Adult children with parents suffering from addiction can and should offer help. But be prepared for pushback.
“Dad drinks too much. What should we do?”
“I think Mom’s using pills. She needs help.”
If so, we’re sorry you’re in this situation, but we’re glad you’re reading this. When adult children see their parents misusing addictive substances, or suspect they’re misusing them, it’s natural to want to help.
Maybe they just don’t see what’s happening.
Maybe they can’t stop.
Maybe they just need someone to offer help.
These may be true…or they may not.
It’s great that you want to try helping, but it’s important to do so realistically. So let’s talk a bit about the subject of addiction when it comes to family, and what you can do about it.
Things You Must Know Before Attempting to Help a Parent
First, recognize that you cannot force someone to enter rehab, no matter how much you might want to. Even if you managed to drag your parent to a treatment center, nothing prevents them from walking out the door five seconds later.
(Treatment centers don’t hold people against their will. It’s illegal, and not something we’d want to do anyway.)
What you CAN do is provide encouragement in a caring manner for your parent to acknowledge and deal with their problem, such as exploring rehab possibilities. This takes time and patience, so it deserves a little thought.
What you want to see is the process of your parent convincing themselves that it’s time to get help. You can encourage them by mentioning it, then nudge them toward thinking about it, then offer to help them get the right treatment.
These are some ways we’d recommend you try encouraging your parent. We’ve split them between “positive options” and “boundary-setting options” for clarification. Always start with positive options.
- Suggest counseling or therapy. Your parent may have begun using substances to escape from trauma, such as the loss of a partner, serious injury, or a major life disruption. Suggest they speak to a counselor or therapist, but don’t indicate it’s in reference to the substance abuse. Instead, ask them to talk to a professional for “whatever’s bothering you.” This is less intrusive, and shows you want to see them heal.
- Offer to set up a meeting with a treatment center, and go with them. This is more direct, and can sometimes encourage a parent to at least visit a treatment center. They may resist going back though.
- Offer to help on unrelated items. Plan a vacation, do some exercise together, or go to a social event.
- If they used to enjoy a certain activity, but have stopped, suggest they take it back up! For example, say your mom enjoyed baking, but dropped it after an accident. You could ask her for help with a few recipes. Or suggest she enter a baking contest. Maybe she could bake some cookies for a family event?
- Ask your aunt or uncle for help. Your parent may have siblings too, who can help with reinforcement, transport, or just being a sympathetic ear.
- Refuse to help them get substances in any way. Tell them you won’t help them this way, but that you’re glad to help in another way. For instance, getting healthy foods instead.
- Request the parent not attend family events “if they plan on drinking/getting high.” Don’t skip telling them about events. They’ll find out about it from someone, and then feel resentful they weren’t invited. Instead, tell them that you’re concerned about your family’s safety, and want the event to go smoothly. They won’t like this, but be firm, and don’t back down. You have the right to protect your family, even from a loving parent who struggles with addiction.
- If you feel you could benefit from counseling, talk with a professional. This is something you can do for yourself. It shows your parent that you value asking for help. It might even kindle a desire for them to ask for help.
You’re almost guaranteed to get objections from your parent when trying these actions. They can take many forms, some more intense than others.
What you’ll want to keep in mind is that they’re trying to defend their actions…NOT attack you. A good response from you should defuse their objections.
Here are the most common objections we’ve seen, followed by a good response you can give.
“I don’t have a problem.”
Your Response: “I understand that you want to believe that. I don’t feel that’s true, and that’s what worries me.”
“This is my business.”
Your Response: “What you do with your body is your business. We don’t have to accept your behavior.”
“You don’t respect me.”
Your Response: “I love you and respect you. What I’m concerned about is the disrespect you’re showing to yourself.”
“I’m your father/mother—you won’t treat me like this.”
Your Response: “That’s true, but I want you to hear what I’m saying as your son/daughter.”
“You aren’t welcome here anymore.”
Your Response: “If that’s how you feel, I understand. You have my number if you need anything.”
It’s Not Easy to Convince Anyone to Accept Help—Especially a Parent—But We Hope This Helps.
This is not an easy thing to do. You’re in the right for wanting to help. You may even succeed, with time and patience.
However, it’s important to remember—your parent is not your responsibility. Your parent is an adult, and responsible for their actions.
They may totally reject you for wanting to help. This is the addiction talking. It does not mean they don’t love you. It does not mean they’re a “lost cause.” It just means they have to go through something more, to reach the point where they’ll accept help.
To close, let’s make one final point: Take care of yourself, no matter what happens. Don’t damage your life trying to help theirs.
Have you experienced a parent’s addiction? What actions did you take? Please share your thoughts in the comments.