No parent wants to believe their child would use drugs or abuse alcohol, but at times this can be a struggle for your child. In 2020, 40.3 million people aged 12 or older in the United States had a substance use disorder including 28.3 million with alcohol use disorder, 18.4 million with an illicit drug use disorder, and 6.5 million with both alcohol use disorder and illicit drug use disorder8.
Changes in behavior are among the top warning signs of drug abuse, and ignoring the warning signs is one of the biggest mistakes parents of addicted loved ones can make. Finding help and support for your addicted child can help them find recovery. The way you speak to your child can influence how receptive they are to accepting treatment.
In order to help your child, you need to first admit to yourself that your child is struggling with addiction. Even if your child is not ready to accept it, you can start taking steps to help your child.
Your child may struggle to admit that they have an alcohol or drug addiction. Addicts often go to extreme lengths to try to hide their symptoms and make their addiction problems seem less severe.
Signs your child could be abusing drugs include:
Parents of addicted loved ones can feel helpless because they do not have the knowledge about how to help their child with addiction. Your child may shut down or react in anger whenever you try to communicate, especially if you mention drug or alcohol abuse.
Before you approach your child, learn everything you can about drug and alcohol addiction6. Knowledge is empowering and will help you approach your child with compassion and empathy.
At times, you may be experiencing strong emotions when dealing with your addicted child. These emotions may be linked to common false beliefs regarding addiction.
Here are common misconceptions about addiction:
Addiction begins with a decision to use drugs or alcohol and what happens after is usually not within the person’s control. Today’s younger generation faces intense pressure and may use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism or a response to intense peer pressure.
Everyone responds differently to drugs:
Regardless of how it started, addiction is a mental illness that addicts cannot cure by willpower or self-control. Just like diabetes or cancer, the addict can not control their addiction once it has started.
You may be concerned about the stigma of being the parent of an addict and you may begin to blame yourself. The more you understand about addiction, the more you will realize that your child’s drug and alcohol abuse is not your fault.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, addiction is a mental illness caused by changes in multiple brain processes that impact behavior and decision-making2. Although there is no way to predict who will become addicted to drugs or alcohol, there are factors that may put an individual at more risk for developing an addiction.
The risk factors for developing addiction include3:
Your child’s addiction could create frustration and anger in the whole family. The addiction of your child may cause them to act in ways that they normally would not and it can begin to affect the family as a whole.
New behaviors that may appear in your addicted child may include:
Your addicted child might be causing chaos in your home, destroying their own life, and negatively affecting your other children. Try to remind yourself that your child has been taken over by their addiction, and their behaviors can be changed once they find recovery.
When you start conversing with your child about their addiction, your goal is to bypass the addict and reach the true essence of your child. This can be a challenging task and can take more than one conversation to complete this goal. The purpose of the first conversation is to open the lines of communication between you and your child.
Try to communicate the following:
The timing of when to talk to your child about their addiction is vital because there are times when you will not be able to get through to your child.
It is best not try to try to talk to them while they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs because they will not be capable of having a conversation. At that point in time, you will talk with the addicted version of themselves, rather than the person you know them to be.
Do not talk with them about their addiction while they are coming down from a high because this is the time when they are most prone to anger and violence. During this period, they will not be open to conversation and are often desperate to find a way to get high again.
Do not try to talk with your child about their addiction during a fight or conflict because they will not be receptive. Instead, schedule a time to talk with them so your child does not start out the conversation already frustrated. Find an opportunity to discuss your child’s addiction when your child is home, sober, awake, and not in a rush to leave.
If the other parent is active in your child’s life, have the conversation about your child’s addiction when you are both present and able to speak with your child. If your child has another significant role model or adult in their life, it may be beneficial for that person to also be in attendance for the conversation.
The best practice to talk with your child about their addiction is to be straightforward and mention the drug abuse early on while focusing on your love and concern for them. Show your child that your intention is for them to know you wish to help and not punish them for their addiction. In your discussion try to be empathetic and understanding, and be cautious to avoid using language that sounds angry or accusatory.
These phrases give your child the idea that your intention is to be angry and accuse:
Instead of using these phrases, you may use language that communicates with your child that you love and support them.
If your child has been creating chaos in your home since becoming addicted, setting boundaries may help the family dynamic in the household. A boundary can be used as a limitation set forth to help your child with their addiction and limit the damage in their lives as well as the lives of others.
Boundaries that may be helpful in your home include:
Let your child’s behavior guide your boundaries. For example, if your child has stolen from you, acted violently, or used the car for illegal activities like buying drugs, logical restrictions would be appropriate.
It can be difficult to be firm with the boundaries your family has decided upon for your addicted child, especially when they promise to change or become upset. To keep these established boundaries, consequences should also be decided upon if the addict breaks the boundaries. Before discussing the boundaries with your child, the consequences should be agreed upon so you can communicate them with your child from the beginning.
Consequences from breaking established boundaries include:
When talking to your child who is an addict, try to keep the conversation as positive as possible. To keep the conversation positive, a parent can praise their child for anything positive they have been doing, no matter how small the action may be.
Offering opportunities to participate in family decisions and activities can give your child a sense of hope of being a part of the family unit again. Letting your child know that you miss them and your past times together can help establish an emotional connection between the two of you again.
Try to show your child that you understand that addiction is difficult and it is no one’s fault. Show that you have tried to learn about addiction and are not influenced by the stigmas surrounding addiction.
If you attempt to take responsibility for any way you have contributed to their addiction it will help your child realize that you are just trying to help and are not blaming them. Emphasize treatment for the whole family by using words like “we” and “us” rather than just “you” because this will help show you are trying to get help for everyone and not blaming the addict. Recovery works best when the family gets involved and learns new coping mechanisms together because substance abuse of one family member affects the whole family.
Depending on the addiction they are struggling with you may suggest inpatient or outpatient treatment for your loved one. Inpatient treatment may be necessary if your child is experiencing withdrawal symptoms when they stop using substances. Inpatient can be beneficial if they are in need of 24/7 care and a structured environment in order to find recovery.
Outpatient treatment is less structured and usually requires 10 to 12 hours a week of group therapy and individual therapy at the treatment center. Outpatient treatment is usually a long-term program that lasts anywhere from 3 to 6 months and focuses on drug education plus teaching the addict coping skills.
If your child responds negatively, know that this is a normal and expected reaction.
For example, they may:
No matter how your child responds to your conversation about their substance abuse, try to stay calm. If your child starts shouting at you, calmly let them finish, and begin with your conversation again. Tell them firmly that you will continue your conversation and will say what you came to say.
If your child tries to leave, you and the other adult could block the door and calmly but firmly state that they need to listen, then they can go. If your child appears to be ignoring you or doesn’t seem to care, continue with the conversation and finish anyway because your words could still be getting through to them.
Try to engage your child by asking non-threatening open-ended questions. An open-ended question is a question that cannot be answered with one word and requires more of an explanation.
Some examples of open-ended questions include:
If your child opens up to you, give them as much time as they need to express their feelings and struggles. Listen with empathy and without judgment. Try to come from a place of understanding and ask your child to clarify anything you do not understand.
Make sure your child knows you will not get mad, no matter what they say, and follow through with your actions and boundaries. Your child may say things that are hard to hear, but communication is key to getting your child help. Becoming emotional could stop the communication and set your child back from getting help.
Day-to-day living with an addicted child can adversely affect the mental health of all family members unless the family works together.
As a family, setting two goals can be helpful in helping your child find recovery:
The most important thing to remember is you cannot force your child into treatment. Most treatment programs will not accept unwilling patients because this is not effective.
Oftentimes, you cannot force an addict to want treatment and to find recovery. Try to avoid emotional pleas, guilt, or threats to persuade your child to get treatment because these control tactics tend to not help your child find recovery.
While you cannot control your child’s addiction, you can influence them towards a life of recovery. The classic approach to addiction has been to wait for addicts to “hit bottom” which requires some degree of abandonment and “tough love.”
This approach of letting them hit rock bottom could cause significant emotional damage to the addict and family members. This can also jeopardize the safety of the addict.
A more effective approach is to create a healthy, supportive family environment and use parenting styles that emphasize:
Positive reinforcement in this context is rewarding positive behavior. It involves making a conscious effort to notice positive behaviors and reward them. These rewards don’t have to be huge, but they should be meaningful to the child.
Examples of positive reinforcement rewards include:
Combine this approach with understanding, compassion, and empathy. Your relationship will grow, your child will become more motivated to open up to you, and they will be more likely to accept treatment.
Continue to enforce healthy boundaries by using logical consequences and refusing to rescue your child from natural consequences. For example, if your child gets arrested, it is best not to rescue them or bail them out. Instead, you can offer support and empathy without enabling them.
Addiction impacts all members of the household and sometimes even extended family. Encourage all family members to follow the same steps you are following:
Take time to educate your children about addiction, positive reinforcement, and healthy boundaries. Try to be open and honest with all members of the family about your child’s addiction. This honesty and openness encourage everyone to talk about their feelings and have open communication.
The emotional toll of having an addicted child can cause you to overlook the needs of your other children. Make a conscious effort to reach out to them regularly. Encourage them to talk about their concerns, whether it pertains to the addiction or something else.
Try to find extra time to spend with all of your children to help ensure they do not feel like you care about the addicted child more than them. Family-based approaches are proven to help get the addicted loved one into treatment and help the loved one stay sober afterward5.
Handling your child’s addiction on your own can be taxing and emotionally draining. In order to stay strong with your boundaries and get additional help with your struggles, their are parent support groups for people who have an addicted loved one. There are many different options for support so you do not have to be alone in your loved one’s struggle with addiciton.
Nar-Anon specializes in helping anyone with a relative who struggles with addiction. They offer local support groups that provide a safe, confidential environment to share your challenges.
They offer a version of the twelve steps for the family and friends of addicts4. This can help the whole family find healthy coping mechanisms.
Al-Anon is a similar program to Nar-Anon but is for family members of someone who is struggling with alcohol addiction. Al-Anon also offers a program for teens called Alateen. Al-Anon is a twelve-step based program that offers meetings and for support and education purposes1.
Family members are able to learn from the support groups about how to deal with the addiction of their loved ones by watching others who are struggling with similar issues. This support group is free and no appointment is necessary.
The Partnership to End Addiction offers a helpline you can call, text, or email7. You will typically get a response from this helpline within 24 hours. The specialists can help you set up a plan of action, explore ways to talk to your child, or provide any other help for parents of addicts.
Caring for your addicted child and your other family members can make it easy to forget to care for yourself. The more your loved ones need you, the less you can afford to neglect your own needs.
The best practice is to make time for self-care. Self-care means keeping yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually in the best possible condition. Self-care doesn’t have to take a lot of time but do try to devote a little time to it each day in order to reap the benefits.
Here are some examples:
If you neglect self-care, you run the risk of burning yourself out. Burnout can cause you to become too tired to keep up with your responsibilities, and it can cause you to lose patience with those who need your support, including your addicted child.
One negative incident could undo months of progress and may not be worth taking the chance. Invest a little time each day into caring for your own needs and it can better help you take care of the needs of others.
Start seeking treatment as soon as you know your child is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol. The process of finding a treatment center that is right for your child may take time. In order to find the best treatment center for your child be sure to ask questions and make a financial plan for your child’s treatment.
When your child is ready to enter treatment, you may need a treatment center that can be ready to receive them immediately. An addict can change their mind quickly about entering treatment, even in as little as the next day they can decide they no longer want treatment.
If you have a child who is struggling with addiction, please reach out to Solace Treatment today. Our empathetic staff will be able to help you find treatment and answer any questions you may have.
Solace Treatment Center does not treat people under the age of 18, but we would be happy to get you in touch with a facility that does.