Parenting an Adult Addict Is Seldom Easy

Most parents experience a wide range of distressing emotions.

Posted Sep 14, 2018

Recognizing that a child is held captive by addiction generates myriad emotions that can emotionally wipe out the addict’s parents. The following are a few of the normal reactions to this (no longer quite so) abnormal situation:

Disbelief that their child could be captive to an addiction. Parents might ignore the subtle signs of substance use and abuse. Parents might try to normalize their child’s substance use – “All college kids experiment with drinking or weed;” “Wow, what bad luck that poor kid had – he had one drink too many that one night and blew over the limit at a traffic stop. Geeze, this should teach him a lesson;” or “She got dumped by that rat of a boyfriend and lost her job the same week, it’s no wonder she went on a binge and missed our Sunday morning brunch tradition.”

As parents, it can be difficult to accept that our kids make mistakes, but that’s a lot easier to accept than admitting that a child has become an addict.

Shame can be especially painful if you feel that your child has jeopardized your standing in your community or your other relationships with family or friends. If the realization of your child’s addiction is accompanied by an item in the county’s “Police Blotter” or the publication of a mug shot, the fear of exposure of your child’s misbehavior may lead you to avoid reaching out for support. This is how addictions begin to wrap up the whole family into its grasp. Addictions don’t just prey on the addict, they are able to take down whole families in nefarious ways. It’s almost like a mathematical formula: X * Y = Z, with X being the strength of the hold the addiction has on your child, Y being the level of support you try to offer your child; and Z being the resulting damage the addiction will do to everyone involved.

Anger that your child could be so “foolish” to squander his money, his job, his relationships, his life away on such fleeting pleasure. Anger that he cannot see what he is doing to himself, not to mention to his family including you, his spouse or children, his siblings, and his extended family.

You’re also likely to feel anger at yourself that you missed any earlier signs that you feel might have allowed you to stop the train before it had gone so far off the rails.

Sadly, anger is contagious and parents may want to be angry at one another for the mistakes they imagine each other may have made.

Guilt and Responsibility are often felt by parents who have been devoted and supportive of their adult children throughout their children’s lives. When we see our children’s achievements or failures as reflections of who we are as parents, we can find ourselves falsely blaming ourselves for our adult children’s stupid mistakes. This is false logic. When a parent has done all that they can to see to the emotional and material needs of their kids, you’ve done all that a parent can do to raise a healthy and responsible young adult. Acting out in adolescence is normal behavior; unfortunately, addiction is not the same as “acting out.” Addictions run much deeper than that. You did not cause your adult child’s addiction and any support you want to offer as they move towards recovery and sobriety will have no value until your adult child makes the decision to go sober.

Adult children may want to blame their parents for their problems or blame the addiction for their behavior. Remind yourself and your child that the addiction may cause him to keep using, but that he was sober when he made the choice to use. This is especially important when your child starts relapsing after making efforts to recover.

Heartbreaking Grief may land on your heart. This is a fully normal response to the realization that your child has a problem – and may have been struggling for some time with that problem. Once an addiction takes hold of a person, a part of that person is lost forever. In numerous religions, there’s been a tradition of children’s rule-breaking being equivalent to a child becoming “dead” to his parents. When an addiction takes hold, the child you knew before may become “dead to you,” as well. No matter how much a child may profess that they’re “over it” or “clean,” there will be a part of that child who is forever lost. Once your trust has been eroded, relationships often must be reconstructed, and the child you knew before addiction took control is not the child with whom you are now forging a new relationship. Grief is one of the hardest hitting emotions and it is an emotion that you never really “get over,” you just learn to “get through.”

Numbness can be a mixed blessing . . .  you are less apt to “feel” the pain you once felt as your child’s addiction was first revealed or when you received the first collect call from the jail when your child was brought in for her first arrest. However, the numbness also indicates that you have become inured to the havoc and legal woes and crises that addiction is creating for your child. You may disengage from the dramas that surround your child’s choice.

Being Broken is another way that an adult child’s addiction can damage her parents. You may feel “broken” by a child’s continuing struggles with addiction. You may become numb as you realize that every effort of support that you’ve offered and given has only been a temporary fix. You may feel “broken” when you get the first, third, or fifth call from jail. Or it may take police standing at your door or a call from a hospital alerting you to the actual fragility and transience of human life. When a parent feels broken, this reflects the sense of being at the end of their own rope and “helpless to help.” This is when it can be vital for parents to reach out for support . . . whether it’s Al-Anon, friends, or a counselor. Fixing yourself when you are that broken is a task that typically requires support from others who care about your well-being. And reaching out to others is a great way to model the value of support networks, in general.


Invitation to Share Your Experiences of Parenting an Adult Addict

Please click on the link below to participate in a new survey that is seeking to understand the experiences of parents of adult addicts. Share your thoughts here.

Get Help for Yourself as Soon as you realize your Child is an Addict


SAMSHA National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)