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Survival Tips for Parents of Adult Addicts

Parenting adult children who abuse substances, the law, or their families.


  • Although your adult child is no longer legally your responsibility, you may feel an even heavier burden of social and emotional responsibility.

  • Remember that all parents make mistakes, and adult children have the power to make intelligent decisions.

  • Coping tips include loving but not enabling your child, protecting the rest of your family, and not assuming you can "rescue" your child.

Before a child is born, most parents are already carrying a heavy burden. They recognize that a great deal of responsibility comes with bringing a child into this world and typically believe that every choice they make from conception onward will affect how their child turns out.

For the most part, they may be right. Some choices made during pregnancy can influence a child's physiology and future health. Consuming alcohol, using drugs and some medications, and eating nutritiously, among others, can all impact the health of an unborn child. However, as of conception, some unique personality characteristics and physiological potentials are already pretty much fixed, regardless of pre- and post-birth parenting choices.

If you are the mother or father of an adult child not making the choices necessary for a sound future, this can be a heavier burden than any of the earlier ones you carried. When your child was young and misbehaved, you probably knew how to discipline them. Whether the effect was lasting or not, you probably felt that at least you were "doing something."

Your child is no longer legally responsible as an adult, but you may feel an even heavier social and emotional commitment burden. Depending on how far from your measure of "good" your child falls, your level of anger and shame may vary. Some parents resort to hot anger and recrimination: "I didn't raise you to be like this!" Others fall into the trap of accepting the blame that some misbehaving adult children want to place on them.

Some parents may be bled dry by meeting the financial assistance pleas/demands from children habitually showing up in the judicial system and needing money for court/legal fees. (And they may hope, often in vain, that the money goes to the stated purpose rather than buying their child more trouble). Some parents carry great shame about their children's mistakes – believing that if they had done a better job somewhere along the line, this problem/incidence/pattern/behavior would not have appeared in their child's life.

Two Essential Truths

The first truth is that we all make mistakes as parents. Yes, it is true: good parents are not perfect parents, and all of us could do a better job, in some way, than we do. But once a child is grown, you cannot have a re-do or an undo.

The second truth is that once a child is an adult, they have all the power they need to make intelligent decisions. As a result, adult children have no right to blame their parents for their choices today. An incredible perk of adulthood is that adults take responsibility for themselves and make their own decisions. And most behaviors are choices: Addiction or detox? Fighting or loving? Honesty or deceit? Working or slacking? Building up or tearing down?

7 Suggestions for Coping

  1. Please remind your child that their choices place them in the circumstances surrounding them. Emphasize that their conscious decisions, not just "happenstance" or "bad luck, " led them to this place. Interventions can be effective when you let your child know that their bad behavior affects everyone in the family and their social and professional constellations. One of the most critical aspects of an intervention is that it is one of the family's steps toward health —a sign that a family is moving into the recovery process.

  2. Offer assistance and support only to the degree that you are financially able and that will move your child towards a better life. Please don't give money you know will take them further down the road of bad behavior. Some people suggest that parental funding be tied to a child's good faith efforts to improve their situation. However, if you feel guilty for not giving your child money for food because you are fearful it would only be spent for illegal drugs, buy her a bag of groceries instead of giving her cash.

  3. Offer to help your child find support services, but don't blame yourself if they refuse to use them. You cannot help someone who does not want to help themselves. You cannot, as much as you would like to be able to do so, and it simply does not work that way.

  4. Love your child. But remember that loving your child does not mean enabling your child. It means holding him accountable for his behavior and refusing to allow him the power to dismantle the family.

  5. Do not assume that you can "rescue" your adult child . . . that is not possible and attempts to do so are not the way to encourage autonomy and responsibility for any adult.

  6. Protect yourself and the rest of your family. Not every adult child has to hit "rock bottom" before turning around her life, so do not allow your child to bring you or the family to "rock bottom," either. No longer is "rock bottom" seen as a necessary starting point for changing an addict's life; your family does not need to hit "rock bottom" before getting stronger.

  7. Love yourself. Parents genuinely do their best but should not hold themselves accountable for the poor choices of their adult children. Once you become a parent, that role has no endpoint. However, the responsibilities of that role shift over time as a child matures, and they lessen, not expand. Loving yourself and accepting your limits will keep you from spiraling down due to your child's choices.

Dealing with an adult child struggling with addiction can be challenging. You need to strive to care for yourself.

ANOTHER SOLUTION has been helping others find successful recovery for over 25 years. We know recovery, and we can help.


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Information Courtesy of Lybi Ma. She is the Executive Editor of Psychology Today and has been with the publication since 2000. She has written for or has edited, publications including Discover, American Health, and CBSHealthwatch.

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