How to Help Your Child With Substance Use Disorder
First priority? Don’t go crazy in the process, which means taking care of you.
Let me start by saying this: If your child is battling addiction, I sympathize with you. For a parent in this situation, it’s hard. One of the hardest things you’ll ever face.
At times it may be difficult to believe that it’s going to turn out well, but in most cases, it does. Try to remember that.
One of the toughest parts of being the parent of an adult with substance use disorder (SUD)? A lot of the things you did before as a mom or dad—your trusted, go-to parenting strategies—don’t work anymore. And in some cases, the best strategy now may even be the opposite of what it was before.
My advice: Throw out the old parenting toolbox, get a new one, and consider adding some of these new tools below.
And please take note that I’m starting with strategies for you, not your child. That’s deliberate. It’s like the oxygen mask instruction in the safety video they show before an airplane flight: Put your mask on first, then assist your child. It’s a good idea to follow that same philosophy as the parent of a child with SUD.
8 ways to help you stay sane:
1. Remember that you aren’t the answer. As soon as you can, get your head around the idea that you can’t charge in, take control, and save your child from his or her addiction. Resist the urge to try and make everything all better, because you can’t. No parent can. Only your child can do that for herself. This is not a case of your daughter tripping on the soccer field, cutting her knee, and you putting a Band-Aid on it while drying her tears. Try to switch out of that I-can-fix-it mindset, or you’ll go nuts from the anxiety and disappointment.
2. Set boundaries that allow you to stay stable, healthy, and intact. Yes, these boundaries involve your child, of course they do. But at their core, they are by, for, and about you.
3. Consider this as boundary #1: “You, my child who I will always love, cannot use drugs or alcohol in my house.” Over the years in my job in addiction treatment, both at Lakeview Health and before, I’ve heard it often from parents that they would rather have their child use drugs or alcohol at home where it’s safer, rather than doing it who-knows-where.
Nope, that is not an okay strategy. Home needs to remain a safe, steady, drug-free place—for your sake as much as your child.
4. Consider this as boundary #2: “If you cannot abide by Boundary #1, you will need to find another place to live.” Yes, this is a very difficult demand to make, and it can be gut-wrenching to enforce, because it cuts against the grain of being a parent who protects your child. It feels like you’re giving up on your duties, and giving up on your child.
You’re not. Boundary #2 is very important. I suggest setting a reasonable timeline for when your child needs to leave, asking for buy-in on it (in writing if possible), and remaining calm but firm in seeing it through.
Other important boundaries to consider:
- Not giving your child access to your credit cards or bank account.
- If she doesn’t live with you, making sure she doesn’t have a key to your place, and never comes over without asking you first.
- If he doesn’t live with you, telling him he can never visit when he is high or drunk.
- Telling her that she is never allowed to yell or swear at you while she is high or sober—but especially when she is high.
- Telling him, as a blanket statement for how things are going to be, that he seems to want to ruin his own life right now, but you are not going to let him to ruin yours. That’s a great over-arching “mindset” boundary to always have in place
5. Go to an Al-Anon or Nar-Anon Family Group meeting. These can be amazing and incredibly supportive. Google it, there’s probably one nearby. And if not, a lot of them these days are being held virtually. These meetings are all about finding support. You share, listen, and learn. And you realize how many other parents there are out there dealing with the same awfulness as you. Maybe best of all, at a family support meeting, you are never judged, and you are never shamed. Leaving these meetings, it can feel like the weight of the world has lifted from your shoulders. At least for a while.
And by the way, AA and NA family group meetings are not your only options. You can find family support at SMART Family & Friends Meetings, Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL) meetings, and others.
6. Share your situation with others.
The simple act of talking about your child’s SUD with family members, friends, and co-workers you trust can do so much for you—and for your child as well.
For you, it allows you to vent and work through the emotions you’re dealing with. Sometimes, when your child has SUD, you just want to put your head in the sand and hope the problems aren’t there when you take your head back out. Denial can be a powerful coping mechanism in that way, but not always a very constructive one. It takes a toll after a while, as it can have a corrosive effect on your well-being. Talking about your child’s SUD can really help you stay ahead of all that.
For your child, your sharing is a way of advocating for him or her. You talking about your child’s SUD helps bring it out of the shadows, and de-mystifies it. It also signals to people around you that you’re not ashamed of your child’s SUD, which can make them look at it differently as well. This helps remove the stigma that still surrounds SUD, and that’s only going to help your child.
7. Establish a healthy distance. This one is so key, and it dovetails nicely with the above-mentioned “set your own boundaries” advice. This may sound harsh, but your child is not your child when she is in active addiction. Her brain and personality have been hijacked by the drugs or alcohol. So try to keep her at arm’s length emotionally. Don’t let her take you for daily rides on the rollercoaster that is active addiction. If that’s what she wants to do, fine. You don’t have to.
8. Be wary of manipulation. Many people in active addiction can be master manipulators. And yes, they sometimes lie. They will often say anything to keep doing what they’re doing, which is getting high. So try to keep a wary eye, and don’t get sucked into the mind games and the manipulation.
6 ways to help your child get better:
- Help yourself first, then your child. I just wanted to reiterate the keep-your-sanity priority from above one more time, because it is essential. Allowing yourself to go to pieces because of your child’s addiction is not going to help anyone. Look after yourself. That’s job one. Only then can you help your child.
- Keep lines of communication open. This is a tough one at times, when you would actually prefer to “excommunicate” your child! But when he is ready to ask for help, it’s important to be there and be reachable, and to not have cut him out of the communication loop.
- Avoid scolding or lecturing. It never works. It gets you worked up, angry, resentful, and frustrated—and sometimes it even feels good to let off steam. But it doesn’t help your child. If you get in her face about something, she will likely want to clam up, lock you out, and go do what you have just scolded her for.
- Consider adjusting your relationship with your child so it’s more of a partnership, though not a friendship. He doesn’t need you to be his buddy, but it’s important that he knows you’re willing to work with him and be on his side.
- Try not to judge. Addiction is a brain disease that you can recover from, not a moral failing. Judging is only going to get her angry, and make her feel morally weak and of bad character. She is neither of those things
- Steer clear of anger. Again, being on the receiving end of this emotion won’t do anything for your child except wind him up and make him angry, too, which serves no purpose. You’re never going to anger your child into sobriety. Meanwhile, feeling anger is exhausting and oftentimes self-destructive for you.
When you feel anger starting to well up, try redirecting your mind by going for a walk or run. Change your location. Listen to music you love. Read. Talk to a friend or family member who will let you vent a little and calm down. And remember, this too will pass.
To conclude, I’d like to mention some great advice that comes out of the Al-Anon/Nar-Anon Family Group playbook. We use this advice a lot here at Lakeview Health. It’s this: Remember the 3 Cs. That is, regarding your child’s addiction, you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.
Wise words indeed. Take comfort in them always. And keep the faith that things are going to get better for your child and you.