Today, 18.5 million Americans struggle with drugs and alcohol. For most, substance use starts out innocently enough, trying something. Whether addiction stems from illicit substances or from prescription medication, no one intends to become an addict. Unfortunately, for millions of us, it gets out of hand. And, as parents, no matter how old your child is, you want to help.
Whether your children are 12 or 40 doesn’t matter, you still want to offer the support and love they need to live a good life, to have their best chances in life, and to move towards their goals.
Unfortunately, when they are an addict, that support can take a negative turn. Your support might be allowing them to maintain a substance use disorder – which eventually causes far more harm than allowing them to “Crash” and have to get clean and sober. There’s a fine line between offering support and enabling addiction. Yet, millions of us engage in it.
If you’re caring for a child, in or out of your house, who is struggling with substance abuse, it may be important to step back and to assess whether your behavior is enabling.
Your child can’t make groceries, so you cover them. Your kid in school is flagging, so you make up excuses for school and cover for them. Your child consistently can’t make rent because of car breakdowns or sudden fees levied by their dorm. Your child isn’t able to meet responsibilities to care for their children, so you take over – offering childcare and cooking or even chauffeuring kids too and from school. All of these situations sound like being a good parent. All of them also enable your child to continue using in a situation where they otherwise couldn’t.
Enabling behavior looks like:
How does that work? If your child is using a substance and can’t make school, people ask questions, your child goes in for a medical examination, and before you know it, they are mandated to a recovery program. That’s awkward and embarrassing, but they get help. Your kid can’t make groceries or pay rent, so they could lose their house if they continue to spend money on drugs or alcohol instead of rent. That could be a massive setback, especially if they have a mortgage, but with less money – they are unable to actually buy drugs. Your child is unable to fulfill responsibilities, so their home condition deteriorates and they are forced to either solve the issue or acknowledge they have an issue.
This sort of approach can be painful. It can also be dangerous, especially if children or pets are involved. Taking steps to protect vulnerable parties (such as by offering that kids can stay with you until your child gets help) can be important. But, it’s important to assess that your behavior of offering support is not allowing your child to continue destructive and potentially deadly habits.
While enabling behavior is often about money and physical acts of support, it doesn’t have to be. Instead, we enable by ignoring problems, by denying there’s a problem to begin with, by avoiding confrontation, and even by blaming others for the problem. This can be much more insidious and much more difficult to realize and to resolve.
Denial – You don’t want your child to have a major psychological disorder. But, if they do, it’s important to acknowledge it. Many parents see substance use disorders as a sign of failure on their part. This isn’t true and it aligns with the myth that substance use disorders like heroin addiction or meth addiction are a moral failing. Today, we know that addiction is a complex disorder of the brain, stimulated by exposure to drugs or alcohol, and it can be treated with the same techniques used to treat disorders like depression and anxiety. If you ignore signs, avoid that your child has a problem, and refuse to accept that your child is addicted, you’re enabling their continued substance abuse. Denial also takes the form of rationalizing the problem to others. E.g., “It’s not so bad, she doesn’t drink that much” when someone else asks.
Avoiding Confrontation – No matter what your child’s age, dealing with someone with an addiction is terrifying. They can be aggressive, angry, manipulative, and they will often use blackmail or say hurtful things to redirect the conversation. Confronting someone about a substance use disorder can feel like pulling teeth. It makes sense you’d avoid it. But doing so allows your child to continue using. If you don’t know how to talk to your child, there are plenty of professional services that can help.
Justifying Problems – “They’re just abusing Adderall while they get through school”, “the move was stressful, a bit of alcohol can’t help”, “wow their new partner is horrible, I understand using around that”. Can all contribute to you allowing your child to continue using. This also means agreeing with the justifications they give. E.g., “What? Everyone is doing it!”, “I’ll quit after X”, “The new job is stressful”, etc.
Getting Control – Parents, especially those with older children who missed having someone to take care of, are especially at risk of becoming codependent. Here, you base your value on your ability to care for your child. Them being sick can give you control over their life, a way to add value to their life, and a way to add meaning to your own life – and letting go of that can be intensely difficult. The thing is, codependence is bad for both of you, and if this is you, you will likely need mental health treatment of your own.
It’s fair that no matter where your child is in life you still want to support them. That’s important and a necessary part of any healthy relationship. However, the flip side of healthy relationships is boundaries. Those boundaries will necessarily have to change depending on your child’s age, their capabilities, and their mental state. But, you can and should create them. Good boundaries look like honesty, firm but gentle “no”, and assessing when to involve experts and medical professionals. They could appear as:
All of these boundaries are relatively straightforward, and they don’t exclude you from helping your child. For example, if your child is about to lose their home, you could help them move their things into storage so they can stay with you until they get back on their feet. If they lie or manipulate you, the answer is always no.
If your children are under 18, it’s always possible to force them into treatment. However, you can’t force anyone to be motivated to seek out treatment. On the other hand, most treatment includes motivational therapy, so forcing your child to go to rehab is likely a good idea. If they are over 18, you’ll have little choice in the matter and instead will have to wait until they are ready to enter an inpatient rehab or outpatient rehab program. Getting there means setting firm boundaries, offering support, and making sure that you withdraw and offer support in ways that don’t harm you or your mental health.