Often when we think of helping a loved one with an addiction problem, most people’s minds jump to helping their child or significant other. The idea that an addicted parent needs help rarely crosses our minds. It is an unnatural thought for us; our parents are supposed to take care of us, not the other way around. When mothers and fathers have an addiction, roles become reversed and the child may become the parent. It is an unsettling and scary situation to be in for many youth and young adults. While there is no playbook for this, there are strategies that might help lessen their feelings of helplessness and fear.
Seek Out a Trusted Adult
There are a lot of emotions and unchartered waters when a parent is struggling with an addiction, so it is important to find another adult that you trust and feel comfortable confiding in. This could be another parent, school counselor, family member, teacher, therapist, or support group. Allowing yourself to open up in a safe environment will help you feel that you are not alone and will ease some of the anxiety. Some recommended support groups are: Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, and Alateen.
Create Healthy Boundaries
“Boundaries” is often a word thrown around when it comes to examining a parent-child or dynamic. Director of Cultural Integration at Mountainside, Jana Wu, shares “If you cannot control your parents’ drinking by respectfully asking them to stop, you can control if and how you want to spend time with your parent should your mother or father continue to drink.” Setting a boundary with a loved one might include saying things to them such as, “I would like to spend time with you when you are sober, and if you drink, you are not invited or welcome to my house for the holidays”. Some other examples of boundaries may include:
- Learn that saying “no” is acceptable. If your addicted parent is asking you to do something that you are uncomfortable with, you can calmly say “No” without providing further explanation.
- Identify your space and protect it. Space can be defined within many mediums such as physical, emotional, and belongings.
- Appropriate communication with your mother or father. Being able to utilize “I” statements and keeping the focus on your feelings and experiences allows you to just take responsibility for yourself, and not be responsible for your parent’s reaction to the boundary.
“Challenging the norms of the family can be uncomfortable as it is akin to the water the family has been swimming in – changing the PH or the temperature by implementing boundaries might feel uncomfortable for other family members,” says Wu. “But slowly, the goal is that everyone can learn to respect each other’s boundaries.”
Sometimes when we set boundaries with an addicted parent, we can be too firm, rigid, or aggressive in our tone so try to be mindful of how you come across. Remember to be honest with your feelings by saying something like, “This is uncomfortable for me too because I love you, but I need to set the following boundary to protect myself now…”
Setting boundaries, like any other behavioral change, takes courage, patience with ourselves, and, at times, help from others. Family members should consider going to Al-anon, speaking with a therapist or even getting a family recovery coach for their own recovery process.
Find Something That Makes You Happy
As stated earlier, regardless of who has the addiction, when there is an addiction present in the family, it can often overshadow anything else. It is important for you to find or re-engage in an activity that brings you a sense of happiness and purpose, outside of your mother or father’s addiction. Being part of a community that is healthy permits you to have another outlet for a safe space. Examples of this can include joining a local community group, participating in recreational sports, going on a hike with friends, or joining a book club.
Practicing self-care is another way to cheer yourself up. Taking time to focus on our own feelings and needs is important to help us self-soothe, regulate our emotions, and process the world around us. Self-care is about doing things for you, even small things, to improve your overall mental health.
When roles reverse and children become the parents, life can seem uncontrollable and unmanageable. It is important to remember that you are in control of your life and can start to implement some of the ideas above at your own pace to create a sense of safety and decrease co-dependency. Just because your parents “brought you into this world” does not mean they get to take away your world.