If your child is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it can feel like your responsibility. Depending on your child’s age, that might even be true. Coping with addiction is difficult in any situation. However, when it’s someone you raised, cared for, and invested in, emotions can be turbulent. Drug and alcohol addictions can feel like your fault. They can feel like a betrayal of your trust and how you raised your child. They can also be a challenging issue that continues to recur with a child who’s having more trouble in school and in life than most. At the same time, it doesn’t matter what age they or what steps you can take. Finding calm and reacting in the right way can make all the difference to how your child sees you, their treatment, and their future.
Blaming yourself is easy. Blaming your kids is also easy. You shouldn’t be doing either. Addiction is a mental health disorder. While it’s most-often caused by exposure to drugs and alcohol, it’s also influenced by vulnerabilities like genetics, stress, mental health problems, loss, and other problems. Even if your parents drank before you were born, it could influence your child’s susceptibility to drugs and alcohol. You might be feeling a tangle of shame, guilt, and anger, but it’s important not to communicate that. Approaching drug or alcohol addiction like you would depression or anxiety is the best possible thing you can do. This is a disorder that is made worse by choices and lifestyle, but which is eventually mitigated by those same factors.
It doesn’t matter if your child is 13 or 33, they were raised with the same social stigma and guilt that you feel around substance abuse. If you’re having trouble coping with it, so are they. Confirming that you care about your children and that you will be there for them – even while they struggle with a disorder. That means approaching conversations from an angle of making things about them, their health, and their wellbeing.
For example, it’s extremely easy to project judgmental attitudes on your children. This might include something like being afraid of what the neighbors or other parents will think. Or, trying to hide the substance use disorder. Or, telling your child you’re ashamed to talk about it. Substance use disorders are a disorder, treat them like you would a mental health disorder. That means refusing to lie or hide it, refusing to talk around the subject, and refusing to treat it in any manner that you would not treat a physical or mental illness.
It’s also important to show that you’ll be there by actions. Taking time to listen, try to figure out underlying problems, account for your own behavior, and refuse to make excuses for things – even if your child says hurtful things. Addiction can make people aggressive, manipulative, and hurtful. Try to avoid being pulled into that, try to stay calm, and try to show that you’re willing to listen and will try to understand – even if you can’t.
Most of us are familiar with tough love. Your child might even expect it. But, we know tough love doesn’t work. Taking steps to show your child that you are there for them, even if they are making choices that hurt shows them that you aren’t going to abandon them, especially now when they need you the most.
As much as we, as parents, are often tempted to invest everything in our children, it’s not healthy. Not when your children are healthy and especially not when they have mental health problems. Here, you have to navigate problems surrounding risks of codependency, stress, trauma, and burnout. Taking care of someone with an addiction means putting yourself at risk and that means pacing yourself. It also means setting boundaries and sticking to them.
That means taking care with how much time and effort you spend taking care of them. That applies whether they live with you or not. And it applies whether that time and effort is helping with chores, paying rent, handling groceries, etc. Most importantly, it applies when that effort is emotional labor, such as dealing with others being upset, handling school and teachers, talking to their boss, etc. Constantly putting in effort is exhausting and draining. It might also enable them to continue using – even if they live with you.
Instead, it’s important to set boundaries related to what you are and are not willing to do or invest. What is healthy for you to invest? What can you maintain for a longer period? What allows you to be there for your child without enabling them to continue using? These questions can be difficult and sometimes even impossible to answer. However, it’s important that you think about them, possibly ask for help if you’re struggling. You can’t and should not take everything on. You can not and should not put up with everything. You should set boundaries with your child so that you can live together or with each other in as safe and as comfortable a manner as possible.
Your child should always know that you’re willing to help them into treatment – whether that’s outpatient or inpatient. They should also know that you want them to go into therapy not because of what others will think but because you care about them, their future, and their possibilities. Approaching rehab from a place of judgment will rarely work. Your approach should be to offer help with moving into treatment, moving into therapy, or even just finding someone to talk to who understands what they’re going through.
That might mean researching what treatment options are available together. It might mean calling treatment centers and asking for help. It might even mean staging an intervention if necessary. But, you should always make your child as involved as possible in getting treatment, because eventually, recovery requires personal motivation and dedication.
Finally, when and if they do go into treatment, it’s important not to stop there. Substance abuse damages families. It damages relationships. Going to family therapy with your child is an easy way to show you are committed to their recovery and willing to take part in it. Most treatment centers will offer some family support for recovery – especially if they’re focused on children and teens. However, no matter what your child’s age, you can get family therapy.
Coping with the fact that your child is suffering from a debilitating mental health disorder is difficult. However, it’s important to step back, to make good choices surrounding that, and to treat your child with respect, love, and patience. Involving them in recovery options, practicing non-judgement, and showing love throughout the process are important – both for maintaining your relationship and for getting them into treatment in the first place.