Quick Guide: Adult Children and Parents with Substance Use Disorder

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September 17, 2019

As a child, our parents are our primary caretakers, preparing us for what the world will throw our way, tending to us when we are hurt or sick, and encouraging us to become independent people. As we get older we start to realize that our parents not perfect and sometimes they fall ill or find themselves in situations where they need help. When a child grows up with a parent that has struggled with substance use or addiction, it can force them to mature very quickly, and sometimes fall into the role of being a parent to their own parent. This circumstance can also occur later in life, as an adult child, with the ever-rising rates of substance use disorder among seniors. Unlike those who grew up conscious of their parent’s illness, discovering that your parent has substance use disorder later in life can come as a shock and change the roles of the members in a family ecosystem.

A Family Disease

Addiction is often deemed as a family disease because it doesn’t only affect the person with substance use disorder, but rather the entire family unit. A family runs much like an ecosystem where different members often take on specific roles which can often shift around when someone is ill. There are some common tropes that signify categories of behavior created initially by addiction and codependency expert Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse that your loved ones may fall into, for better or worse, once a parent is diagnosed with substance use disorder:

  • The Enabler: This person goes to great lengths to protect the member who is struggling, but their methods often backfire because they tend to make excuses for their bad behavior or “fix their mistakes” instead of forcing them to see the consequences of their negative actions.
  • The Hero: Unlike the enabler, the hero tries to thwart attention away from the family member who is struggling by overcompensating with achievements or focus on other forms of improvement. By seeking external validation, they feel they are more in control of the situation.
  • The Scapegoat: Though this person isn’t the one with substance use issues, they are often blamed for things that are going wrong inside the family unit, usually when it’s not their fault.
  • The Lost Child: This member of the family often withdraws from the group and the person who is struggling as a way to cope with their fears and emotions.
  • The Mascot: Some people cope with stress through humor and laughter, trying to get the family together to ignore the troubles with fun activities, but by doing so they also may be viewed as immature or not grasping the severity of the situation.

Trading Places

Beyond the list of possible characters people find themselves to be in a family ecosystem, there are two very foundational roles between child and parent. If your parent is faced with the pitfalls of addiction, it’s not unusual that you may find yourself parenting your parent. Looking after them can be very anxiety-inducing because it’s difficult to control their behaviors and day-to-day actions as one would for a small child. After all, they are full-grown adults who may feel they don’t have to answer to anyone, especially their own children. This behavior is common in the denial phases of addiction where the parent may evade revealing their substance use to their loved ones.

If you weren’t exposed to substance misuse or addiction in your family early on and don’t have experience with such a situation, it’s very easy to fall into an enabler role when looking after your parent because of your own feelings of denial. It’s a subconscious coping mechanism but can be detrimental to both you and your parent, so it’s vital to recognize as early as possible before the codependent role reversal between parent and child becomes toxic for both.

Seeking Treatment

There are various options for approaching your parent about their substance use from interventions to face-to-face discussion. It’s essential to speak with a support counselor at a treatment facility to discuss your options before offering help. This individual can guide you through different program options available that will help you explain the treatment process more convincingly to your loved one in hopes of their compliance. Often times, this step comes after various previous efforts are made to confront a parent’s substance misuse, so preparing yourself with reading materials, brochures, and a list of benefits will be useful. Facing a parent who has substance use disorder can be a very emotional and taxing life event, but helping them seek treatment is the ultimate goal. Avoiding family dysfunction and codependent behavior will help springboard getting your parent the help they need to regain their health and life as the person who helped raised you.