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Setting Limits With Your Addicted Child

Learn when to say "enough" to truly help your struggling adult child.

Key points

  • Parents whose adult children misuse substances may find themselves with understandable fears in the face of being manipulated and overwhelmed.
  • Rushing in to solve your adult child's problems for them creates and sustains a dynamic of unhealthy self-esteem and dependence.
  • Learning to set reasonable boundaries and limits may feel initially painful but it's the gift that keeps on giving for struggling adult children.

Nothing likely feels scarier if you are a parent than seeing your adult child’s life negatively impacted by misusing alcohol and other drugs. This child who was once young and under your positive influence and control is now older and doing whatever they want, including self-destructive actions that are not in their best long-term interests. Besides your fear of self-harm and even death, there is the persistent concern of them not being able to be truly stable and financially independent to stand on their own two feet. Consider the story of Trey.

Trey’s Refusal to Get Help

David was a parent coaching client of mine with a story similar to many others I hear. David’s 27-year-old son, Trey, went on a 20-minute rant about how his former boss was a jerk and he still can’t find another job. He mentioned that he had smoked less weed lately but that he was not going to keep going to “those stupid AA meetings.” Trey added that he had no money for his rent payment. David mentioned that he had financial pressures, too, but then Trey sent out his heat-seeking, manipulative missile, saying, “Whatever, Dad, don’t worry about me!”

With the room spinning in David’s mind amidst his swirling emotions, he found himself opening up an app on his phone to “loan” Trey money to pay his rent. Trey texted David a heart emoji and, as usual, promised to pay David back, but David knew that would never happen.

Does the above scenario sound even remotely similar to your circumstances? Are you distraught and overwhelmed by a dependent, addicted adult child? Does the logic in your head get sideswiped by the emotional pain in your heart?

The Difference Between Helping and Enabling

Does helping your adult child tend to become a pattern of unhealthy rescuing? If you try to “save” your child every time they are in trouble, you may be making things worse in the long run. Do you struggle with knowing where to draw that not-so-fine line between letting him learn how to stand on his own two feet and bailing him out? Parents need to be thoughtful about how to assist adult children without enabling them.

Adult children with addiction issues who remain overly dependent on their parents often are allowed to get into this situation because their parents enable them. Perhaps this dynamic stems from parents who want to be needed. Setting boundaries with an adult child can sometimes be the best thing to do, even when it is hard to say, “I am here to listen, and here’s what I can offer, but I also think you will feel better about yourself if you get some professional help (and/or attend 12-step meetings) and figure this out on your own.”

The Situations May Be Different, Yet the Dilemmas Are the Same

Whether you’ve got a 32-year-old daughter who keeps asking for money while falsely claiming she will pay you back or a 24-year-old son who just can’t keep a job, adult children with addiction issues who behave immaturely can be stressful. I have seen many sad stories in my office of families with children over age 21 (in one case, 44) who still are overly dependent on their parents. Parents often feel drained and emotionally depleted. They want their child to be happy on their own, yet they live in fear of not doing enough to help their child get there. This is by no means an easy situation.

In some cases, these adult children may have significant mental health issues in addition to an addiction, such as depression or anxiety, which need to be addressed. At the same time, mental health treatment does not have to be mutually exclusive from the adult child contributing to their recovery in any way they can. Too many times, I see parents overly rescuing their children from their problems. While it may feel good for parents to do this, the implicit (or even explicit) message is, “You’re not competent enough to make it on your own.”

Are You a Crisis Responder or a Supportive Parent?

Parents in this situation can help themselves be mindful of enabling their child by carefully considering the following questions:

  • Do you sacrifice too much to meet your adult child’s needs?
  • Does your child now act entitled to and demand things you once enjoyed giving—car privileges, gifts, perks at home, or rent money?
  • Does it feel like you are living from crisis to crisis with your adult child?
  • Are you afraid of neglecting your adult child?
  • Are you feeling burdened, used, resentful, or burned out?

Ways to Encourage Your Adult Child to Become More Independent

As children either graduate or quit school, they need to increasingly have “skin in the game” and strive toward being self-sufficient. This does not mean parents should abruptly put their adult child on the street. At the same time, the adult child needs to “own” his or her goals and plans to become self-reliant.

Sometimes, crises occur that send children back home, such as a bad breakup, problems at college, or health issues. This is acceptable as long as there is a plan in place for the adult child to become independent.

The goal is to be supportive and understanding with a collaborative mindset. As I describe in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.), the combination of being calm, firm, and non-controlling as parents helps bypass not only your own emotional reactivity but also that of a child of any age. So, be calm, firm, and non-controlling in your demeanor as you express these guiding expectations to motivate your adult child toward healthy independence:

1. Set limits on how much time you spend helping your child resolve crises. Encourage the child to problem-solve by asking, “What are your ideas?”

2. Be judicious about decisions to give money. Providing spending money should be contingent on children’s efforts toward independence.

3. Develop a response that you can offer in the event that you are caught off guard. For example, “I’ll have to think it over.” This will allow you time to consider it and give you a chance to reflect on it beforehand.

4. Never-ending living arrangements present never-ending challenges. Have a time limit on how long adult children can remain at home.

5. If you can afford it (and are comfortable with it), offer to help pay starting costs of rent on an apartment.

6. Make an agreement for decreasing contributions to rent until the child is fully responsible.

7. Remember that you always have the right to say “I changed my mind” about a previous promise.

8. Encourage working children to contribute part of their pay for room and board.

9. Remember you are not in a popularity contest. Be prepared for your child to reject you. He or she will most likely come around later.

10. Attend support groups such as Al-anon.

11. Only give spending money to an adult child who is consistently involved in treatment.

References

Nordgren, J., Richert, T., Svensson, B., & Johnson, B. (2020). Say No and Close the Door? Codependency Troubles among Parents of Adult Children with Drug Problems in Sweden. Journal of Family Issues, 41(5), 567–588. https://doi.org/10.1177/0192513X19879200

Flensburg, O., Richert, T. & Väfors Fritz, M., Parents of adult children with drug addiction dealing with shame and courtesy stigma, Drugs: Education, Prevention and PolicyArticle | Published Online: 19 Jul 2022

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