Family Resource


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

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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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How to plan an interventionAn intervention is often the best way for someone suffering from drug or alcohol addiction to begin their path to recovery. People struggling with substance abuse are often suffering from denial about the extent of their problem, so hearing firsthand how their actions have affected their loved ones can serve as a wake-up call.

This article outlines how to plan an intervention that will motivate your loved one to seek the help he or she needs.

Create an Intervention Team

An intervention planning team typically involves a small group of concerned family members and friends. However, you should not include anyone in the planning process who does not get along well with your loved one, is known for having an uncontrollable temper, or who is also suffering from an untreated substance abuse or mental health issue. It is vital to the success of the intervention that everyone be able to work together for the good of your loved one.

A healthcare professional such as a licensed counselor, social worker, psychiatrist, or psychologist may be necessary if your loved one has a history of mental illness and/or violent behavior. A professional can help you structure the intervention to reduce the risk of an aggressive outburst or self-harming behavior.

If your loved one’s faith is an important part of their life, including a pastor or religious leader may be appropriate.

Gather Information

Once you have assembled your intervention team, take time to discuss the specific addiction-related behaviors that are concerning you. This might include:

  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Changes in eating habits characterized by weight gain or weight loss
  • Sleeping significantly more or less than usual
  • Mood swings
  • Trouble at work or school
  • Difficulty remembering important details
  • Lack of interest in hobbies or socializing

Ask each person on your intervention team to write down the specific behaviors they’ve witnessed, as well as how this has made them feel. You can use these notes to make sure everyone stays on track during the intervention meeting.

Research Treatment Options

After you present your loved one with an expression of your concerns, you’ll need to present your request for treatment. Research counseling options and inpatient rehabs in your area to determine what is appropriate for your loved one’s needs. Contact your insurance company to learn more about applicable health insurance benefits for substance abuse treatment.

Your goal is to be able to provide your loved one with a pre-arranged treatment plan that includes clear guidelines, steps, and goals for taking control of his or her addiction. Someone struggling with substance abuse may not be thinking clearly enough to make these decisions, so taking control of deciding what steps are necessary is a compassionate way to express your concern.

Decide on Consequences

The ideal outcome for an intervention is that your loved one will accept your request to get help. However, you must be prepared to be met with a denial of the problem and a refusal to listen to your request.

Each person on the intervention team should decide what the consequences will be for refusing treatment. This may include steps such as no longer being allowed to have unsupervised visits with children or grandchildren, cutting off social contact, or being asked to move out of the family home.

Hold the Intervention

It’s a good idea to schedule an intervention for the time of day when your loved one is least likely to be impaired by drugs or alcohol. In many cases, this means planning the meeting during the early morning hours.

When you hold your intervention, the meeting should be structured as follows:

  1. Everyone individually shares examples of behavior they’ve witnessed and how these actions have caused problems–expressing their concern without becoming judgmental or accusatory.
  2. The group presents the person with a prearranged treatment plan.
  3. Each person shares what consequences they’ve decided are appropriate for refusing to accept substance abuse treatment.
  4. The group asks for an immediate decision as to whether or not treatment will be accepted.

If the offer of help is accepted, you should be prepared to have the treatment begin immediately. If you’ll be using the services of an inpatient rehab facility, this means you should have a bag packed and be ready to transport your loved on to the facility when the intervention is over.

If treatment is refused, the members of the intervention team must be prepared to follow through with the consequences they’ve agreed to. This can be emotionally trying, but is a necessary part of the process.

By Dana Hinders

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