Learning to Trust Your Adult Child in Recovery
By Heather Rolland, LCSW
Can you imagine applying to become a parent as if it were a competitive job? Imagine the job description: physical care, emotional care, financial support … and then all the potential contingencies. Navigating the first 18 or so years is hard enough, but for some parents, the next few steps—the letting go and releasing your child, now a young adult, into the world—may be the hardest. For a parent who has been through the wrenching process of helping a child identify and treat an addiction and enter recovery, this next step may feel like the hardest one of all.
Addiction and Control Issues
For the person with an addiction to alcohol or other substances, the links between addiction and control issues may seem pretty straightforward. Some people see addiction as a self-control issue, and while that isn’t the whole story, addiction does ultimately lead to loss of control over the substance. The first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program is all about admitting powerlessness over alcohol, and this powerlessness certainly leads to loss of control.
However, control issues in a family affected by addiction are more complex and subtle than simply the loss of control over the substance. Often a person experiencing the increasing loss of control over drinking or drugs will try to compensate in another area of life, becoming controlling and rigid regarding career-oriented issues or house cleaning, for example. And very commonly, if one family member behaves in a way that is out of control, other family members try to manage or counteract that behavior by swinging the pendulum in the other direction—being overly controlling in other aspects of family life. The out-of-control emotions and behaviors that tend to go hand-in-hand with addiction lead to everyone in the system having to deal with control issues in some way or another.
We begin our parenting lives by taking control of a helpless infant. Being in control is required and overwhelming. I know for me, this awesome responsibility was what my postpartum depression was all about: the terrifying reality that I was completely responsible for and in control of another living being. We spend the next 18 years gradually relinquishing that control, carefully, piece by piece, as our children take on responsibilities and control over their own lives. But for the parent of a teen who developed an addiction and fought through it to enter recovery, those last few steps of handing over the reins and letting your child—now adult—control his or her own life can be terribly difficult. For a child who still lives at home, this has one set of challenges, but what if your child joins the Peace Corps, the military or is accepted at a university far away from your home? What if you child simply announces that for this summer break between semesters, he or she plans to drive cross-country or travel in Europe? How can you be the supportive parent you are, while feeling terrified that your child’s recovery is at stake? Here are some pointers for surviving the distance and separation from your adult child in recovery:
- Acknowledge your own control issues. You need to be honest with yourself about exactly where you fall on the control continuum. Some of what you’re feeling may be as much about you and your issues as it is about the very real risks your child faces. If you can admit that you are struggling with your own need to be in control, that’s a great first step. Consider trying Al-Anon, or therapy or both, to work through your own internal struggles regarding control.
- Assess your child’s level of risk as honestly as you can. It is easy as a parent to freak out about independent forays into the world, but take a very sober look at what your child has proposed (or done). Is it a fishing trip off the coast of Somalia (let’s call that a 10+ on the risk scale)? Or is it a writer’s retreat on the coast of Maine (let’s pretend this is a 1)? Is your son, who has struggled with alcohol addiction, joining a fraternity notorious for drinking activities? Although any situation in which your child is far away from you may be tough to accept, be honest with yourself about just how much risk your child is facing compared to staying home with you. If the actual risk is fairly low, but your response involves intense distress, this might be about you and your issues. Maybe this separation from you is an incredible gift for both of you as you will both grow from it.
- Worst-case scenario is that your best assessment of the risk factors for your child leads you to believe that your child’s current plans are foolhardy. If your kid really is courting disaster, you should communicate your concerns. Be blunt, be honest, explain what you think the risks are and why, and offer support to come up with alternatives. Your child may react in any number of ways, including completely ignoring your worries. Your child’s response is something you cannot control. Clarify exactly what you’ll be willing to do to help if help becomes needed and what you will not be willing to do (e.g., you won’t lend money or the car but you will rent the attic room at a reduced rate if she needs to return home). The hardest part? Don’t wish for the worst because it seems inevitable. Your child may be stronger or more resilient than you know. Be honest about likelihoods and then be as hopeful and positive as you can.