As parents, having a child is a life-changing event that brings incredible joy and love into your life. Less often talked about is the fact that children also bring worry, pain and fear. From the moment you learn that you’re having a baby, you likely began worrying about providing for, caring for and raising that child to be the type of person who can make it in a world that is not always kind or fair. And, worse, when your child grows up to make mistakes related to drug or alcohol use, it can be difficult to reach out, to get help or even to recognize that it’s not your fault. This is especially true considering the shamed way most people approach addiction in their family. We don’t talk about it, we rarely inform the whole family, and many of us find ourselves taking steps to hide or even cover up addiction to prevent other family members and friends from finding out.
However, with approximately 20.1 million addicted individuals in the United States, you are far from alone.1 With those statistics, more than 40 million parents are going through the same journey with you. While societal refusal to talk about or acknowledge addiction can make it seem shameful, addiction is an all-too-common problem and nothing to be ashamed of.
As a parent, your child’s addiction is difficult to bear. It’s exhausting to keep up with someone addicted to a substance. And, whether they are in treatment, just out of it or have yet to get there, you shouldn’t expect yourself to face everything alone. Reaching out to friends and family so that you have someone to talk to and rely on when you are stressed or overcome can make all the difference. While this involves that painful first step of breaking the news to them, most people are well aware that addiction is a disorder, and they will be open to listening to you and learning about it.
Talking to friends and family can help you to cope, but you shouldn’t underestimate the value of professional or guided help. Whether you see a therapist or counselor, attend family therapy or go to group meetings like Al-Anon, getting help can make it easier to bear and may guide you towards finding solutions and making the best decisions. For example, family therapy will likely help you rebuild a relationship with your son or daughter and resolve the negative effects of your child’s addiction on the rest of your family.
Groups like Al-Anon create a structured setting where others affected by a loved one’s addiction share their problems, talk about their family, and discuss and learn about addiction in a very open environment. This can be beneficial to you in a number of ways. For example, you get to hear other people talking about their addicted family members and children in a non-judgmental environment. Often, members of Al-Anon are very educated about addiction and how it works, and you can learn from their perspectives. You also get to meet people who share your experiences, understand where you are coming from and can, therefore, offer help in a way that matters. And, because you can talk to people who understand where you are coming from, you can get emotional support as well.
Tough Love Doesn’t Work
Tough love is often touted as the only way to deal with an addicted child. But being harsh to your child takes away the one real support they have. While the idea of tough love is that you force them to be accountable for their own actions, it can backfire. How? Most people eventually get into rehab through their family, and they agree to it when they trust their family, know their family members are there for them and have someone to turn to.
But this doesn’t mean you should take steps to enable their addiction. If you’re paying their rent, lying for them, covering for them at work or constantly taking up their responsibilities so they don’t face the consequences of their actions, you are enabling. However, you can be there in ways that don’t involve offering money or taking on their responsibilities.
If your child is not yet ready to enter a drug and alcohol rehab program, you can listen to them and ensure they know you are there to help when they are ready. Phrases like “I can’t give you money, but if you want to talk, I’m here” can help, as can offering support, helping ensure they use safely and, for opioid users, stocking naloxone or a similar drug to prevent an overdose.
Don’t Take Responsibility
Most of us think that if we raise a child, we’re responsible for how they turn out and their choices. However, no amount of blaming yourself will make it any more true. No matter what you did, how you parented or whether you argued, you did not make the conscious choice for your child to start using or drinking.
Addiction is a disease and not just a result of your parenting decisions.
Instead of blaming yourself or your child, try creating boundaries. Recognize that using is their decision, you cannot affect it or change it, and you are, therefore, not to blame. But you should also recognize that, while they are using, they are not in control. They cannot make rational decisions, will not likely prioritize their relationship with you and will likely do and say hurtful things. Taking a step back, refusing to expect anything from them until they get treatment and choosing to put yourself first (e.g., don’t stay up all night waiting for them to get home, don’t wait for hours to have dinner because they are late, don’t drive to pick them up in the middle of the night unless you know they will be in danger otherwise, etc.) will enable you to live your life without taking responsibility for their problems. This doesn’t mean you stop loving them — only that you refuse to take responsibility for their addiction.
Remember, You Can’t Fix Your Child
As parents, we all like to think that we can step in and kiss the hurt to make it better. Unfortunately, life isn’t that simple. Even if your child is young enough to still be in school, you can’t fix them and you can’t make it better. Addiction is a personal journey. They must choose to be strong, choose to get treatment and choose to learn the discipline and coping skills that make recovery possible.
You can’t do any of that for them. You can only be there for them and provide the support and help they need when they are ready to make that choice.
Be Open to Your Friends and Family
Whether your child is in rehab or not there yet, hiding their addiction from friends and family is its own kind of stress and labor. Hiding an addiction is a source of stress that will likely make you feel guilty and will drive you away from the people who should be supporting you. Decide what to share, do so and be open with your close friends and family. Addiction is a medical disorder, and like any health problem, it can be treated and cured. While open knowledge of an addiction will spark talk and may damage your child’s reputation, having it out in the open and discussed (and given a place) in your close family and circle will achieve multiple things. First, you won’t have to spend time and energy lying about it or hiding it. Second, your friends and family will be there to support you when you need it.
Your child is your child, and no matter what they are doing, you love them. However, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself, to reach out for help and to talk to friends and family when you can. If you’re putting all your effort into caring for another person, putting effort into getting them into rehab or even taking care of them while they are actively addicted, it takes a lot out of you. You need support and self-care if you want to keep being there for your family.
- Ahrnsbrak, Rebecca, et al. Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, September 2017.