A guide to helping without enabling addiction
Does my adult child have a drug or alcohol problem?
Are you concerned about your son or daughter’s drug abuse or drinking? Do you believe that he or she may might have a substance use disorder. Knowing how to support an addict adult child in healthy ways can be especially challenging for parents, as you want to help rather than hinder his or her recovery process. However, this problem is not an uncommon one, as addiction affects a significant number of Americans.
According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), approximately 19.7 million people aged 12 or over reported having a substance use disorder. In recent years, there has been significant growth in opioid abuse, including heroin, fentanyl, and other prescription painkillers. Overdoses of the potentially deadly class of drugs have increased nearly fourfold since 1999, killing approximately 47,000 people in 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
While substance use disorders do not discriminate–affecting individuals across generational, geographic, socio-economic and racial lines–there are a number of factors that can increase one’s risk of addiction. Risk factors include:
- Mental health disorders
- Poor social skills
- Alcohol and drug use initiation at an early age
- Genetic predisposition to addiction
- Lack of parental supervision during childhood and adolescence
- History of addiction in the family
If you are worried that your adult child may be abusing opioids, methamphetamines, alcohol, crack-cocaine or other illicit substances and don’t know what to do, now is the time to inform yourself. Learn about the signs and symptoms of drug addiction and alcoholism as well as what you can do as a parent to support your adult son or daughter during and following treatment without enabling his or her addiction.
What is the difference between substance abuse and addiction?
In many countries and cultures, experimentation with drugs and alcohol is considered a rite of passage, occurring recreationally in social settings. As a parent, you may be unsure whether your adult child is using recreationally, abusing substances or has a full blown addiction.
Many wonder what the difference is between addiction and substance abuse. While both can be harmful, substance abuse occurs when a person consumes alcohol, illegal or legal drugs in ways and amounts they should not. This might mean using drugs or alcohol to ease stress or taking pills without a prescription, for example.
Addiction, on the other hand, may result from or follow as one’s substance abuse escalates. For some, drug and alcohol use can turn to substance abuse, and finally to dependency and addiction. Addiction is a disease that differs from substance abuse in its intensity, physical and mental impacts, as well the ways in which it affects an individual’s life.
Drug addiction affects both one’s behavior as well as the brain. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” Considered to be a mental illness, addiction is the most severe on the spectrum of substance use disorders. Addictive drugs target the brain’s reward system by providing increases in dopamine. As one’s brain gets used to the increased dopamine, it can become difficult to achieve similar levels of pleasure without the drug. Long-term drug use and addiction can also result in changes to the brain and damage one’s judgement, decision-making, learning and memory. Other long-term impacts of dependence on heroin, cocaine, crack and opioids painkillers, such as fentanyl, may vary depending on the specific drug being abused.
4 signs and symptoms of substance use disorders
As the parent of an adult child, there are a number of behavioral and physical indicators your son or daughter may exhibit if they are dealing with a substance use disorder, be it full blown addiction or a lesser form. According to the Mayo Clinic, the following 4 warning signs and symptoms can help you identify whether your adult child may have an alcohol or drug problem.
1. Physical issues and changes to appearance
Substance use disorders can manifest in many ways, including through changes physically and to one’s appearance, such as:
- Red eyes, pupils appear larger or smaller than usual
- Significant weight loss or gain
- Lack of proper grooming
- Unusual odors on breath, body, or clothing
2. Changes in behavior
Is your son or daughter behaving differently? Have you seen significant changes to his or her personality? Common behavioral indicators include:
- Secretive and suspicious behavior regarding where he or she is going
- Barring family or friends from entering his or her room
- Drastic changes in friendships or relationships with family members
- Lying about activities and whereabouts
- Mood swings and extreme irritability
- Extreme hyperactivity or lethargy
- Tremors, slurred speech, or impaired coordination
3. School and work problems
Drug addiction and alcoholism can cause one’s primary focus to be feeding his or her habit rather than meeting personal and professional responsibilities. Take a closer look at your adult child’s current educational or labor situation. Has he or she demonstrated any of the following behaviors?:
- Frequently missing school or work
- Drop in a work performance or grades
- Lack of interest in school, work or other activities
- Inability to maintain jobs
4. Money issues
Drug and alcohol habits can be quite expensive to maintain. The financial cost of regular consumption can be steep. Moreover, a drug addiction can make it challenging to continue to earn money, as one’s focus becomes procuring and using, rather than meeting work responsibilities. Have you noticed any of the following issues?:
- A sudden lack of money
- Sudden or increased requests for money without reasonable explanation
- Missing money or other valuables
If the warning signs of addiction ring true for your adult child’s behavior, you are probably wondering, what now? What can I do to stop my child from abusing drugs or alcohol? Know that their addiction is not your fault and you alone can not make them be sober. Rather, sobriety can only be achieved if he or she is an active and willing participant in the process. However, there are steps you can take to help them and yourself.
Parenting an adult addict
First, it is probably time to take a closer look at your relationship with your child. Being the father or mother of an addict is not an enviable situation, and it can be difficult to know the correct things to do and say when you see your child suffering.
Am I enabling my adult child’s addiction?
As parents, we seek to protect our children, even when they are adults. But in some cases, “helping” may actually be harming. By protecting your adult child from the consequences of their addiction, you may also be enabling them to continue using drugs and alcohol, as they never have to fully face the negative results of their substance use disorder. Essentially, by cleaning up their mess, you are lightening their motivation to seek help. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you ignore or excuse unacceptable behavior?
- Is “helping” your child preventing them from feeling the consequences of their actions?
- Do you give your adult child money for food or rent?
- Do you avoid expressing your feelings or creating boundaries with your adult child for fear of conflict?
- Have you offered your child a place to stay when they are using it because you believe it is “safer” for them?
- Have you lied or covered for them because they couldn’t meet work, school or other responsibilities?
- Have you bailed your child out of jail or paid for other legal expenses related to his or her addiction?
- Do you care for your adult child when they are sick as a result of a hangover or drug use?
If you have answered yes to some or all of these questions, you are likely enabling your child’s addiction. Taking care of your loved one might seem like an act of kindness. However, it is actually detrimental to their wellbeing in the long run, as you are removing the negative consequences of their behaviors. Thus, you are unintentionally reinforcing your adult child’s drug use.
Breaking enabling behavior can be especially difficult for a mother or father, as it can be quite hard to see your child in pain. Nonetheless, by continuing to “support” your adult child, you are both reinforcing negative conduct and inhibiting his or her independence. This may be especially true if, as a parent, your relationship with your son or daughter is one of a codependent nature.
What is codependency?
Codependency, as defined by Cambridge dictionary, means “being involved in a relationship in which one person helps to cause another person’s alcohol problem, drug addiction, etc. because they have a strong emotional need themselves.” In other words, by sacrificing and ignoring your own needs and well-being to support your addicted adult child, you might be unintentionally fueling his or her addiction. In many codependent relationships, one person’s identity is built around helping others even at the cost of addressing their own desires and feelings. A codependent individual may rely on others to validate their self-worth and feel gratified by playing the caregiver role. According to Goodtherapy.org, 7 characteristics of a codependent relationship include:
- Issues with boundaries in the relationship. You may feel responsible for your child’s wellbeing and happiness, negate your true thoughts or feelings to avoid upsetting your son or daughter, or have difficulty saying no.
- A lack of self-esteem. Low self esteem may mean feelings of worthlessness, a lack of feeling important, or relying on others to feel valued. Being needed may provide you with a sense of internal gratification, whether your child expresses gratitude or not.
- A need to “save” your child. As a mother or father, you may feel like it is your duty or purpose to protect your child from harm, even fixing problems for them. This prevents your son or daughter from building the confidence or capacity to solve his or her own issues.
- Prioritizing others well-being over your own. You might be inadvertently engaging in self-denial by ignoring your own physical, emotional, or financial needs and also feeling guilty when you do try to assert your own needs.
- Control issues. These issues may manifest as over involvement in another’s life and linking your own self-worth with your child’s successes and failures.
- Perfectionism. This may appear as taking on more than you can handle and feeling insecure when you can’t meet responsibilities or when you receive criticism.
This dynamic may have been going on for several years, however it is not a healthy one. It results in a lopsided relationship where one individual is constantly prioritized and the other’s needs are not met. Codependency can allow addiction to flourish. Moreover, it may be negatively affecting other relationships and hurting other family members emotionally and financially. Nonetheless, there are steps you can take to stop enabling your child’s addiction and change your codependent relationship into a healthier one, thus supporting your son or daughter on their road to recovery, even if it means they must first suffer the consequences of addiction.
How can I help my addicted adult child?
If you believe your adult son or daughter has a problem with addiction and are concerned that you might be enabling his or her alcohol or drug problem, here are 6 steps you can take now:
1. Open up the lines of communication
As a parent, it can be hard communicating with your son or daughter about their addiction. You may have tried in the past and been unsuccessful. You may even feel as if you are constantly pestering or nagging them to change. Try a different approach through a sit-down conversation. Before approaching your child, take some time to think about what you would like to communicate. While you shouldn’t expect to convince your child to admit his or her drug problem and seek help immediately, you can open up a dialogue for future conversations. Find an appropriate time when you can both sit down and talk without interruptions. Start by telling your adult son or adult daughter that you care about them deeply and understand that addiction is a disease, not a moral failure. Communicate what you have seen and how their addiction is affecting you in a non-accusatory manner. Be specific. Let them know that you are concerned about them, but avoid being judgmental or lecturing. Ask your child questions and give them space to respond honestly. Listen and avoid condemning their responses or cutting them off. Remind your child that they are loved and you are here to offer them help for their addiction when they are ready.
2. Set boundaries and follow through
If you want to change the dynamic of your relationship between you and your addicted son or addicted daughter, it will require setting clear boundaries around yourself, your finances and your home. Take a hard look at your current relationship. Consider the ways that you may be enabling your child’s addiction and reinforcing codependency. Are you giving them money, shelter, or resolving other problems for them? Let your son or daughter know that you will no longer be continuing to do so. Create a list of personal boundaries, rules around your home, your finances and yourself, as well as consequences for breaking these rules. During your conversation with your child, make sure you clearly and kindly communicate these boundaries and the consequences for not respecting them. Let them know that these rules are coming from a place of love and out of concern for their safety and your own. You may have previously tried to enforce boundaries and failed. This may have been because you were unable to follow through, as addicts can be especially convincing and manipulative when they are in need. Your child may become angry with you when you explain the new boundaries. Fight the urge to give in and remember these rules are for your and their own good. Once the rules and boundaries are put in place, if broken, they should be enforced, otherwise, they are meaningless.
3. Present treatment options
When you sit down and speak to your addicted son or daughter, let them know that help is available. Do some research and provide them with real options for drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers, rather than speaking in general terms. Although they may not be prepared to listen or take in what you are saying, it is good to have something concrete available or, at the least, to let them know there are real options out there for when they are ready. You might consider contacting a treatment center, to find out more about the programs they offer. Liberty Ranch offers free consultations where you can learn more about their treatment services.
4. Acknowledge that your child is an adult
As the mother or father of an addict, it is important to recognize that your son or daughter is an adult and to encourage their independence. By continuing to rescue your child every time they are in crisis, you are also subconsciously letting them know that you don’t believe they are capable or competent enough to make it on their own. Let them solve their own financial and emotional problems. You can listen, but avoid jumping in and solving these issues for them. If your child is currently living at home or you are paying for their expenses, now is the time to encourage them to assert their independence in a collaborative, caring and supportive way. For instance, come up with a gradual plan where they can start paying a portion of housing costs until they can fully become independent. Agree on a time limit and follow through. Do not continue providing money that can be spent on drugs. But also, don’t forget to call out progress and provide positive reinforcement when they do make changes or meet new goals.
5. Inform yourself and seek support
Addiction is a complicated disease, and you are not responsible for your son or daughter’s substance use disorder. However, there are some proactive steps you can take to learn more about the disease and how to cope with its impacts. Start by educating yourself about addiction. There are several reports available that offer detail on how and why addiction occurs and the recovery process. Look for support groups for family members of individuals struggling with addiction, such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon. Having an outlet such as a peer support group can allow you the space to share your experience while learning from others going through similar experiences.
6. Take care of yourself
There is no better time than now to prioritize your well-being. Being the mother or father of an addict can be physically and mentally draining. Substance use disorders don’t just hurt the addict or alcoholic, they also damage the lives of those around them. Try and be aware of your feelings and emotions and know when you have to disengage and take a step back. Self care is not selfishness. It is necessary and important. Remember, you can not save your child from themselves or repair their lives. Seeking treatment and achieving sobriety is something that they have to want and do for themselves.
Drug and alcohol rehabilitation and treatment
Once your adult child is ready to start on the road to recovery, there are several ways you can support them during the process. First and foremost, it is important to find the right program for your son or daughter’s needs. There are many rehab centers offering a variety of services, so take some time to research the facility, the type of programming available and whether it is an inpatient or outpatient facility.
Look for an accredited facility that offers evidence-based programming aligned with your child’s specific circumstances. For instance, do you believe your child might have other co-morbid mental health issues such as depression or anxiety? Seek a program that has the capacity to address mental health disorders as well as addiction.
Additionally, consider other factors that may be relevant if your son or daughter is from a population that may have unique needs. For instance, Liberty Ranch offers a specialized program for women that not only addresses the traditional scope of treatment, such as 12-step meetings, but considers the specific challenges women with addiction face in a safe and supportive environment.
Inpatient vs. outpatient treatment
Many wonder what the difference is between inpatient and outpatient drug and alcohol addiction treatment programs and which is best for their loved one.
Inpatient treatment programs are quite intensive, requiring clients to live onsite and providing 24/7 supervision by licensed therapists and trained professionals. Such programs may be necessary in cases where the individual can not be left alone, requires more intensive care, and/or has other severe psychological disorders in addition to addiction. While inpatient programs can be quite costly, some situations require a higher level of care and supervision.
Outpatient programs, on the other hand, do not include a residential component. Programs may meet for 2-3 hours a day between 2 to 5 days a week. Outpatient programs allow clients to more easily meet their work and family obligations, which may be beneficial depending on the individual’s circumstance. However, they do not isolate the addict from triggers that might be present in their regular life, which may be necessary depending on their level of addiction. Outpatient programs tend to be less expensive than inpatient programs.
There is a third type of treatment program available which provides more comprehensive care than outpatient programs at a cost effective price. An intensive outpatient program may be appropriate for those who need more supervision and care than that offered by a regular outpatient program, but are still able to live at home some of the time. Liberty Ranch’s evidence-based intensive outpatient program provides partial hospitalization, outpatient care, psychiatric evaluation services, and family counseling to those dealing with addiction.
How to be a supportive parent during treatment and recovery
The road to recovery is not an easy one and is full of ups and downs. Once your child has entered into treatment and begun the recovery process, there are many healthy ways that you can help support them on their journey. In fact, family involvement and participation during and following treatment can be critical to your adult child’s success. Try the following 5 things :
1. Give up control
Giving up control may seem difficult when dealing with your addicted child. You may be used to taking responsibility for many aspects of their lives. Yet, ceding control does not mean letting go of healthy boundaries and limits. It means empowering your child to be in charge of his or her recovery. It may seem scary. Nonetheless, letting your child be responsible for themselves, rather than relying on their parents to solve problems, will allow for personal growth and a sense of ownership over the recovery process. Following the completion of a rehab program, it can be easy to return to a codependent relationship. However, you must allow your child to recover for themselves. This is not something you can do for them. For example, you can encourage your child to go to peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, but you can not force them to attend meetings. Resist the urge to take control and let your child learn how to manage his or her own life. If you find this especially challenging, look to family support groups to help navigate the recovery process and keep you accountable. Having an informed support group with members that understand the challenges of loving an addict can help you deal with the difficulties of supporting sobriety while avoiding returning to enabling and codependent behaviors.
2. Engage in the process and anticipate changes to current family dynamics
As your child explores living without drugs and alcohol, expect a change in your relationship with your son or daughter. Part of recovery is learning new coping behaviors that don’t involve using. In many cases, this can affect both your relationship with your adult child as well as shift overall family dynamics. There are probably a number of issues, and even conflicts involving family relationships, that will come up during the drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation process. This is normal. Being healthy requires dealing with those issues in healthy ways, as uncomfortable as it can be. A good rehab program should have a component that involves family members. Lean into this process, be open to addressing the issues and encourage other family members to participate in the process as well. Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s counselor or therapist for constructive ways that you can support him or her once they complete their program or return home. You may also want to ask about what behaviors to avoid, as slipping back into old and unhealthy patterns can be easy.
3. Create positive family connections
Recovery can be a long and exhausting process for everyone. Remember that a little positivity can go a long way. Don’t forget to find ways to recognize your adult child’s accomplishments, no matter how small. Always hearing about your concerns and their addiction can make the process feel endless to an addict or alcoholic. Try to recognize the small wins and provide positive support. Moreover, try and connect with your child on things outside of his or her addiction and encourage the rest of your family to also participate. Sometimes not talking about the issue of addiction or alcoholism for a little can mean everything. Also, remember that the addict in your family is not the only one who needs attention. Living with an addict or alcoholic can take a lot of your time and energy. If you have other children or a significant other, make sure to remain engaged in their lives. Sometimes the squeaky wheel is the one that gets all of the oil. Remember, that all of your loved ones need some time and attention, even if it doesn’t seem obvious.
4. Educate yourself on the recovery process
Understanding addiction, recovery, and the challenges that come with it will be instrumental to you and your child’s success. As previously mentioned, both family support groups and the rehabilitation facilities can be quite helpful when it comes to informing yourself about addiction and treatment. For instance, some rehab centers will provide your child with a post-treatment plan. Find out if your son or daughter’s facility offers this, how you can help support them with their post-treatment plan, and what boundaries you should be honoring. For instance, what is appropriate financial help and what is enabling? Additionally, while not ideal, it is a fact that relapses can occur. Whether or not your child relapses is beyond your control. Nonetheless, you can learn about what signs to look for and how to help if you believe your child has in fact relapsed. Both treatment programs and family support groups can help you identify a relapse and create a plan of what to do if one occurs.
5. Take care of yourself
There are many ways in which you can support your adult child in their recovery, but you also remember you must be healthy and care for yourself. Practice self care and don’t blame yourself for your child’s addiction. Remind yourself that you can’t control everything and know when to take some space. You can’t always be the sounding board for your child. Focus on yourself and consider seeking therapy or group support. Remember, your life can’t only be about your child’s addiction.
If you or your loved one is in a dangerous or emergency situation, please call 911 or contact your local emergency services. Otherwise, the following resources may be helpful to you and your family.
Peer Support Networks
If you want to learn more about treatment options for your or your loved one, contact Liberty Ranch for a free consultation