How to Cope When Your Child Is Addicted
Guest post written by Michelle Farris, LMFT
Addiction Can Take Over Your Life – Especially When Your Child is Suffering
When your child is addicted to alcohol or drugs you fear the worst.
Trying to help them becomes your new mission in life. You want so much to protect them from going down the wrong path, but you’re powerless to stop it.
The shame of seeing your child sink into the pit of addiction is devastating.
You are not alone. This article provides practical tools to help you cope with your child’s addiction.
Attempts at Control
When you first realize that your child has a problem with drugs or alcohol, your first instinct is to try to control it. You think that by preventing them from experiencing negative consequences, you’re keeping them safe and protected. Most parents will do almost anything to save their child from addiction.
But cleaning up their mess feels like a full-time job. With younger teens, enforcing consequences might help, but as they get older your influence decreases. That’s when you begin to feel more powerless.
Family and friends often encourage you to take control of the situation but after many painful attempts, you realize that your advice, consequences, and ultimatums don’t work. That’s the first step in your healing – admitting that you are powerless over your child’s addiction. Unfortunately, that happens only after you’ve exhausted every possible solution you can think of.
Let’s be clear, letting go of control doesn’t mean that you’re giving up on your child. It means that you recognize what’s in your control and what’s not. And unfortunately, your child’s drug and alcohol use isn’t in your control. Letting go protects your sanity and it’s the first step in getting real support.
Figure Out Your Boundaries
Setting boundaries helps you regain control of yourself by creating limits for your family. Boundaries are limits that you set for yourself that determine what you participate in and when to remove yourself. They are not about getting the other person to change.
Consider what your limits are around your child’s addiction. These are only examples. Choose what works best for your family.
Setting Boundaries with an Addict:
- Having a no drugs policy in your home
- Not giving them money or paying their bills
- Refusing to lie or cover up for them
- If they get arrested repeatedly, not bailing them out
- Letting them know they are welcome to go to family events when sober
Boundaries should not be used as an attempt to control your child or their using. Setting healthy boundaries is something you do for yourself, to maintain a clear sense of what you’ll participate in and what you won’t. Keep your boundaries simple and straightforward. Ask for what you need and if they don’t respect it, decide your next course of action. Too many boundaries to start with can become controlling.
Take a Neutral Stance
Since you can’t control your child’s substance use, focus on what you can control — your own behavior. Letting go of control starts with being light and polite. This is often referred to as detaching with love. Detachment consists of letting the addict experience their own consequences instead of taking responsibility for them. It doesn’t mean that you stop caring, it means letting them handle their own life – including the mistakes and troubling consequences.
Part of detaching is regaining control of your emotions. Get the anger and disappointment out of your voice because they’ll react to it. Don’t press them for constant details. The more upset you get, the more you’re likely to lose control. It’s also helpful to increase self-care to keep yourself grounded and feeling strong. Figure out your boundaries but keep in mind that exerting too much control invites rebellion.
Build a Relationship with Your Addicted Child
Does worrying and obsessing about what could happen to your child keep you up at night? As most of your energy gets wrapped up in their addiction, you start falling into codependent patterns. You get lost in trying to fix the problem or take care of them. A hallmark of codependency is taking care of others at your own expense. It means your life centers around helping, giving, and supporting the people around you while your needs get ignored — mostly by you.
What if the goal isn’t to get your child sober or into recovery? You may be thinking, “Isn’t that my job as a responsible parent?” Well, not exactly. As children enter into adolescence and adulthood you have less influence over them. Telling them to stop a behavior doesn’t have the same effect as it did when they were seven years old.
Offering treatment may help when they are willing, but forcing it rarely works. While you can’t control their choices, you get to decide what kind of relationship you want to have with them.
What if your goal was to preserve the relationship instead of trying to “fix”, change, or protect your child? Addiction strains relationships. So, if your relationship with your child has deteriorated, back up and start over. Find ways to rebuild your connection. Look for ways to show your child that you love and accept them not their behavior. For example, can you be someone that your child talks to when things get rough? This is where you have the most control – how you interact with your child.
Substance use and withdrawal affect people’s moods and reasoning – so, your child may be frequently moody and irritable. Avoid initiating important conversations during these times. Instead, look for opportunities to connect when they’re in a good mood. Strive to preserve the connection so your child knows that you still care. Choosing the right time to talk can improve the outcome.
Get the Right Support
Support is essential because dealing with addiction can be emotionally draining.
Family and friends have good intentions, but they often don’t know what it’s like to watch their child sink into addiction. You may feel isolated and ashamed of what’s happening behind closed doors. Setting boundaries, detaching, and letting go takes a lot of patience that you may not have right now.
That’s why I recommend Al-Anon, the 12-step group for families and friends of alcoholics and addicts. This is a free support group where you can “take what you like and leave the rest.” Many people think that it’s a religious program but in my experience, it’s a spiritual program where you define your own higher power. There are no rules, only guidelines. Meetings are available in person, online, and by phone.
In Al-Anon, no one gives advice, but they have walked in your shoes. They demonstrate how to work the program and get your life back despite your child’s drug and alcohol use. Helping you find your own path is what Al-Anon does best because there are no requirements. The gentle support and unconditional love from the program creates a safety net for you and your family. A sponsor is an individual mentor who walks you through the 12-steps so that you can start to heal.
Life doesn’t have to revolve around the addict. Letting go of what you can’t control – even when it’s your own child’s addiction — starts your recovery.
Michelle Farris is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in helping people heal codependency and manage anger effectively. She’s a therapist who “walks her talk” and supports others in making small but significant changes that make a difference. She also writes a blog on how to create healthy and happy relationships by learning the power of accountability. Michelle offers online classes on anger and codependency for additional support.
Enjoy more of her free resources when you sign-up for her Resource Library.