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How to Help An Adult Child

Hara Estroff Marano, used with permission.
Hara Estroff Marano, used with permission.

I just learned that my grown daughter has a substance problem. I’d like to be helpful, but I can’t seem to find a way. Having lost her job early in the pandemic, she moved back home with all her belongings. That’s when I discovered that she drinks. I see her sneaking alcohol into the house. If I say anything about her drinking, she tells me to mind my own business. I feel that I can’t leave her alone, but I don’t want to become a helicopter parent. I have many feelings about what goes on in my own home but I’m confused about what to do.

You’re confused because you’re in a distressing situation. Some people bound off into adult life. Some take a slower course, and it can be hard for a parent to know whether they’ll ever get there. (Presumably adulthood still means living an independent and productive life, on whatever terms a person establishes and sustains—and presumably that is still a goal most parents hold for their children.) The period in life before adult children are chugging along on their own course, especially after a false start or two, can be difficult for everyone involved, with some very touchy feelings all around.

That said, there is reason for real concern. Your daughter is right, drinking is her choice. But it’s your house, and you are entitled to set boundaries on what is acceptable behavior in your house. It’s OK to tell her that she’s welcome in your home but alcohol isn’t. Everyone knows that heavy drinking is unhealthy, and you’ve likely noticed that it’s not helping your daughter find a new job and resume independence.

The question is how you express your concern, establish house rules, and, most important, set up a more satisfying interaction pattern, one that nudges life forward in a productive way for both of you. A clarifying conversation is a very minimum requirement. But it won’t be easy because you already have some ground to recover.

Too often, parents see the stumbles of an adult child as a measure of their own inadequacy in raising them, and the resulting feelings of guilt become a source of hesitancy in establishing boundaries of any kind and an invitation to exploitation by the child. (It’s important to remember that you are not in charge of all your daughter’s life choices.) Sensing that you are hesitant to leave her alone cannot only make your daughter feel that she’s living under a microscope but also throw her back into a dependent mindset that plunges you both into a destructive dynamic.

It’s a safe bet that your daughter doesn’t enjoy her life and having had to move backwards any more than you do. She may feel as dispirited about herself as you are worried about her. At the very least, your daughter needs to regain the confidence that she can make it on her own. You can play a big part in that—most important, by demonstrating that confidence in her.

Remember, a conversation is a two-way enterprise. She needs to know what your rules are, but it would likely help matters if you offered, “I’d like to know what you need from me.”

Here’s something you might want to engage her on: What are her dreams for herself? And what does she feel is keeping her from them? Maybe she doesn’t know how to get what she wants. Maybe she has unreasonable expectations about what it takes (a lot!) to get established. Maybe she needs to acquire more skills and knowledge.

Maybe there are emotional problems keeping her stuck. Losing a job can be a blow to one’s sense of self or come at a vulnerable moment. Whatever the problems, they can be addressed, with or without outside help. First, they need to be identified in an atmosphere that feels safe and compassionate.

Because motivation seems to be missing at the moment, you can help spark it. Here it really helps to recognize and build on strengths. You can remind your daughter of the things she does well and has done well in the past. You can praise any initiative she shows, whether in housekeeping or job pursuit.

When conversations resume a more positive course, you can encourage your daughter to make a concrete action plan towards her goals. What are reasonable steps and what would be considered forward movement? What’s a reasonable timetable of progress. You could include check-in points, so that you avert a routine of nagging.

You can’t solve your daughter’s problems for her—that’s what all those helicopter parents try to do. But you can communicate your support for the steps she takes herself.