For Families of Addicts


How to help a parent who struggles with addictionWatching a loved one battle addiction is never easy, but having a parent who struggles with substance abuse presents unique challenges. You must balance the desire to see your father or mother get help with the need to address how parental addiction has affected your own mental health.

Recognizing the Signs of Parental Addiction

In many families, addiction is a secret that everyone knows and nobody acknowledges. Children grow up knowing that their parent abuses drugs or alcohol, but not fully understanding how to change the situation.

However, it’s possible for an addiction to develop so gradually that you might not realize there is a problem right away. In cases where an adult child is concerned about an elderly parent’s recent changes in behavior, retirement, illness, or the death of a loved one may serve as a trigger event for substance abuse.

If you’re worried about a parent’s alcohol or drug use, here are some warning signs to watch for:

  • Slurred or difficult to understand speech
  • Angry outbursts
  • Difficulty remembering conversations or details about important family events
  • Confusion
  • Glazed eyes
  • Pupils that seem unusually small or unusually large
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Unexplained financial problems
  • Lying about daily activities or habits
  • Change in activity levels, such as excessive energy or extreme exhaustion
  • Disheveled or unkempt personal appearance

Note that in cases where seniors are drinking to excess or abusing prescription medication, the warning signs of addiction are often mistaken for age-related cognitive decline or the early signs of dementia. Since addiction is often mistakenly seen as a younger person’s problem, it’s somewhat easier for seniors to hide the signs of drug and alcohol abuse from the casual observer.

Getting Help

If you’re worried about a parent’s substance abuse, discussing your concerns with other family members is a good place to start. You may find that your siblings or your other parent have similar concerns, but were too afraid to speak up until you began the conversation. Joining together to discuss the problem in a calm, rational way will help you decide how to best proceed.

Planning an intervention can be an effective way to convince your parent to seek treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. An intervention is a meeting led by concerned family members and friends. The meeting begins by having everyone share examples of behavior that they’ve witnessed and how these actions have negatively affected them. Then, the group presents a prearranged addiction treatment plan and the consequences for refusing to accept treatment. After listening to everyone speak, the addicted person is then asked to make an immediate decision about seeking treatment. If the addicted person refuses to accept treatment, the intervention team must be prepared to follow through on the consequences—which may include limiting contact or refusing to provide financial assistance.

Some key points to remember when talking to a parent about his or her addiction include:

  • Try to avoid using the word “addict” since older people are more likely to view substance abuse as a moral failing instead of a chronic illness.
  • Be supportive and compassionate by taking about happy memories you have with your parent. Stress that your concern is coming from a place of love.
  • Don’t bring up topics that are unrelated to your parent’s substance abuse. Keep your focus on the need to get your parent into addiction treatment.

If you believe that your parent may become violent if confronted about his or her substance abuse, do not try to have an intervention without the assistance of a mental health professional. Ensuring the safety of everyone in your family should be your top priority.

Taking Care of Your Own Needs

Having a parent who struggles with addiction is a traumatic experience due to the role reversal it involves. Normally, your parent is the one to care for you, guide you, and teach you how to prepare for the future. When addiction forces you to become your parent’s caretaker, feelings of confusion, anger, shame, and betrayal can result.

Seeking counseling can help you learn to deal with your feelings surrounding your parent’s addiction in a constructive manner. Support groups such as Al-Anon or Al-Ateen may also be useful in helping you to better understand the challenges associated with your situation.

Finally, you may find it useful to remember the 7 Cs of addiction as taught by the National Association for Children of Alcoholics:

I didn’t cause it.
I can’t cure it.
I can’t control it.
I can care for myself
By communicating my feelings,
Making healthy choices, and
By celebrating myself.

By Dana Hinders

To learn more about our programs, please visit our website.

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Talking to kids about a parent's addictionTalking to kids about a parent’s substance abuse problem isn’t easy, but this is a conversation you simply can’t ignore. Brushing the topic aside gives children the message that addiction is a shameful family secret. Instead, plan to discuss a parent’s decision to seek treatment in an age-appropriate manner—setting the stage for open and honest communication.

Teaching the 7 C’s of Addiction

According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, the 7 C’s of addiction can serve as a useful framework for helping children understand a parent’s substance abuse problem and how it affects their own lives.

I didn’t cause it.
I can’t cure it.
I can’t control it.
I can care for myself
By communicating my feelings,
Making healthy choices, and
By celebrating myself.

After you’ve talked to your child, consider sharing a copy of the 7 C’s of addiction. Your child may wish to display a copy of this information in his or her bedroom or to carry it in a wallet or backpack as a reminder of how to handle conflicting feelings surrounding a parent’s substance abuse treatment.

Explaining Addiction to Kids Under 10

At this age, children still live in a me-centered world. This means they’re likely to blame themselves for a parent’s addiction-related behavior. Your task is help your child understand that their mother or father’s addiction is not their fault and to reassure them of your family’s love and commitment to each other.

You can begin the conversation by bringing up an example of behavior that your child witnessed, such as an argument occurring after your spouse missed your child’s school play to go out drinking with friends. Explain that addiction is a disease that causes people to make bad choices, even when they know those bad choices hurt themselves or others. Stress that the parent in treatment is getting help for his or her illness, much like you would take your child to the doctor for a high fever or a bad cut.

Talking to Tweens

Tweens are at the stage of their lives where they’re attuned to rumors and gossip. When you talk to your tween about a parent’s addiction, your goal should be to make sure he or she has all the facts.

Plan to talk to your tween in a calm, quiet location that’s free of distractions. State the facts simply, saying that the parent is addicted to drugs or alcohol and is seeking treatment for this illness. Give your tween ample opportunity to ask questions, answering as truthfully as you are able to. Stress the importance of coming to together as family during this time and invite your tween to come to you whenever he or she is feeling sad or angry about the situation.

Talking to Teens

Teens often have a different perspective on addiction than younger children. They may be resentful for having to handle household chores and care for younger siblings when a parent is under the influence. They may also be jealous of friends who they view as having “perfect” families.

When you’re talking to your teen, express your appreciation for all your teen has done to help the family during this time and acknowledge the impact this experience has had on his or her life. You can point out that all families have their own struggles, but avoid taking a condescending or dismissive tone. Teens will often shut down if they feel they’re not being respected as part of the conversation.

After your teen has had a chance to process the initial discussion, you should broach the subject of what a family history of addiction means. While genetics aren’t destiny, studies have shown that having a parent or other close relative who suffers from addiction does increase a teen’s risk of developing a substance abuse problem. Stress your concern for your teen’s wellbeing and help him or her explore interests and hobbies that can will reduce the urge to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Seeking Help for Your Child

The experience of living with a parent’s addiction can cause some children to act out. If you notice that your child is experiencing signs of depression or anxiety, such as changes in appetite, sleeping patterns, academic performance, and time spent with friends, he or she may be in need of counseling to help process the feelings associated with a parent in treatment. Your pediatrician can refer you to a qualified therapist in your area. Attending Ala-teen or a related support group for children in similar situations may also be beneficial.

By Dana Hinders

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Understanding the relationship between alcohol and depressionThe relationship between alcohol and depression is deceptive. Since drinking is often a part of social gatherings, it may seem like a few beers would be a great way to take your mind off your troubles. However, alcohol can actually worsen depression symptoms. In some cases, it may even induce depression in someone with no previous signs of a mental health disorder.

Signs of Depression

Despite being one of the most common mental illnesses, depression is often misunderstood. Clinical depression is more than just having a bad day once in a while. Someone suffering from depression experiences noticeable changes in mood and behavior that significantly affect their overall quality of life.

Signs of depression can include:

  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of intense sadness
  • Fatigue and lack of energy
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or socialization
  • Appetite or weight changes
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling like you’re a failure or that you’ve let friends and family down
  • Having thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Symptoms that occur on all or most days for two weeks or more indicate a need to consult a medical professional.

Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Studies indicate that nearly 1/3 of people suffering from depression also have a drinking problem. The link between depression and alcohol addiction is strongest in women and teenagers.

Signs of alcohol abuse include:

  • Believing you need alcohol to relax or feel better
  • Continuing to drink despite negative consequences in your personal or professional life
  • Drinking until you black out
  • Developing an increased tolerance for alcohol, so you require more drinks to feel impaired
  • Feeling powerless to stop drinking
  • Lying about your drinking to friends and family
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, nausea, shakiness, and trembling when you’re not able to drink

Understanding the Relationship Between Alcohol and Depression

Chemically speaking, alcohol is a depressant. A depressant is a substance that lowers neurotransmitter levels, reducing stimulation and arousal in the body.

The majority of people who suffer from both depression and alcohol addiction began drinking as a way to self-medicate their symptoms. However, since the genetic risk factors for both drinking and depression significantly overlap, alcohol abuse can sometimes trigger symptoms in people who weren’t previously depressed.

Other ways in which alcohol can affect depression include:

Fatigue. Drinking regularly can negatively affect your sleep patterns. Fatigue can worsen existing depression symptoms or trigger symptoms in people who are not clinically depressed.

Malnutrition. Alcohol satisfies the body’s calorie requirements, but contains no essential vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, or carbohydrates. It can also irritate the lining of the intestine, making it more difficult for the body to absorb needed nutrients. Someone who is malnourished lacks the energy needed to complete daily activities

Difficulty regulating blood sugar. When the liver’s resources are devoted to processing alcohol, it becomes more difficult to maintain stable blood sugar levels. This can lead to mood swings, including feelings of anger and irritability.

Folic acid deficiency. Folate deficiency is common in people suffering from depression, but regular alcohol use lowers levels of folic acid in the body.

Lower serotonin and norepinephrine levels. Alcohol can lower levels of these important mood regulating chemicals in the body, which can make a depressed person feel more depressed.

Impaired judgement. Alcohol decreases inhibition and impairs judgement. This can lead to risky behaviors, including self-harm or suicide attempts.

Decreasing effectiveness of medication. Alcohol can reduce the effectiveness of prescription antidepressants while increasing the risk of side effects such as drowsiness and dangerously high blood pressure

Getting the Help You Need

Someone who is suffering from both depression and alcoholism is said to have a dual diagnosis or a co-occurring disorder. In this case, both illnesses must be treated simultaneously. This is typically done with a combination of individual therapy, group therapy, and medication to focus on relieving specific symptoms and addressing the underlying factors contributing to both problems.

According to research published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, seeking treatment for alcohol addiction can quickly result in an improvement in depression symptoms. “Although it has been suggested that alcoholism and depression are manifestations of the same underlying illness, the results of family, twin, and adoption studies suggest that alcoholism and mood disorder are probably distinct illnesses with different prognoses and treatments. However, symptoms of depression are likely to develop during the course of alcoholism, and some patients with mood disorders may increase their drinking when undergoing a mood change, fulfilling criteria for secondary alcoholism. When depressive symptoms are secondary to alcoholism, they are likely to disappear within a few days or weeks of abstinence, as withdrawal symptoms subside.”

By Dana Hinders

To learn more about our programs, please visit our website.

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