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Approaching an Addicted Parent (A How-to Guide)

The power dynamic between a child and a parent can complicate things when the parent is struggling with addiction. But children can be a powerful motivator for a parent to get sober.
Depending on the age of the child, it may be appropriate for them to help their parent who is struggling with addiction. The best approach is one that comes from a place of love and compassion versus judgment.

Approaching a Parent Who Struggles With Addiction

Many children grow up in homes where drug abuse is a daily fact of life. One or both parents might abuse drugs, and they may end up being emotionally absent or prone to bouts of anger or deep sadness. For these children, this can become normal, only realizing later that there was an unusual or unacceptable problem

A child can help a parent out of addiction, but it should also not be something a child is forced to do to their own detriment. A big part of how feasible it will depend on age. An adult can help their parent; if the child is a minor, it may be best if they are not involved in efforts to get their parent into rehab.

Safety is the Priority

The line between abuse and discipline (or simply bad parenting) can sometimes be difficult to see. If you have been in an abusive relationship with your parent, it can be helpful to have a professional there when you discuss the addictive behavior. This may be a therapist, professional interventionist, or social worker.

If any child is still in danger of abuse, the goal should be to stop that abuse. This takes priority over an addiction intervention. Contact law enforcement or Child Protective Services about your concerns.

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Understand Your Limits

You have undoubtedly been hurt by your parent struggling with addiction. Understand what your limits are.

Again, age factors in. If you are a minor, you need help from an adult. Talk to someone in your life whom you trust. They can help you approach your parent.

Remember that you cannot force someone to change. You love your parent and want to see them get well, but you need to protect your own physical and emotional well-being.
You may feel like the burden of your parent’s sobriety, and health falls on you. This isn’t true. They are ultimately responsible for their own behavior, even when struggling with the disease of addiction. You can’t force them to get sober.

A Direct Conversation

This is a difficult conversation to have with anyone, and having it with a parent can further complicate things.

Take time to prepare for the conversation ahead of time. Working through what you will say ahead of time can help you to deliver your message in a clear and loving manner.

When you confront a parent about their addiction, they may be embarrassed, angry, or dismissive at first. You may find yourself getting angry in turn, but avoid turning the conversation into a screaming match.

Remind your parent how much they mean to you. Talk about a great memory you have together from a time when they were sober and more present. Tell them that you are reaching out because you love them so much and want to see them get well.

Give examples when talking to your parent about their drug addiction. Get specific, citing signs of substance abuse. It can help to consult with a therapist or addiction treatment specialist beforehand to talk through your suspicions. Often, discussing the issue with another family member first can help as well.

Outline your concerns for their health, and describe your worries for yourself or anyone living in their home. Talk about a specific instance when you felt afraid because of their substance abuse. Perhaps this is when you couldn’t wake them up after they passed out from drinking. Maybe it was a time when you couldn’t find them when they had gone on a drug binge. Whatever the situation, describe in detail how it makes you feel.

They may try and deflect your claims. Listen to their words and do not dismiss them out of hand. Recall any times they have dismissed similar conversations in the past. Any legitimate points they may have should be put into context. Their drug abuse is a serious concern, and they can’t escape that fact.

Research a few treatment programs beforehand and present these options to your mom or dad. Confirm that the programs have space available so they can immediately proceed to rehab following your discussion.

You may wish to approach your parent on your own, and that may be appropriate for the initial conversation. In other instances, it will be more effective to involve others. Talk to a professional interventionist about staging an intervention for your mom or dad. Recruit a few close family members or friends to present a unified front to your parent.

If your mom or dad is resistant to the idea of getting help, you may need to outline your bottom line. An interventionist or therapist can help you define this. If they refuse addiction treatment, you may stop paying their bills for them, lying to their friends about their behavior, or letting their grandchildren spend time with them. It’s essential that you stick to this bottom line, so they can see you aren’t messing around when it comes to them getting help.

Your Support

Getting a parent, or anyone else, to admit they have a problem with drugs is rarely easy. You will likely need to have many conversations with them before they are fully willing to accept they need help and begin to seek it.

Depending on the type of drug they are abusing and the amount of time they have been using, it could be very difficult for them to imagine beating their addiction. Each conversation or intervention is a stepping stone on their ultimate path to recovery.

Reminding your parent that you love them, and you will be there to support them as they focus to get sober can help the process.

The support you provide during the recovery process can be incredibly valuable.

Again, remember your own health. Talk to a therapist about how to best manage your own self-care during this vulnerable time.

There are support groups available for children of parents who are struggling with addiction.

Adult Children of Alcoholics / Dysfunctional Families offers support and a roadmap to recovery for those who grew up with addicted parents.

Al-Anon groups offer support and resources for family members of those struggling with addiction.

If you are a child whose parent is struggling with addiction, talk to an older family member, teacher, therapist, or other trusted individual about your concerns for your parent. They can guide you through the process of helping your mom or dad.

Sources

The Difference Between Discipline and Abuse. Hamilton County Job & Family Services. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.hcjfs.org/services/child-protection/know-the-difference-between-discipline-and-abuse/

(April 2018) Children with Addicted Parents Face Difficulties in Adulthood, Including a Higher Risk of Addiction. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved April 2019 from https://psmag.com/social-justice/surviving-secret-childhood-trauma-parents-drug-addiction-94354

(November 2014) Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction. Pacific Standard. Retrieved April 2019 from https://psmag.com/social-justice/surviving-secret-childhood-trauma-parents-drug-addiction-94354

How to Help Teenagers with Addicted Parents. Stanford Children’s Health. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=how-to-help-teenagers-with-addicted-parents-1-651

(December 2013) Five Must-Do Things if a Family Member Is Abusing Drugs. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/almost-addicted/201312/five-must-do-things-if-family-member-is-abusing-drugs

(April 2014) Why Physical Punishment Does Not Work. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/great-kids-great-parents/201404/why-physical-punishment-does-not-work

(October 2016) How Compassion Can Help You Support an Addicted Loved One. Psychology Today. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-compassion-chronicles/201610/how-compassion-can-help-you-support-addicted-loved-one

(November 2016) Perceived Coercion to Enter Treatment Among Involuntarily and Voluntarily Admitted Patients with Substance Use Disorders. BMC Health Services Research. Retrieved April 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5111249/

Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Retrieved April 2019 from https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/

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