As I always say, parents who have addicted adult children do nothing differently, in general, than parents who have adult children without these problems. Addiction is a problem that is rampant and that unfortunately manifests in millions of individuals for various reasons, including a huge genetic component.
However, once your adult child has a substance use disorder, you will most likely need to do things that are very different from what other parents have to do. Unfortunately, they are also usually very difficult and counterintuitive.
This is attributable to the myriad dramatic and problematic symptoms of addiction that turn the expected and healthy parent-adult child relationship dynamics on their heads.
When we have healthy adult children, they want badly to be independent and thus work towards that natural goal on their own. They don’t need or want to be told what to do; they increase their independence from their parents incrementally; and they will separate in many ways, setting up firm boundaries between their parents and themselves.
In contrast, this doesn’t necessarily happen when someone is afflicted by a substance use disorder. Instead, adult children often become or stay dependent on their parents (or others) because the disorder often leads to behaviors that are diametrically opposed to being financially responsible and socially acceptable, let alone independent. The illness demands and thrives on enabling, so that these adult children allow and even ask or demand to be “taken care of” in order to support their disorder. Now, they do this because they have an illness that is difficult to overcome; not because they are maliciously and consciously trying to hurt others. This is about illness, not morals; and they too deserve compassion.
But for parents, this means they find themselves in the foreign and unnatural position of having to be the ones to set all the boundaries; to say no to “helping” their adult children (really to enabling the addiction); and to become independent from their children. They need to push the proverbial bird out of the nest, so to speak, before the bird flies off on its own.
This is an extremely tough thing for parents to do – as it is hard-wired in them to take care of their children until their children are able to take care of themselves. And therein lies the key: addiction makes these adult children seem unable to care for themselves. But it’s as if they are wearing a disguise that parents must learn to recognize. The vast majority of adult children are completely capable of taking care of themselves. It’s just that the addiction has other priorities.
Parents must learn to distinguish between what their children need and what the addiction wants and asks for; and they must not obey and nourish the addiction itself. This is not an easy task, but it is necessary in order to actually be helpful to adult children with addiction issues.
As such, here are three ideas to keep in mind to help you become “independent” from your addicted adult children – thereby doing the most helpful thing you can for them:
1. Don’t fall for thoughts you may have about your child being unable to take care of themselves. Anxiety and fear can really take hold when your adult child is living a lifestyle that puts them at greater than average risk for harm. However, remember that the same options that are available to everyone else are available to them. They can always call for help if they want or need it. Emergency services, a hospital visit, or a call to a treatment center or therapist (or to you) is usually possible.
2. They have a disorder; they aren’t stupid. Many parents believe that their addicted adult children won’t take care of themselves if they are suddenly faced with dire circumstances. For example, when it is extremely cold out and perhaps an adult child is homeless, parents often worry that they have to step in and do something for their children in order to make sure they survive. Instead, remember that these adults are just that: adults. They are perfectly capable of self-care and do have a survival instinct. They know the risks they face, and they will usually assess that risk and take appropriate action. They know as well as their parents do how to survive in the world. They are also usually very resourceful; and many parents in this situation often see firsthand how their child may refuse recovery, or even bathing; yet they will also find a way to secure or accomplish whatever it is to which they set their minds.
3. Parents cannot always protect their children from harm – especially when they are adults. This doesn’t just apply to addiction. It applies to everyone. Things that we don’t want to happen do sometimes happen, and there is no way around that. Sometimes, we need to accept the risk and uncertainty of bad things happening – just as we do for most other situations in life. Of course we want our children, above all, to be safe and healthy; but alas, that is not within our control. And this is why, instead of aiming for control (and thereby making everything worse for all involved), we want to be loving, encouraging, and respectful toward our adult children, whether they have a substance use disorder or not.
Need more support? Join the Facebook group for Parents: a wonderful, supportive community where I have monthly Live Q & A’s to empower parents facing this issue.