When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart

Coping with mental illness, substance abuse, and the problems that tear families apart

Parenting a Substance Abuser

What to expect on this emotional roller coaster

Parenting is an inherently guilt-inducing endeavor. Whether it's a skinned knee or a failing grade, parents find it hard to resist blaming themselves for their children's struggles. It's true that parents have a strong impact on who their children become. Parents who read to their children produce early readers and parents who abuse their children often produce traumatized adults. But not everything is in your control. From genetic predispositions to peer pressure, a variety of influences compete for your child's attention, and sometimes the very worst inclinations win out over good parenting. This can leave parents of children struggling with addiction feeling isolated and ashamed in a society that is quick to blame parents for their children's shortcomings.

Social Isolation

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Addiction thrives in secrecy, and many parents are embarrassed to tell their friends and family about a child's struggles. This means that, when things get out of control, parents may be left with few or no supportive resources unless they want to spend time explaining the entire story to a loved one who's been left out of the loop.

Isolation isn't only a product of secrecy, though. We live in a culture that's quick to blame parents for their children's shortcomings and hesitant to notice the ways in which parents help their children succeed. Consequently, many parents of addicts find themselves blamed for their children's struggles and shunned by loved ones.

Even when parents don't bear the brunt of the blame, though, family members may avoid the parents of addicts in a misguided attempt to keep their own family safe or out of confusion over how best to talk about the problem. No matter the reason, though, parents of addicts frequently find themselves isolated, and isolation tends to exacerbate the already painful effects of a child's substance abuse.

Guilt, Shame, and Enabling

Parents can quickly fall into feelings of guilt and shame due to a combination of outside judgment and self-blame. While guilt and shame are unpleasant on their own, they can actually contribute to the cycle of addiction by resulting in enabling. Enabling occurs when a parent ostensibly does something to help her child but the “help” actually enables the addiction. Parents who feel guilty about making a child move out might give that child money that is then used to purchase drugs. A parent embarrassed that his child was arrested might pay for an attorney, only to see his child escape any punishment for his actions.

Because painful emotions are closely tied to the phenomenon of enabling, parents of addicted children need to carefully monitor their own emotions. Feeling guilt does not mean that you are guilty and does not mean that you have to do anything to make up for some perceived slight against your child. Indeed, allowing your actions to be guided by guilt is a surefire recipe for unhealthy entanglements with your child.

Family Conflict

Even addiction treatment experts frequently disagree about the right treatment for substance abuse. It's no wonder, then, that families find themselves embroiled in conflict about how best to manage a child's addictive behavior. One parent might want to hire a lawyer for a recently arrested child, while the other parent could believe that doing some time in jail is the best outcome in a bad situation. The conflict over how to manage a child's addiction can tear a family apart, yielding heated arguments that last for years or even decades.

Even when all members of a family are on the same page, though, there's plenty of room for family disruption. Many addicts are master manipulators who attempt to pit one family member against another. In other cases, the stress of an addicted child can affect major life decisions. You might decide not to pursue another degree because you're concerned about paying your child's legal fees, or you may find that your addicted child is negatively affecting younger children.

When a child struggles with addiction, conflict is almost inevitable, and some families need professional help to establish clear boundaries and get family relationships back on track.

Financial Struggles

No parent wants to abandon his child, no matter how much pain that child has caused. The overwhelming majority of parents of struggling addicts provide or once provided financial support to their children. The support these children request from their parents can be exorbitantly expensive. Even a one-month stay in a rehab facility can cost thousands of dollars, and defending a single criminal charge can easily cost five figures. Parents may also cover the costs of bail, therapy, medication, and rent.

Because addicted children can be destructive, parents may also find themselves struggling to fix the things their children have destroyed—wrecked cars, stolen silverware, or furniture broken in a drug binge, for example. Parents who leave cash or credit cards out may lose even more money when their children steal from them. The financial stress of a troubled adult child can quickly compound family conflict and add to the high stress that goes hand-in-hand with addiction.

The Recovery Merry-Go-Round

Between 25 and 50 percent of all addicts relapse, and some addiction specialists even argue that relapse is part of the recovery process. This can take parents on an emotional roller-coaster that's not easy to escape. One month a child might be legitimately committed to getting better, while the next month she begins manipulating her parent into giving her money.

Parents of addicts find themselves constantly evaluating their children's behavior, looking for slivers of truth and ways in which they can help their children get better. All too often they're left throwing up their hands, unsure of what to do and unclear on how best to get help for themselves. Addiction affects many more people than just the addict, and parents of addicted children can benefit from support groups and therapy. After all, a parent cannot take care of her child if her own emotional life is in turmoil.

References:

Help for parents with addicted children. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.narcononeastus.org/help-for-parents-with-addicted-chil...

Laudet, A. B., Ph.D., & White, W., .A. (n.d.). An exploration of relapse patterns among former poly substance users [PPT]. New York: National Development and Research Institutes, Inc.

Joel Young, M.D., who teaches psychiatry at Wayne State University, is the Medical Director of the Rochester Center for Behavioral Medicine, near Detroit.

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