When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart

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

The Emotional Toll of Parenting a Substance Abuser

Impact on your relationships and your emotions.

When you spend nearly two decades trying to shape your child into a decent, competent, self-reliant person, it's tempting to believe you have much more control over your child than you actually do. While every parent has to tackle the challenges of a child's transition to adulthood, the relationship changes are particularly hard for parents of addicts. These parents sometimes believe they can love their child into doing and being better, and when that fails, some parents resort to threats. No one can “cure” an addict but the addict himself. It's no surprise, then, that an addiction can exact a costly toll on your relationship with your child.

Everything Is Tentative

When your child was younger, she did what you told her to because you were the parent. In adulthood, though, children and their parents default to basic manners and rules for social niceties. But addicts have no respect for such guidelines. Everything takes a backseat to the addiction, which means that every plan, thought, and commitment is tentative. Your child may regularly stand you up for lunch, forget about family events, and even neglect his own birthday.

You can't rely on an addict to make and keep plans, but you do need to set your own boundaries. Consider calling your child to follow up immediately before a commitment or meeting. If she won't make it, be prepared to do something else instead. Otherwise you may find yourself constantly waiting for a child who never shows up.

Loss of Trust

Just as your child prioritizes drug use over your plans, it's also hard for drug addicts to keep their word. When an addict gets desperate, she'll do just about anything to get another fix. This may mean stealing money from you, asking for a loan and lying about the reason, or forging your name. Parents who make the mistake of trusting an addict are setting themselves up for heartbreak. It may be painful to accept that your child can't be trusted, but drug use fundamentally alters the way people think. Keep your money secure, and if your child's claims matter, verify them before acting on them.

Frequent Arguing

It's no wonder that parents often argue with their drug addicted adult children, particularly when these children don't keep commitments or lie. The source of the conflict goes much deeper than this, though. Most parents of addicts find themselves repeatedly pleading with their children to get help, to abandon harmful behavior, to get a job, or simply to stop using. These are reasonable requests. But to an addict, a request to stop using is unfathomable, and getting sober is impossible. If you question your child's drug use, you can expect to end up fighting—particularly if your child is not yet ready to seek help.

Substance abusers are master manipulators. Your child might seem fine one day, then appear to hit rock bottom the next. Some drug users capitalize on their parents' fears and use these anxieties to manipulate mom or dad into giving money and other forms of support. If you don't give your child what she wants, you can expect her to lash out—sometimes in highly dramatic ways.

Grieving Lost Dreams

It is never too late for your child to get clean and become who he was meant to be. When you're mired in the chaos of addiction, though, it's hard to see this as a possibility. You might find yourself grieving the person your child could have been, the relationship you once had with your child, or the dreams your child once wanted to achieve. Some parents of addicted children describe the feeling as akin to a death. This makes sense, because when you deal with an addict, you're dealing with the addiction, not with the person; the underlying personality can seem nonexistent.

Disputes With Other Family Members

Your child's struggles can harm your other relationships. Some family members may judge or blame you, and others may be angry with your child. No matter how your family reacts to your child's addiction, though, it's highly likely you'll run into some conflict. Your spouse may disagree with you about the boundaries you set with your child, and other children may not understand the nature or scope of addiction. If your child treats another family member poorly, you might be blamed. Because drug users can be highly manipulative, your child may actually strive to make it look like the damage he causes is your fault, compounding conflict with family members.

Although addiction fundamentally alters your relationship with your child, it's possible to stay healthy if you have good support, and good support could mean enlisting the assistance of a mental health professional. Every family of an addicted child copes with the challenges differently, but good boundaries and open communication with the rest of your family are key. Structure your life such that you'll be able to function even if your child never gets better. Then, when your child finally does get better, you'll be ready to embrace her new, healthy lifestyle with open arms.

References:

Addiction: The disease that lies. (2011, July 26). Retrieved April 02, 2014, from http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/07/26/addiction-the-disease-th...

Diclemente, C. C., Schlundt, D., & Gemmell, L. (2004). Readiness and stages of change in addiction treatment. American Journal on Addictions, 13(2), 103-119. doi: 10.1080/10550490490435777

 

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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