Parent and child dynamics are complicated. But when you have a parent with substance use issues, it brings a very painful reality to that equation. While there is no singular answer to coping with the impact of substance use disorder on your relationship with a caretaker —whether you are still living in the same house, or trying to manage some form of communication outside of it — there are tools and support to help with the challenges you face. The impacts are real, both if you experienced it growing up, if it's something you are dealing with in the present day, or both.
"Living in a home with a parent struggling with a substance use disorder can be chaotic and confusing for [their] children," Bridgette Vail-Powlick, MA, MBA, executive director, Footprints to Recovery, Pennsylvania, tells Bustle. "Structured routines and schedules are replaced by commotion and unpredictability. Parental behavior can be erratic and expectations are often unclear."
Especially if you witness the struggle with substance use and the resulting behaviors when you are young, parents may underestimate their children’s awareness and understanding of their use and deny their children what they already know to be true, Vail-Powlick says. It can make for an incredibly confusing and unsafe home environment.
"Children of parents with substance use disorders can be impacted physically, emotionally, and behaviorally in the present and well into the future," Vail-Powlick says. "Toxic relationships, unhealthy behaviors and codependency can shape the world around children and interrupt the development of healthy, supported relationships necessary for development."
Children should be encouraged to speak with their support system including coaches, teachers, neighbors and other family members, Vail Powlick says. Professional resources like social workers and school counselors are available and should be encouraged. There are also groups like Al-Anon, Ala-Teen, and Adult Children of Alcoholics. Unfortunately, people are not always able or willing to use these resources, often out of fear, shame, or lack of knowledge about them.
"While many children will attempt to own responsibility when it comes to their parents, the truth is a parent’s substance use disorder is not the child’s fault," Vail-Powlick says. "Children should be reminded that they didn’t cause a parent to abuse drugs or alcohol and they cannot cure or control it."
Appropriate boundaries can get easily blurred with parents who struggle with substances, and this is often a result of their impaired judgment, Karisma Silacci, L.C.S.W. of Untangled Thoughts, tells Bustle. This makes effectively communicating with them difficult, and in fact impossible while they are under the influence.
"Be mindful that you are likely the more level-headed person in the conversation and arguing isn't going to be productive," Silacci says, but setting clear boundaries is incredibly important for your well-being. The process of setting boundaries with your parents might upset them — but they are for your mental safety, not theirs. Boundaries can mean things like saying, "no calls after 6pm because I know that's when you start using," or "Do not call me at work when you have been using," Silacci says.
"These are difficult conversations to have, but they are necessary," Silacci says. "'I' statements are great to use with these type of parents because it helps them realize that you still love them, and aren't blaming them for 100% of the problem. Instead of 'Your drinking is ruining our family,' try 'I feel sad when you drink and pick fights with us.' Instead of 'You're always drunk when you call me,' try 'I feel disappointed when you call after you've been drinking and we can't have a healthy conversation.'"
Of course, if you are living in the house with a parent or parents who abuse substances, the challenges become more immediate, and Silacci says that having a safety plan is key.
"Know who to turn to for help, know when it's time to ask for help, and know how much you can handle," Silacci says. This is not an easy process — much easier said than done— and it can feel confusing to not only admit that something is wrong, but that you need help in dealing with it. You might have the inclination to keep yourself, or to go on tolerating the behavior — but try to reach past that resistance. Again, reaching out for professional or group support, or doing some online research, can be a great starting point.
"It is not your fault that your parent uses or abuses drugs and alcohol, even if they tell you it is," Silacci says. "You are not in control of their behavior. You only have control of your body and decisions, not theirs."
Silacci says it is allowed and encouraged to let the natural consequences of your parent's substance abuse issues happen. "Don't clean up their puke, don't bail them out, don't hide their secrets," Silacci says.
Mental health clinician Celeste Viciere of The Uniting Center tells Bustle that keeping yourself safe is crucial. On an emotional level, it is important to constantly check in with yourself about how you are feeling, and furthermore, not to keep that pain inside. "It will just manifest in different areas of your life."
If possible, when you know your parent is under the influence trying to keep your distance is crucial, Viciere says. The less engagement the better. When things get bad, if you have a safe space to sleep for the night that will be helpful as well.
"If the environment gets unsafe [to the point] where you are finding yourself struggling and have no other safe space, thinking about a homeless shelter may be a last resort," Viciere says. This could be on a physical or an emotional level.
And remember, Viciere says, whatever point you are at in your relationship to a parent with a substance use disorder, be mindful that you cannot make them change their behavior. While you can speak to them about their behavior or give them literature, if their behavior towards you or the people in your life becomes dysfunctional or toxic, you have to make a conscious decision to love them from a distance.
This kind of relationship with a parental figure is an incredibly difficult thing to endure, and there are inevitable impacts on your well-being. Try to take action to validate that truth as much as you can. Help, healing, and support is out there for you.
Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).
Celeste Viciere, LMHC Licensed Mental Health Clinician of The Uniting Center
Bridgette Vail-Powlick, MA, MBA, Executive Director, Footprints to Recovery, Pennsylvania,