I just grabbed whatever she was carrying and told her to get the hell out. She ran out of the house, and I went after her.

All I could picture was my heroin-thin daughter running down the road with her coat flapping in the cold wind, thinking, “Oh my God, she’s going to die! She’s going to die.”

I could have gone crazy. But I didn’t. I remember asking her to come home, and we were able to talk later.

Life-Saving Tools

I believe that the reason we overcame that breakdown was thanks to the tools of Clean Language.

About Clean Language

Clean Language was created by New Zealand-born psychologist David Grove in the 1980s, and it takes a radical stance to therapy, or to any kind of facilitation. In Clean, the facilitator maintains a stance that is outside the other person’s psychic space. They may ask questions — but only Clean questions — and these help the client to discover her or his own answers. The facilitator responds using the client’s language and metaphors, always careful to add no ideas or concepts of their own.

Change Does Not Happen in a Day

I now understand that many processes are iterative, and I can appreciate that my daughter may need to go through the cycle many times, each time making one more advancement, in order to reach where she needs to be. In fact, the Clean Language methodology fully embraces iteration.

And I have been able over these months to prompt her, gently and persistently, with clean questions like,

  • “What would you like to have happen?”
  • “What needs to happen for this?”
  • “Is there anything else that needs to happen?”

At first, we were only able to think ahead a few days at a time.  And, over time, we could start to look further into the future about what Taylor wanted for her life.

Sometimes I think I must sound like a broken record. But it keeps me from speaking the fears and the crap and the manipulation that I could so easily spew out.

An example was that recently, I discovered evidence that Taylor was using a little heroin at home. She lied to me about it.

I could easily have freaked out. But I didn’t. Because of my training, I was able to access the Clean stance.

So I approached her with a Clean question, such as, “When I have evidence that you have been using, and you have lied to me, and using at home while you’re living here isn’t an option, what needs to happen?”

Taylor was then free to volunteer information about how she was using. She told me that the clinic knew. She told me she was doing her best, and that she needed to stop seeing certain people.

This is the point where I think she really decided — for herself — that living on the street was not for her. That was the point she decided to go to a Methadone clinic. She has been attending that clinic continually for over eight months, making the 35-mile round trip every day without fail.

In that type of Clean transaction, I was able to stop and to let my daughter design her own solution. The outcome of this, so far, is that she has been able to stay in rapport with me, which means that when I have a suggestion or an idea (which I always will as a parent!) she is not adverse to hearing me, and is not constantly triggered to defend or to resist. She has remained both compliant and pro-active on her own part.

I cannot imagine that, if I did not have access to these tools, questions, and way of thinking, that we would still have this type of relationship. Is it an ideal situation? No. Is it completely resolved? No. But it is friendly.

The Clean stance has helped me not to take it personally, and instead to maintain and respect the boundaries that each of us must have.

I can honor my daughter’s choices, even if I don’t like them, while looking to what I want to have happen, as a mother.

How Clean Language Has Helped

Where the Clean methodology and stance has been so helpful, and has really been a key to my survival, is that it really helps me tend to my daughter and her thinking, at the same time really keeping my fears and worries and anxieties out of the context of our conversations.

Because, if I went in with all of my fear and anxiety over it, I knew we would be at each other’s throats. I know that what I want Taylor to do, and what she is actually doing, are two different things. I want her to stop. I want her to go back to school and be that magical, innocent child again.

So it helps my sanity, even when things get heated or when I get anxious, I can ask her Clean questions about what she wants and about what needs to happen to help begin to repair whatever fall-down or disappointment she is having, whether it’s work or the clinic, or even the stresses of living at home.


Clean Language can help a person begin to design their own outcome, irrespective of what we may think they need. In fact, it is one of the core beliefs that each person knows better what is right for them than we ever can. And that is incredibly freeing.

That is the key to me. It is her life, and her choice. Even if I hate what’s happening.

I am so grateful that, even after having had to face the conversation of confronting my daughter with the drug paraphernalia, and telling her that she could not continue with those actions, or she would have to find someplace else to live… the very next day we still went for a manicure, pedicure and a movie together. Because she wants to spend time with me.

Although she is still using heroin periodically, she is doing her best with work, and  still regularly attends the Methadone clinic. But most of all, we have a relationships that is vital.

I know that, even if my daughter were to have a complete breakdown, were to fall into the gutter, we have such a strong relationship and deep love for one another, even under incredibly trying circumstances. I have no doubt that I would not have been able to get to this point without the tools of Clean Language.

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(9) comments

Sioelan last year

Wow Sharon what a heartfelt and honest story. And what courage it must have taken to share it so openly with us and i feel privilaged and really honoured to be able to read about your journey and the special bond you have with your daughter. It requires a big heart and great compassion to take such a clean stance. Your writing is really special and beautiful, thanks for sharing.

Sharon Small last year

Thank you Sioelan, I was a bit concerned about posting. I wanted to be sure that my daughter was ok with being the focus of a public post and also I still occasionally have that feeling of stigma that often arises with issues like drug use, sex and mental illness. That feeling that as a parent I could have done something differently.

My daughter and I have had many talks about this and she has been very clear that it was her decision to try it and simply had no idea how addictive and driving it would be.

Heroin is such a pernicious drug, scentless, for smoking minimal paraphernalia and I am been shocked by how functional these kids can be – holding down jobs and leading seemingly normal lives for months and some, even years.

I am grateful for your reading and comment.

Laureen last year

Thank you so much for sharing your story. I feel as though I’ve lost all ability to have a productive conversation with my daughter an addict of prescription pills. She’s also been going to a methadone clinic for the past 3 1/2 yrs but still uses her prescriptions far more than anyone in the family would like. It’s extremely hard to have a conversation with an addict especially when it’s your child and all you want is for them to come back to you. I’m keeping your tips in mind and am going to make a conscious effort to change my language.

    Sharon Small last year

    Thank you Laureen,

    I am touched by your post. Thank you for sharing your experiences with your daughter. I understand it is very difficult to have a conversation with an addict, especially when it is our child and we have such desire for their well being.

    Please keep me updated on how you are doing and reach out to me if you would like to discuss how clean language might be helpful to you as a parent.

    One free resource to begin is Judy Rees’s It covers some of the basics of the clean questions and thinking behind the model – hopefully making it a little easier.

    Sending my love to you and your family.

Bev last year

This post is powerful, Sharon, full of compassion, love and skill, for your daughter of course, and for those of us who get to learn through your experience. Thank you for the courage and generosity to share this and best of blessings to you and your daughter.

    Sharon Small last year

    Thank you Bev,

    It has been quite a trip .. metaphorically of course. 🙂 Thank you for taking time to read and post. It is encouraging to know that my experience is helpful in even the smallest way to parents and others who may be experiencing difficulties in their lives and relationships.

    Blessings to your beautiful family as well Bev


Kirk VandenBerghe last year

Sharon, I loved your article and appreciate you sharing such a personal account of how Clean Language has been so useful in your and Taylor’s lives.

Mimi last year

Love and integrity, both yours and Taylor’s, shine through, Sharon, in sharing this story. And Taylor agreeing to the post feels to me like a huge step in her own healing process.

I see a beautiful ‘match,’ here, between the healing challenge and Clean. In the spirit of homeopathy and ‘like cures like,’ “Clean” helped you help Taylor get ‘clean’ and ‘come clean’ about her addiction.

It does not seem accidental to me at all that ‘coming clean’ is an expression of speaking truth and ‘clean language’ is a method for creating the space and place and words to do that.

Again, the love and integrity are what stay with me, and I expect what give you and your daughter staying power on the path to healing and change.

    Sharon Small last year

    Thank you Mimi for your post with the fun links of all the ‘cleans’ – part and parcel of working with language is seeing those connections. It is funny how things link and come together in ways least expected sometimes.


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