How to Cope as a Parent Watching Your Child Struggle with Addiction
As a parent, you love your children more than anything in the world. Knowing that they battle addiction issues can be heart-wrenching—it can also be tough to know how to cope personally.
Many teens try drugs and alcohol—studies show that nearly 70% of high school seniors have tried alcohol and 50% have used an illegal drug—and experience negative physical and mental health effects and safety issues.1 These worries create a lot of stress and anxiety for the parents who watch their children go through it.
Take Care of Yourself
Parents naturally focus on their children, especially when they are suffering. And they often do this at the expense of their own wellbeing. While this might be sustainable for a brief period, when it becomes a lifestyle as you constantly react to your child’s addiction, it could wear you down and, eventually, take a toll on everyone. Learning how to take care of yourself through this difficult time, then, is essential. Much like the airplane instruction of putting on your own oxygen mask before helping another, you must ensure you shore up your own mental, emotional, and physical health if you’re going to effectively help your child.
One common challenge parents feel is that their family is being torn apart by the addiction, which can lead to tumultuous familial relationships. You may feel betrayed and lose trust in your child. You may also grieve the loss of who your teen was before they began using, or you might wrestle with feelings of shame, guilt, and blame.2
It’s common for a parent to feel caught between wanting to support their addicted child and trying to take the necessary steps to ensure that the living environment is stable and safe for any other children in the home.2 If legal problems or economic hardship are part of the picture too, due to substance use, these factors increase emotional distress for the parents exponentially.3 You may feel unsupported as you witness the course of your child’s addiction, and as their use escalates, you might feel ineffective as a parent.2 Another major concern that parents deal with is worrying about their child’s safety.
Given all of these significant challenges, it is even more important that you as a parent make time to take care of yourself so you have the strength to deal with the stress and chaos that substance use brings to your family.Engage in a variety of self-care activities and access services that address your physical, mental, emotional, and relational health.
Many parents forget about their relational health as they become consumed with their child’s addiction. But the support others can provide is even more important during this time to reduce your sense of isolation. Consider:
- Making time for your relationship with your significant other during this difficult period (e.g., make time for yourselves; go on dates).
- Continuing to intentionally engage with and support your other children as well (e.g., play games together, cook meals together, help them with their schoolwork as needed).
- Staying connected with supportive family members.
- Continuing to spend time with close friends.
Focusing on improving and maintaining your physical, mental, emotional, and relational health is key for your overall wellness. Furthermore, modeling healthy activities that support your health makes it easier for your other family members to do the same.
Find Social Support
Receiving social support during difficult times is crucial for your wellbeing. Parents with a child who is using drugs or alcohol may feel unsupported and doubt their ability as a parent, especially when their child’s use escalates.2 This places a tremendous emotional burden on you. However, having positive social support can enhance your resilience to stress, protect against trauma-related mental health disorders (such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD), and minimize the consequences of such trauma-induced disorders.4
Several ways you can increase positive social support in your life are:
- Interacting with supportive family members.
- Spending time with close friends who are emotionally healthy and trustworthy.
- Joining a spiritual group that resonates with your personal beliefs.
- Participating in other groups or clubs of interest, such as a book club, a community choir, or a softball team.
- Volunteering for an organization you are passionate about.
- Joining a support group for parents whose children are struggling with addiction, such as Al-Anon Family Groups, Nar-Anon Family Groups, Co-Dependents Anonymous, or Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL).
In addition to surrounding yourself with positive social support and engaging in intentional self-care, it is important to learn how to interact, connect, and communicate effectively with your addicted child.
Learn How to Interact with Your Addicted Child
Once addiction has impacted your child’s (and your family’s) life, you may need to learn a whole new way to interact with them. Several techniques have been found to be helpful in reestablishing a healthy relationship with your teen who is struggling with addiction:5,6
- Set healthy boundaries.
- Parental monitoring—actively seeking information about your child’s whereabouts, activities, and behaviors—is associated with less substance use among adolescents. It is also associated with a strong sense of self-efficacy (a person’s belief in their ability to succeed or accomplish a task) in refusing alcohol offers from peers. Setting healthy boundaries with your children also helps you rebuild trust with your child as you both learn to navigate within established borders.
- Effective communication is another key factor that can foster positive interactions between you and your child who struggles with addiction. Increasing the amount of time spent with your child, and increasing the frequency with which you communicate with them, are both protective factors against substance use.
- To communicate well with your child, it is important to be open and honest. It is also important to set clear expectations and to discuss any issues in a calm and safe environment. Parents may be able to communicate more effectively with their children if they are competent about drug facts and their expectations regarding drug use. Parents can look up information online to better educate themselves about drug use and any related concerns. Meeting with a family therapist can also be a good way to educate the family about substance use and recovery and to foster other aspects of effective communication, such as active listening and avoiding blame.
- Address concerns with trust:
- Once you have begun to communicate clearly and effectively with your teen and have established healthy boundaries, rebuilding trust can begin. When boundaries are consistent and clear, both the parents and the adolescent can feel more comfortable in knowing what the expectations are and what consequences will occur if these expectations are not met. This may lead to a sense of stability, honesty, and ultimately trust.
Learning how to interact with your child can take place in a variety of settings, including individual or family therapy, parenting courses, and support groups.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
- Choate, P.W. (2015). Adolescent Alcoholism and Drug Addiction: The Experience of Parents. Behavioral Sciences, 5, 461-476.
- Lander, L., Howsare, J., & Byrne, M. (2013). The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice. Social Work in Public Health, 28(0), 194–205.
- Ozbay, F., Johnson, D.C., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C.A., Charney, D., & Southwick, S. (2007). Social Support and Resilience to Stress: From Neurobiology to Clinical Practice. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 4(5), 35–40.
- Hernandez, L., Rodriguez, A.M., and Spirito, A. (2015). Brief Family Based Intervention for Substance Abusing Adolescents. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 24(3), 585–599.
- Miller-Day, M. (2008). Talking to Youth About Drugs: What Do Late Adolescents Say About Parental Strategies? Family Relations, 57(1), 1–12.