Loving Without Enabling: Parenting the Adult Addict

How to deal with an adult drug addict

Nobody ever said being a parent was easy. From the sleepless nights of babyhood through the toddler tantrums, the preteen fads and the teenage rebellions, there’s always something. But what if your biggest trial comes once your child has grown up and is legally an adult? That’s what parents of adult addicts face, and it’s an incredibly complex and emotionally fragile battle to fight.

Watching your adult child fight addiction can make any parent feel utterly helpless. If your living-at-home teen is fighting an addiction, it’s tough, but at least you can take control of the situation, impose boundaries, set rules and take the lead on getting help for him or her. If you child is a grown adult, you can do none of those things. So what can you do?

Do Not Take the Blame

It’s not your fault that your adult child has made poor life choices. Nothing in his or her childhood has led to this situation; no matter what mistakes you may have made as a parent (and every parent makes mistakes), that is no excuse for the decisions your adult child makes for him or herself. Get it clear in your head right at the start that this is not your fault, as that will help you focus on helping your child rather than wallowing in misplaced guilt.

Support Your Child without Enabling the Addiction

This is the trickiest part of the situation for most parents. Your adult child is probably desperately in need of money, whether to pay for court charges or indeed to feed the addiction itself. You probably know that you shouldn’t give them money to spend on drink or drugs; that’s a no-brainer. But you probably think it’s fine to give them money to help meet weekly expenses, or to pay their rent, yes? That’s what any loving parent would do if they were financially able to, surely?

Though this may seem the right approach from an emotional standpoint, you actually stand to do more harm than good. An addicted adult is not making sensible choices with their money. If you give them cash for expenses, chances are it will be spent on the addiction. A much more sensible option would be to actually buy their groceries for them so that they don’t get the cash—and yet, even with this, you must be careful. Every bit of financial assistance you give your adult child means that more of their own money is available to feed their addiction. It’s very difficult to stand by and watch your child be desperate for money, but sometimes you will have to, if it becomes clear that your financial help is being abused.

Avoid the Urge to “Rescue” Your Child

When they were younger, you stepped in and sorted out their every problem, and rightly so. You can’t do that now. Your adult addict child needs to learn to take responsibility for his or her own decisions, and that means living with the consequences of bad choices. Every time you try to save the situation, you could be making it worse by actually disempowering your child and undermining their self-respect. If they are ever to conquer their addiction, it has to be of their own free will and through their own efforts. You cannot do this for them.

Protect Your Family and Yourself

An adult child’s addiction impacts the whole family, including their siblings, grandparents and of course their own partner and children, if they have any. You must take steps to protect other family members, which involves setting strict rules for how your adult child may behave around them—and enforcing sanctions if those rules are broken.

Meanwhile, you must nurture and look after yourself. You will be experiencing a form of grief as you watch your hopes and dreams for your child (temporarily) fade. Parents of addicts often fall prey to depression and anxiety themselves; get the help you need in order to be able to cope, because if you fall apart, you can help nobody.

Signpost Your Child toward Treatment

You can offer to help your child find a therapist, or weekly support meetings, or enter rehab—but you can’t force them to attend. Likewise, you can suggest that they seek help for any mental health issues which may be exacerbating the addiction. Keep talking, keep offering, keep signposting the right path, but don’t blame yourself if your child refuses.

Ultimately, as the parent of an adult addict, there is only so much you can do. While your love for your child will never die, and your desire to help will never diminish, acceptance of your limits is key to coping with your child’s addiction without losing yourself.

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