A Child’s Addiction For Parents: Connecting


A Child's Addiction: Keeping Parents Connected & Hopeful, Deb Owens counselor, Chestnut Hill, PA

The anxiety can be relentless.

Parent can’t sleep. Focusing on work or other relationships seems impossible.

Irritability and fear dominate your thoughts. It can feel so, so alone.

As a Licensed Counselor and Therapist, I work with these brave, caring, resilient parents trying to figure out how to help. They long for a healthy loving relationship with their child.

It’s a struggle to show compassion and support when a potential addiction feels like a wedge in the family dynamics.

Parents of young adults struggling with a substance use disorder or who are in recovery often fear they may be “enabling”. They don’t want to hinder more positive behavior but feel pulled to keep consequences at bay.

Risks are high.

It’s exhausting.

In many cases these drug or alcohol related behaviors occur along with other mental health issues like Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, or ADHD.

There’s intense sadness even depression.  You can feel so, so alone.

Some parents were raised with an addicted or alcoholic mother or father, or are in their own recovery, so a return of substance issues into the family system may trigger these memories too.

The road is jagged, bumpy, and full of potholes. Navigation requires a tool set parents don’t yet have.

In my counseling office I work with many loving parents of young adults concerned about their child’s use of alcohol or drugs and support them when their child is getting positive traction or in recovery and making progress. It’s important for the family to heal to be able to move forward.

It’s an honor to work with these families who are courageously fighting for health, recovery, and hope.

Enabling: Shades of Grey

I’m not a huge fan of labeling behaviors as enabling. I have mixed feelings about the terms codependency as well. Calling your natural reactions to protect your child enabling can feel critical of the family member with a son or daughter with an alcohol or drug problem or mental health issues . Especially since parents are often trying to do everything they can to help and to keep their child safe.

There can be a middle ground where one can offer loving support, compassion, and connection and still make better choices as far as what response works best for a given family. Science and experience tells us that many children respond better to more supportive approaches. (see section below on CRAFT)

Deb’s Suggestions

Your own self care is essential. Please get help for yourself even if your teen or adult child is not ready to do so. Studies shows that a parent seeking their own help or therapy makes a huge difference in outcomes.

Research demonstrates that family members involvement in counseling and support groups, even if the loved one with a potential substance use disorder is not yet ready to accept help, correlates with a higher success rate for both the person directly struggling with alcohol and/or drugs or an addiction as well as the entire family system.

Parents can access tools such as:

• CRAFT a compassionate and effective approach outlined through videos and workbooks on the website for The Center for Motivation and Change in NYC. Check out their free 20 minute Guide for Parents. Their book “Beyond Addiction” is a must read. Good stuff. The CRAFT model appeals to many parents. It offers tools than can empower parents and the child with a substance use disorder by reinforcing behaviors that are less risky and more positive. This may lead to success with treatment. There are parent coaches and therapists who are trained and/or certified in the CRAFT model. Check it out.

Parent support groups (free) are independent and run by parents. They are open to any parent worried about a child’s alcohol or substance use and are located across several states and growing. These parent groups sometimes have behavioral health, addiction, or family therapy professionals present at some of the meetings. Occasionally, a child of a parent group member may attend as a guest to share their journey. The child in recovery may speak along with their parent describing how they were able to repair and strengthen relationships often eroded and traumatized by addiction. The main focus is on parents supporting other parents at whatever point they are in the discovery, addiction, or recovery process. Many parents who are now seeing their children succeed and their family relationships heal participate even years later to inspire hope. They are committed to helping other parents who are at an earlier point in the process.

• One of these vibrant parent support groups (free) for parents of teens and adults with substance use disorders is held at the New Leaf Club in Rosemont on the Main Line in Montgomery County, PA.

• Free self help groups like Nar-Anon and Al-Anon. Online and live meetings are available across the U.S. and the world. Parent and family members who have “been there” share their “experience, strength and hope”.  Check websites for locations of live and online meetings.

SMART Recovery has groups for families. The number is limited, however, they also offer on-line meetings for families and friends of persons with substance use disorders. Their site has a lot of useful info.

An excellent resource is Center for Families located on the Main Line suburbs. They offer parent to parent groups and outstanding psycho-educational programs and seminars for parents of teens and adults with mental health and substance use issues. Click on their link for on-going and upcoming events.

These groups help parents feel less alone. It can feel so isolating when you are in this situation. The weight of the “secret” can feel unbearable.

Parent groups can be empowering. Yes, really. Many parents who are now in a better place continue to attend to share their and ups and downs, setbacks and successes with parents who are still struggling. Hope matters.

Although these parent groups are geared toward alcohol and drug problems, many people who misuse alcohol or drugs experience other mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, disordered eating, ADD, trauma, etc.

About half of attendees are fathers which is a change from years ago and good news. Many parents continue even when things are going well. It keeps them grounded and helps maximize growth and prevent relapse or set backs for family members.

I get a good deal of push back when I suggest my counseling clients consider checking out one of these groups even on-line ones. There’s a lot of anxiety, fear, and even shame about attending.

I try and accept clients where they are and understand this is not something all are interested in or ready to try. I respect that choice.

I nudge a little anyway.


Because I get incredibly positive feedback from those who get past that initial reluctance. They are relieved to interact with other parents from decent, loving families who are struggling with a child with an addiction or potential substance use disorder or mental health issues like depression and anxiety or are managing relationships with children in recovery.

Parents are surprised to see how much the process can give them direction. Hearing from others who have gone through this in the past as well as from those fierce parents currently trying to figure this out gives them clarity. They gradually get a better perspective on what’s working and how to break out of negative patterns.

They learn about what approaches might work for them or their family member.

Yet so many parents put themselves last. They do not follow through on the help they need and deserve.

These same parents would do back flips to help their child. They would.

Yet, somehow following through with their own counseling or therapy process, even though it’s recommended by the experts, is scary.

Perhaps they fear being blamed or judged or that their own relationship with alcohol or drugs will be put under the microscope.

That’s not what happens.

Counseling can be helpful and empowering

A quality counseling process can assist you to build on your strengths and restore the positive connections in your relationships.

According to Dr. Joel Young, author of “When Your Adult Child Breaks Your Heart”:

“When your child was born, you likely vowed that you’d do anything to keep him safe. The line between enabling and helping is a blurry one, and parent/child relationships are often complicated and highly emotional. Every parent who struggles with a teen or young adult child makes a few mistakes along the way, so there’s no need to beat yourself up. Instead, focus on learning from the past and consistently working toward a healthier, more balanced, and loving relationship with your child.”

In my own counseling practice in Chestnut Hill and Montgomery County, PA, I’ve learned that our helicopter generation of parents tries so hard to do the right thing. It’s frustrating when such an approach seems to backfire with certain children.

Caring, compassion, and a positive connection are needed for the young person with a Mental Health or Substance Disorder. Parents need support, tools, and guidance too.

Modeling that ability to seek and benefit from help makes a huge difference.

Take Action

You can learn to better manage the anxiety and uncertainty that continues even if your child is on a road to “recovery” or is changing in a positive direction.

Therapists who specialize in counseling parents or families worried about their relationship with alcohol or substances are available to consult with you and provide the support and direction you need. If I’m not the right fit for you, I can recommend counselors, psychologists, addiction psychiatrists, coaches, and therapists who specialize in this area both for parents and the child with an alcohol or drug problem, addiction, or substance use disorder.

Check out any of the groups and on-line tools mentioned in the bullets.

There is hope and help.

Get it.

Deb Owens, Licensed Professional Counselor, counsels and coaches parents, adults, and couples on-line, by phone, and F2F in Chestnut Hill, PA and Montgomery County, PA.  Her counseling specialties include anxiety, marriage counseling, midlife transitions, and those effected by their own or loved one’s alcohol or drug use including parents and ACOAs and those in recovery.   www.debowens.com