Stop Enabling a Drug-Addicted Adult Child

As a parent, you have watched your child go from infant to adult while trying to nurture them as best as you can along the way. Every parent hopes that their children will be able to get a solid education, land a great job, and start a family of their own. But for many, reality can be quite different. If your adult child has developed a drug or alcohol problem, your world is likely turned upside down.

The parental instinct is to continue to care for and help solve your child’s problems. But this can potentially lead down a very counter-productive path. Addiction is a disease that engenders extremely destructive attitudes and behaviors, and as a parent, you must learn to separate your child’s true needs from the impulses and actions governed by the addiction.

Drugs and Alcohol Take Over an Addict’s Life
The addicted person will use defense mechanisms such as denial, blaming, rationalization and manipulation to get what they need. They start seeing the world, not as it is, but as they need it to be in order to sustain their addiction. They will lie, bargain, deny and steal from you when you’re not looking. They will make promises they are incapable of keeping. “I’ll pay you back soon.” “I’ll stop soon.”

They will blame your (or anyone else who is handy) for their addiction, job losses, and unattended responsibilities. Their addiction becomes their whole world, and thus completely occupies all their thoughts. When can they use again? How do they get the money to pay for it? Where can they crash while they’re high?

What is difficult for many parents to understand is how the brain is completely overrun by the addiction. Your child has not become an evil person – their addiction has clouded their judgment and made them essentially incapable of operating like they would if they were sober. They are still inside but are no longer in the driver’s seat.

Many parents know this on some level, but their response is to try to help their child out of love. They pay their bills, cater to their needs, and make excuses for them. These things seem like compassion, but they are really just enabling the disease to perpetuate and further endanger their child and those around them.

The Role Families Play in Addiction
When you are living with a chemically dependent person, your family takes on new roles in an effort to cope with the addiction. However, rather than being productive roles that help manage the stress of the situation or resolve the issues, these roles are simply survival tools for your family. These roles do nothing to help the addict, but instead allow them to sustain their disease. As a result, the addiction becomes a focal point of family relationships and takes control over the decision-making process.

The Five Roles
The Enabler – This person is the one protecting the addict from the consequences of their actions. The reasoning may be to mitigate any embarrassment or negative consequences from the addict’s behavior or to maintain some semblance of control over the situation.

The Hero – This family member attempts to draw attention away from the addict by excelling in one way or another, at school or at work. They may give encouragement to the family, be their shining light or step in to help pay bills. They are usually an overachiever and considered a role model for the addicted individual to look up to.

The Scapegoat – This individual, like the hero, distracts the family from the real problem by adding problems of their own. They may have failing grades, misbehavior, or their own budding substance abuse problem. This allows the addict to feel better about themselves and the rest of the family to pull focus from dealing with the addiction.

The Mascot – Also known as the jester, this family member tries to lighten tense situations by making jokes or clowning around. The real intent is to keep the peace in the family and serve as a distraction. And by keeping things light and superficial, the mascot does not have to deal with their own feelings regarding the addict.

The Lost Child – This family member who emotionally withdraws from the situation, seemingly unaffected by the turmoil. They maintain a positive reputation by neither adding to nor distracting from the situation. The lost child is careful to avoid drama, is low-key and often relinquishes their own personal needs to the greater good.

These roles are destructive to the family and family members should seek counseling, either individually or as a group, in order to correct the dysfunctional environment that has been created. This is essential to repairing family relationships. Furthermore, it is critical not only to helping the addict get the proper attention and treatment they need but also to helping them sustain their recovery instead of relapsing into the same old cycle.

What Enabling Is, and How It’s Hurting Your Addicted Child
Addictive substances are often referred to as “habit-forming.” That’s because addiction, at a basic level, is an uncontrollable habit. When we speak of enabling, we are referring to anything that promotes or permits the habit to continue. Many people assume that enabling an addiction means giving the addict money to buy drugs or allowing them to use in your home or your presence. But enablement is far more simple than that.

An addict is enabled when they are allowed to continue with the status quo. The compulsive, habitual nature of addiction means that their situation must be drastically altered in order for them to be able or even desire to change. So, for example, many parents feel that paying a child’s bills directly is a way to help the child without giving them money for drugs. But really, they are still enabling the addiction to continue.

What You Should Never Do for an Addict:
Give cash when they ask – This should be the most obvious – though it is still difficult for many parents. Your child may beg or even threaten, but you have to recognize that this is the most basic way to keep them addicted.

Paying for a car, car insurance, or gas – They may need the car for work, but it is also used to get to their dealer or worse, transporting drugs. If they have a job, they should be able to pay for their own car.

Paying for a cell phone – you may want to stay in touch with them; however, this is also their means to stay in touch with their dealer and using buddies. By taking care of the cell phone, you are helping them get high.

Paying for rent, hotel room or utilities – By providing them a place to use, you are helping the disease, not your child. This is a tough one to overcome. Remember, you need to help your child, not the disease.

Bailing them out of jail – This is surely an example of “tough love.” But it is sometimes critical for an addict to learn consequences in order to be sufficiently motivated to seek change.

Letting them continue staying at your home – This may be the hardest for parents. Allowing your child to continue at your home rent free is not helping them overcome the disease. You may tell yourself that if they don’t stay with you, they’ll end up dead on the street. But the reality is that they are every bit as likely, if not more, to end up dead in your home because the thing that will kill them is the addiction. Make it clear that you will happily welcome them in once they get treatment.

What You Can Do to Help Your Loved One
While the above may seem harsh, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that you must cut off all ties or that there is nothing you can do to help. Quite the opposite in fact. Here are a few tips on the things you can do to be helpful to your addicted child.

Give them food – Take them to a restaurant or make them a nutritious meal. You want to make sure they have something to eat – and you want to stay connected. Ask them how they’re doing, and let them bend your ear. This is a good time to let them evaluate their situation and be encouraged to seek treatment. Remember, though: only give them food and your attention. You want them to get treatment, not stay addicted.

Seek a good interventionist – An interventionist is often capable of helping motivate an addict toward treatment far more effectively than a family is. Given their expertise in the field and unique role as a qualified outsider, they can be an extremely effective help.

Find the right treatment for them – Even if it’s the third time in rehab. Remember, this is a disease and just like cancer, only goes into remission when they are in treatment.

Answer the phone – If your child calls, answer the phone. They may be asking for money. Do not give in to them. This is when you need to be strong. Tell them how much you miss them, how much you love them. And never miss an opportunity to ask if they are ready for treatment.

Be Patient When You are Offended, and Stern When You are Sympathetic
Parenting an adult addict child is an incredibly hard task. In all likelihood, you will be lied to, stolen from, and emotionally hurt. But you will also see your child go through some of the hardest times of their life. Often, you will be required to do the opposite of what your emotional instincts tell you.

Addiction takes over the brain in a complete way. Studies have shown that the effects of withdrawal are like a frenzied mania where satisfying a craving is essentially the only idea an addict’s brain can process. To that end, they simply will not be themselves during withdrawals. So as a parent, you must go against your better judgment and be patient in the face of sometimes extreme offense. Do not lash out or allow the insanity of their withdrawal set the tone. And above all, do not make idle threats or ultimatums that you cannot follow through on. Be patient, loving, and unwavering.

Likewise, watching your addict child suffer the pains of withdrawal symptoms can be very difficult. Don’t let their suffering be your guide. Cravings and withdrawal are ugly – as are the consequences of illicit drug use and illegal behavior. Your adult addict child will more than likely lose jobs, destroy relationships, and do great damage to their health as a result of their substance abuse habit. But that doesn’t mean you should do anything that will let them perpetuate their addiction. The most loving thing you can do is be steadfast in your opposition to the disease and in your pursuit of them seeking treatment. It may be difficult, but it also may save their life.

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