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How to Help an Addict or Alcoholic Child

No matter how hard you try to make sure your kids don’t use drugs or alcohol, your son or daughter may still become addicted to these substances. One day, you might discover that your son has been using marijuana on a regular basis or that your daughter has become addicted to pain pills after taking them for chronic pain. When this happens, it is essential to be proactive in getting your child the help they need, since parents and family are often the primary factor that connects adolescents and young adults with treatment.1 It’s important to learn the signs of addiction so you can be aware as soon as possible that your child has a problem with drugs or alcohol.1

Signs of Drug Addiction or AlcoholismTeen suffering from alcohol abuse

Substance abuse disorders can affect children and adults of all ages, and certain telltale signs can alert you that your son or daughter may be addicted. These warning signs are a good indication that something may be wrong.

Changes in behavior:2

Changes in mood:2

Changes in appearance:2

Physical symptoms:2,3 

Educational or employment problems:2

Family or relationship issues:2,3 

Possession of drug paraphernalia, such as:2 

A handful of pills

Over time, a child who abuses drugs or alcohol may develop tolerance to the substance—a phenomenon that occurs when the body adapts to the consistent presence of a drug. As a result, the person needs to take more and more of the drug to get the same high or physical and mental response they did when they first started using the drug.3

As the addiction progresses, your child may become physically dependent on their drug of choice and might experience withdrawal if they try to quit using it. Some common symptoms of withdrawal include:3

How to Help

The first thing to do if you suspect that your son or daughter is using drugs or alcohol is to talk with them. Here are some tips to help you communicate with a child who is addicted to a substance:4Parent and child having a conversation

  • Wait until your child is sober to talk about their substance use.
  • Turn off all distractions, such as smartphones or the television.
  • Try to stay calm. If you feel yourself getting angry or strongly reacting, try to find a way to come back to the conversation later.
  • Don’t lecture your child. Ask for their thoughts and feelings, and try to listen as much as you talk.
  • Offer compassion and empathy. Tell your child how much you care about them, and let them know that you are worried about them.
  • Give positive feedback. No matter how upset you are, try to find something positive in the situation. For example, praise them for sitting down and talking with you about this challenging subject.
  • Reassure your child that they can always count on you for support.
  • Encourage your son or daughter to speak with a professional. Talk to your child about the benefits of treatment, and try to empower them to get help.

After talking with your adolescent, teen, or adult child about substance abuse, it is important to set firm, healthy limits with them. Here are some tips on the subject:5,6

  • Expect anger: Your child will likely be angry when you set limits—this is normal. Be firm with limit-setting, yet remain calm. Don’t let your child bait you into getting angry.
  • Have realistic goals: Try to understand that your child will likely be resistant to getting help in the beginning. They might lie about their drug or alcohol use or deny that they have a problem. This is also normal. Don’t expect things to change overnight: treatment and recovery takes time and dedication. Set a small goal and work toward that. An example of a small goal might be to have a real conversation about the drug use.
  • Be clear about your boundaries and the consequences if crossed: Rules provide a concrete way for your child to learn self-control. Teenagers and young adults don’t often deal well with ambiguous limits, so set specific, practical rules. An example might be that you won’t bail your child out of jail or that your teenage son or daughter will lose their phone privileges if they stay out past curfew.
  • Write down rules: One way to make sure that your child understands the rules is to write them out and then have them sign it, acknowledging the contract and pledging to abide by it.

Troubled teenage boyThe next step is to find appropriate treatment for your son or daughter. It takes a lot of courage and strength to ask for help if your child has a drug or alcohol problem, and professional substance abuse treatment can help them break free from addiction’s powerful grip.7

If your teen or young adult refuses to enter treatment immediately, focus on ways that you can encourage them to get help. Although it makes for good television, confrontational interventions like the ones shown on TV shows often don’t work. Rather than becoming aggressive toward your child, ask a substance abuse professional for help. Sometimes teens and young adults will listen to professionals more than their parents.7

You can explore treatment options on your own, even if your child refuses to seek help. You may be able to encourage them to enter treatment if you understand what is involved and can adequately explain it to them.7 Sometimes, their resistance is due to fear of the unknown—walking them through the process may reduce some of this anxiety.

If your child still refuses to get treatment, you can try using positive reinforcement to encourage them to change their behavior, which is sometimes a powerful motivating factor. Some goals you may employ this approach for include attending an AA meeting or looking for a job. Other positive actions you can reinforce in your child include:8A healthy relationship between parent and child

  • Going to therapy appointments.
  • Regularly attending school or work.
  • Being home on time.
  • Speaking respectfully to family members.
  • Helping with chores around the house.
  • Taking steps toward recovery.

When using this motivational technique, you might feel like you are bribing your child with reinforcers, but that is not true. You are helping connect a positive behavior with a good outcome. Your child will eventually learn that there is benefit in positive behaviors and that there are other ways to feel good that don’t involve drugs or alcohol. Some ideas for reinforcing your child’s behavior include:8

  • Praise or a kind compliment.
  • Making a favorite breakfast or meal for your child.
  • Sending a loving text message.
  • Verbal recognition of your child’s successes in treatment.
  • Small items that they might need, such as laundry detergent, food, or hygiene supplies.
  • Helping with substance abuse or health care costs.

These recommendations are based on a nurturing philosophy to helping your child get substance abuse treatment. However, culture sometimes dictates using tough love or confrontational interventions when dealing with people who are addicted to drugs.9 But decades of research on behavior change has found these methods are among the worst-performing tactics to addiction treatment because they negatively affect motivation.9

Once your son or daughter does seek treatment, it is essential to continue to support their recovery. Although getting through the first step of treatment is critical, it will not fix the problem. Substance abuse is a chronic condition that will require ongoing treatment well beyond the initial program. The good news is that with continuing care, your child can achieve abstinence and live a healthy life.10

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