A common issue among families that include a member suffering from substance abuse and addiction is that the family does not know how to help, or what to do about the situation. For children of drug-addicted parents and alcoholics, it can be especially hard.

It is important to remember that to help a family member recovering from addiction, you must treat their addiction as if it were any other disease. If your parent were so sick that it hindered their everyday life functions, you would take them to a doctor. Addiction is no different, and treating addiction as a sickness can prove useful and make it easier on you. If your parent is struggling with drug abuse, we are here to help.

A Child’s Experience with a Drug-Addicted Parent

Addiction is commonly called a “family disease” because a family member with a drug addiction can cause tension between themselves and other relatives. They may ask for financial help just to buy the drug they are addicted to and sometimes even participate in illegal activities like drug dealing or resorting to violence/gangs.

Watching someone go down the path of addiction is painful, and doing something about it by yourself may be difficult. There are many hardships that a child of someone suffering from addiction may face when interacting and being with the addicted person. These can include:

  • Isolation from the addicted parent
  • Increased levels of family conflict
  • Emotional or physical violence
  • Neglect from the parent
  • Fear of trying to help the addicted parent
  • Guilt/feelings of helplessness
  • High stress levels

When a child begins to feel guilty or helpless, they start to convince themselves that it was their fault and that they should be able to do something. Even though sometimes people can help in dealing with a family member’s addiction, the success of treatment depends on the person who needs recovery. As the saying goes: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

You should never believe that someone’s failure to end their addiction is your fault. This just causes negative thoughts, which are, ultimately, counterproductive. Instead of playing “the blame game,” work together with your addicted family member and let them know you are there to help.

What Should a Child Do?

Because of the common feeling of helplessness, many children will want to help their parent. If the addicted parent refuses help, do not force anything. The safest thing to do is to either find them professional treatment, and if they refuse that, get help from another adult or remove yourself from the environment.

If a child wants to help their drug-addicted parent overcome their disorder, the proper steps must be taken to ensure the success and safety of both the child and the parent.

Earlier, we compared addiction to any other sickness that is treatable through doctors, prescriptions, and medications. While it may be effective in dealing with the addiction, it is a much more complicated process.

Finding the Roots of Addiction

The first step in dealing with a parent’s drug or alcohol addiction is to sit down and have a serious, sober talk about it. While they may refuse to sit and talk during the first few times, they should eventually give in and allow you the opportunity to help them. Some questions you can ask are:

  • “How do you feel when you are/are not taking the drug?”
  • “Why do you abuse this drug?”
  • “Where do you get it from?”
  • “Why/when did you start using the drug?”
  • And most important, “Would you like to be able to quit using that drug to achieve happiness?”

Personalize the way you approach the situation, but be persistent and gentle. These questions are not meant to scold the person in active addiction, and by using a chiding tone, it makes the user more likely to have a closed mind to treatment.

If this method does not work or the parent won’t listen or open up to the child, it may be time to seek further help. If there is any violence involved, there should be no question that the person should be treated as soon as possible. In extreme cases, someone who notices your family’s discomfort and lack of function will call Child Protective Services if they fear for the child’s health and safety.

Tips for Children

While dealing with living with a parent who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, it is important that a child keep a clear mindset. Some things that can help are among the most simple, everyday activities that millions of people do daily.

As an Adult Child, You May Consider:

  • Do what you enjoy. If you like sports, go out and play a game or two with your friends. If you enjoy reading, a trip to the library will help clear your headspace.
  • Make a list of places you can go to relieve stress. This could be a friend’s or family member’s house, a small coffee shop, or your favorite park. If you need a place to go to calm down, you can always consult your list.
  • Keep your friends close. It may be tempting to withdraw and isolate yourself in fear of embarrassment of your situation, but opening up to friends can lead them to share some of their personal stories and advice.

Evidence shows that seeking help from other adults can greatly benefit the likelihood of a successful intervention. Family members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and sometimes even just family friends can create a more stable environment. The inclusion of another adult in the role-reversed relationship between a caretaker adult child and a parent addict can relieve stress from the child.

Role Reversal

In a healthy, normal parent-child relationship, the role of the parent is to take care of the child and tend to their needs. In a parent-child relationship, in which the parent is addicted, the roles are reversed, and the child begins to take care of the adult.

In this situation, it is important to know what does and does not “cross the line” when it comes to personal intimacy. Some responsibilities of a child may include things such as cleaning up after a heavy drinking night or helping to cook dinner one day. But sometimes the addicted parent will begin to take this for granted and start requesting more intimate favors such as:

  • Canceling plans with friends to stay home and take care of the parent
  • Listening to the parent talk about different sexual experiences
  • Participating in drug use with the parent to “form a bond”
  • Staying in the same room the parent sleeps in because the parent is anxious and fears being alone

According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, children who spend most of their time caring for their parent instead of nurturing themselves are at a much higher risk to develop disorders such as anxiety, depression, and even drug abuse. Instead of enduring a role-reversed relationship with an addicted parent, consider long-term residential treatment for them; it could be just what they need.

The Stigma of Addiction

Stigma is defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person,” and the World Health Organization identifies stigma (concerning drug addiction) as an abuse of human rights and a leading cause in lack of drug addiction treatment.

Some people may even exhibit stigmatic behaviors when they use derogatory terms like “junkie,” “alcoholic,” “meth-head,” and other awful names commonly used to label people who have an addiction.

While some people do not notice, many adults will judge, criticize, and condemn people with substance use disorders. Children, however, have a much more malleable and open mind, and they are much more likely to help an adult suffering from addiction than another adult.

People who struggle with addiction need help more than anything, and when discriminated against by society, the person who needs treatment most becomes too scared and embarrassed to seek help. The following excerpt is from an article written by Alana Levinson, and discusses how society tells her to act when her father suffered from drug addiction:

“As I now know from the studies that I’ve read, this common conspiracy of silence and denial keeps people from expressing truths that they need to air. Children of addicts are often encouraged by family members to stay quiet, or they do so out of their own pervasive shame. According to the psychological literature; however, such behavior is the exact opposite of what is best for them.”

– Alana Levinson

Society generally ignores or condemns those who suffer from addiction and, as a result, many children who grow up in a household that contains one or more addicted parent will continue to single-handedly cope with their addicted parent. In this case, the child must remind themselves that they have the strength, right, and responsibility to get proper help for their parent.

Adult Children of Addicted Parents

It is a common misconception that as a child matures into adulthood, the side effects and repercussions of having lived and cared for an addicted parent fade. We, however, know that the influences of an addicted parent on their child can (and will) last a lifetime.

It is important to know the reason behind why some adult children of addicted parents act differently than other children who had a sober upbringing. Long-term effects of living with an addicted parent can show us how to further help (adult) children and how to return to a “normal” lifestyle.

The reason “normal” is in quotation marks is that many adult children who were raised by an addicted person do not know what “normal” is. In a blog post, Joni Edelman tells us from the first-person point of view what it is like to be an adult child of an addicted parent. Because normal is a relative term, growing up taking care of an adult and neglecting your own needs can be counted as “normal.”

Sometimes it can be difficult to identify someone as an adult child of an addicted parent. While some people are unaffected by their parent being addicted in the past, many others are greatly affected by their childhood and may exhibit some noticeable behaviors, including:

  • Controlling/dominant attitude – This is not due to being selfish but rather the opposite. They try to control to behaviors, actions, and feelings of others to make sure those people don’t get hurt/hurt themselves.
  • Low self-esteem/avoiding conflict – This happens because adult children were raised in subliminal fear of people in authority (the addicted parent) and constantly seek approval or praise.
  • Attraction to people with disorders – This is due to the constant reliance on the child by the addicted parent. Many adult children of addicted parents will find themselves constantly trying to help others, and will sometimes find themselves naturally attracted to someone that suffers from alcoholism, workaholism, and/or other compulsive personality traits.

A Message to Children of Addicted Parents

Substance abuse and addiction can affect not only the user but all of the friends and family of the user. A child should never have to be put in a situation in which they are scared to act on getting their parent the proper treatment they need in fear of being separated from that parent.

Just because professional treatment is usually necessary for treating addiction, does not mean that a child cannot help their parents in dealing with addiction before the first step in professional treatment, which is usually medical detoxification. By providing emotional support and comfort, while also asserting the need for the parent to get treatment, a parent’s child can be the sole difference between recovery and relapse.

If your parent has been struggling with addiction, you now know what you have to do to help. Be there for them, and push them to start their journey to full addiction recovery.

As their child, your parent suffering from addiction loves you and will listen to you. Do not give in to their addiction. Anyone addicted will say and do extreme things to sate their appetite for their drug, so it takes dedication to take care of their withdrawals and relapses.

Benefits of Family Therapy

Family therapy is an essential part of addiction treatment for many people. Of course, it’s important to note that family therapy in addiction might be slightly different from traditional family therapy because it will address addiction and how it has affected the family unit.

Plus, if an individual who is going through addiction treatment isn’t ready for family therapy, their therapist might not recommend it, and other family members should respect that. Still, addiction is often called a family disease because of the way substance use disorders often have roots in dysfunctional families. Family therapy is beneficial in addiction treatment.

Involving family members, like a person’s children, in therapy has several benefits, including the following:

  • It allows therapists to gain more insight into the person’s family dynamics and possible dysfunctions that may contribute to addiction.
  • Family involvement can encourage compliance and engagement with treatment from people who are resistant or apathetic toward treatment.
  • Family members can express their thoughts and feelings about how their loved one’s addiction has affected their lives.
  • The addicted person can learn how their actions have affected their loved ones.
  • Feelings, frustrations, and resentments can be expressed, addressed, and can start to be healed.
  • Family members can be encouraged to attend support groups for family members of addicted people like Al-Anon.
  • Family members can learn about enabling behavior and how to avoid it.

Family dysfunction can also cause or worsen a substance use disorder. In many cases, family members experience codependency with the addicted person. Addiction can take over a family, causing everyone’s lives to revolve around dealing with the disease. Some family members may feel responsible for the addicted person to the point of unhealthy codependency.

For instance, if a mother feels protective of an addicted son and doesn’t want to be separated from him while he attends treatment, attachment is doing more harm than good. Codependency and other dysfunctional family issues can be addressed in treatment.

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