How to Help a Parent with Substance Abuse
When your parent struggles with addiction it can turn into a role reversal where the child becomes the caregiver – physically or emotionally. Because of this complex family dynamic, many children of parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol often grapple with what to do to help their parent. By learning to recognize the signs of addiction and how to help, you will be better able to support and encourage your parent to seek the treatment they need.
How to Recognize if Your Parent is Struggling with Addiction
In each person, substance use disorders – the clinical name for addiction – can present differently. Only a qualified professional can diagnose a substance use disorder, but it can be helpful to know what the signs are, so that you can understand what your parents is going through.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) lays out specific criteria for diagnosing substance use disorders. These include1:
- Neglecting personal or professional responsibilities to drink alcohol or use drugs.
- Using drugs or alcohol more frequently or in higher amounts than intended.
- Needing to use more of a substance in order to feel its effects (tolerance).
- Spending a great deal of time getting or using substances or recovering from their effects.
- Intense desire to use a substance (cravings).
- Wanting to stop using or cut down on substances but being unable to do so.
- Continuing to use drugs or alcohol despite negative personal, social, or professional consequences that are caused by or made worse by substance use.
- Giving up important activities or hobbies they once enjoyed because of drug or alcohol use.
- Using substances in dangerous situations, like before or while driving a car.
- Continuing to use drugs or alcohol even though they likely caused (or made worse) a physical or mental health condition.
- Experiencing uncomfortable symptoms when use is decreased or stopped (withdrawal).
How to Cope with a Parent’s Addiction and Find Help for Yourself
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), between 2009 and 2014, about 1 in 8 children in the United States under the age of 17 lived in a house with one or more parents with a substance use disorder 2 Living with a parent struggling with addiction can have a serious impact on a child’s physical, emotional, and mental health, including:
- Poor academic performance. 3
- Emotional or behavioral problems. 3
- An increased risk of developing mental health disorders, such as anxiety or depression, and low self-esteem.3
- An increased likelihood of experiencing verbal, physical, or sexual assault. 2
- A higher risk of experimentation with drugs or alcohol, and at an earlier age.4
- A marked risk of developing a substance use disorder themselves. 4
Regardless of age, children can struggle with the effects of their parent’s addiction. Even as adults, children need support and tools to cope with the impact of addiction in their lives. If you are coping with a parent’s addiction, the following tips may be helpful to you:
- Keep a list of emergency contacts on your phone or written down somewhere.
- Open up to a trusted friend, family member, or mental health professional about what you are going through.
- Participate in activities that make you feel good, such as sports, art, or spending time with friends outside of the home.
- Set boundaries with your parent to protect your own mental health and avoid enabling their addiction.
How to Help Your Parent Get Into Rehab
It can be incredibly hard to talk to your parent about their addiction. Whether you’re a young person still living at home or an adult child, addressing problems with your parent can feel especially intimidating. However, your parent may not be aware of the extent of the effects that their alcohol or drug use is causing. Having the conversation with your parent is an important step to help your parent with addiction get the help they need.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are some tips to make the conversation more successful:
- Do your research – Take some time to learn about substance use disorder and levels of addiction treatment. If you don’t know how to help a parent struggling with addiction, having an understanding about substance use disorders and what treatment options are available enables you to help your parent develop a solid plan for getting into treatment.
- Write it out – Getting your thoughts, feelings, and goals on paper will help you stick to your points, communicate your boundaries, and help you keep focused if the conversation gets difficult.
- Choose a good time and place – Have the conversation with your parent when they’re not using drugs or alcohol. Find a quiet distraction-free place where you’ll both feel comfortable.
- Focus on the behavior – Avoid using stigmatizing language (e.g., addict, junkie, drunk), blaming or shaming statements. Discuss your feelings and concerns in a non-confrontational way. Try using empathetic language and “I” statements.
- Offer to help – You can offer to reach out to treatment professionals, tour different rehab facilities with your parent, check their insurance coverage for addiction treatment, investigate ways to pay for rehab, and help with the rehab admissions process. For adult children, if it is within your means, you may also consider offering financial support for treatment.
How to Help Your Parent After Rehab
When your parent has finished their treatment program, the transitional period after they return home can be difficult. For many families who have been affected by addiction, there may be concern about what to expect when a loved one is in addiction treatment and how to adjust to the changes that the parent is going through.
It can be helpful for children to know what to expect when their parent comes home from rehab. Here are some things that you might see when your parent comes home5:
- Mood swings and behavior changes.
- Fast-tracked attempts to repair your relationship or make amends.
- Replacement behaviors, such as swapping alcohol or drugs for shopping, eating sugary foods, drinking caffeine, or gambling.
- Thinking or talking about using drugs or alcohol again.
Tips for Supporting Your Parent After Rehab
While it’s important to remember that your parent’s continued sobriety is not solely your responsibility, you can still support their recovery journey in several ways:
- Keep the lines of communication open.
- Set and reinforce healthy boundaries.
- Help your parent stick to their aftercare plan.
It’s also important to remember to take care of yourself during this period, too. Self-care is an important part of recovery – for both you and your parent. Ways to take care of your own needs can include:
- Individual counseling.
- Family counseling.
- Peer support groups, such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Alateen, or Adult Children of Alcoholics.
- Activities that help you meet your physical, emotional, and mental needs, such as art therapy, sports or physical exercise, yoga, meditation, or spending time with friends or loved ones.