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How to Deal With a Parent Battling Addiction

Tuesday, August 23, 2016 | By JP Emerald Coast

child sitting next to drug addict parent

Most people look at their parents as their role models and sources of support. There are millions of parents who are actively involved in their children’s lives, regardless of if they are young or fully grown. Sadly, there are also millions of parents who are struggling with the disease of addiction, limiting their abilities to parent in the manner that they want to. For the children of addicted parents, life can become extremely complex in a short period of time and stay that way for years on end. 

signs a child is struggling because of an addict parent


The childhood years are a time of development, as children are learning, growing, adapting, and experimenting. Unfortunately, approximately 12% of children in the United States live with at least one parent who is dependent on drugs or alcohol during those formidable years. Even without the presence of addiction in the home, children of all ages will inevitably face several challenges throughout their childhood that shape who they eventually become. However, when addiction is occurring at home, children can suffer impacts to their everyday lives, including:

  • Poor academic performance at school
  • Poor behavior at school (e.g. fighting, ignoring direction, bullying others)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Health problems related to anxiety surrounding their parent’s addiction (e.g. stomach ulcers, migraines, problems potty training)
  • Defiance of authority (parents, grandparents, teachers, police officers)
  • Physical, mental, and/or sexual abuse 
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder stemming from one or more traumatic events (e.g. a non-fatal parental overdose, being involved in a physical altercation with a parent, being left alone for long periods of time)

Children of parents who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol are also at increased risk for abusing substances themselves. Not only is this because of the genetic link to the disease of addiction but also because of the environment they are raised in. Children who are living with one or more addicted parents often experience a lack of the following within their environment:

  • Appropriate physical and mental healthcare
  • Daily structure 
  • Healthy involvement in the community (such as through youth activities)
  • Healthy diet and encouragement of exercise
  • Moral guidance 

These factors work against the proper development of a child, as well as weaken their physical and psychological reserve. Turning to drugs and/or alcohol (as has been modeled by their parents) can seem like a simple way to deal with the impacts of addiction in their home. Unfortunately, this is how the cycle of addiction that is seen throughout many families continues to rage on. 

activities for children of addicts

If you are under the age of 18 and one or both of your parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol, you are not powerless. You can make a difference in your own life, and possibly in the lives of your parents. If you are living in an environment where addiction is present, consider doing the following:

  • Reach out to a trusted family member for guidance and support
  • Speak with your school counselor
  • Attend local support group meetings, such as Alateen
  • Get involved in activities either in and/or outside of school that you can utilize as a positive outlet for your emotions

Living with an addicted parent is extremely difficult and unfair, however, you can make it through this part of your life. Reaching out and asking for help is step one. After that, learning how to navigate this disease as best as you can will allow you to cohabitate with your parents easier. Plus, if his or her addiction continues into your adult years, you will have a leg up on what to do and how to handle the unpredictability of this disease.


You do not need to be a child to experience addiction in one of your parents. You may have a parent who has been addicted for your whole life, or you may have a parent who has just recently become addicted to drugs/alcohol. Regardless of how long your parent has been using, you know just how emotionally painful it can be. You are familiar with the many different feelings that you experience on a regular basis, ranging from anger and frustration to sadness and hopelessness. Your parent’s addiction can be so toxic and intrusive in your life that you even consider cutting them out of your life completely. From an outsider’s point of view, ending communication with your addicted parent may seem simple, but actually doing that — or trying to deal with your parent’s addiction in your life on a regular basis — is much harder than some might think. 

One of the core issues that most with an addicted parent struggle with is the role reversal of their parent being the child and them the adult. You are probably very used to this by now if your parent is using because when they use, they exhibit behaviors that remove them from their parental role of authority. As you remain free of mind-altering substances, you are likely to “swoop” in and try to smooth as much over as possible, essentially taking over responsibility for your parent. So many of the actions that go along with this process are done subconsciously, as it is simply human nature for children to love their parents and want what is best for them. Unfortunately, as the child (even though you are an adult), this role reversal can aid in the destruction of your parent’s life, as well as your own. 

So, what are you supposed to do then when your parent is addicted to drugs or alcohol? You may be tired of struggling to figure out a way to navigate this delicate situation, but it is important to move forward with the right information and actions rather than to give up completely. 

Some of the most helpful things you can do when trying to deal with a parent who is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol can include:

Learning about addiction

When addiction is occurring close to home, the emotional toll it can take on you can cloud your opinions and judgment of the situation. It can be extremely difficult to look at addiction as anything other than a catastrophic force in your life. But, when you take the time to learn about addiction as the disease that it is, it can help provide you context that allows for you to develop an appropriate level of understanding and compassion. As you gain more information about addiction as a disease, it can help to minimize the storm of emotions you have been experiencing and help you regain control of the situation.

Setting boundaries

The disease of addiction causes people, regardless of how intelligent they are, to consistently cross boundaries with everyone in their lives, including their children. Your parent has likely done this to you several times, and it can leave you feeling mad, emotionally depleted, and out of control. Their boundary crossing can also continue to fuel their active addiction, only making the situation worse. When you set boundaries and uphold them, however, you will be able to regain control of your life and stop yourself from enabling your parent’s addiction. Some of the most common boundaries set include refusing to give your parent any money, prohibiting him/her from staying at your home while using, and keeping communication limited. Boundaries should never be set to intentionally hurt the addicted parent, rather laid out to protect your emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing. 

Getting help for yourself

Even though your parent is the one who is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, it is critical that you seek professional help for yourself. At first, you may be resentful at the thought of getting help because of something your parent is doing, but continuing to ignore the impacts his or her addiction has on you will only perpetuate an already difficult situation. Seeing a therapist can help you with the following:

    • Identifying feelings 
    • Processing difficult emotions
    • Addressing trauma resulting from your parent’s substance abuse
    • Providing you with the tools to comfortably set boundaries 
    • Learning how to practice self-care during a time of chaos

Seeing a therapist can help with a number of other things including these, as well as help you get connected to local support. Common support groups (such as Al-Anon) can provide you with a support network of people who share similar experiences and work to build strength and hope in the face of addiction. In some communities, there are even meetings geared towards adult children of alcoholics/addicts. Seeking out groups such as these can supplement your therapy in several beneficial ways.


There is no doubt that when addiction is occurring in your family, your own personal odds of struggling with substance abuse in the future are higher than most. Since addiction is often caused by a combination of genetics and environment, many families experience generations of addicts and alcoholics. And even though this is a common occurrence, it does not mean that if you have addiction in your family, you cannot break the cycle. 

As with most any other issue that you face in your life, you can learn how to deal with active addiction in a productive, healthy way so that addiction can stop with you. You do not need to accept a life of unpredictability and chaos just because that is what you have been presented with. 

That is why educating yourself and seeking help can help you make leaps and bounds in breaking this cycle for good. When you develop the skills needed to manage your parent’s addiction in your life, you are dramatically reducing your likelihood of using, which then reduces your children’s likelihood of using, and so on. Addiction may not have started with you, but you have the power to make it stop with you. 

So, if you are struggling with addiction in your family, know that you are not alone. Know that you do not need to accept the dysfunction that comes with this disease. If you need help getting a parent into treatment, do not hesitate to reach out for help. Call us right now to learn more about how you can help yourself and help your parent, too. 

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