Kids Can Recover Despite Their Parents

The concept of substance abuse and recovery is more understood by the general public than ever before. Through events like the Art of Recovery Expo ( and organizations like the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence ( and movies like 28 Days, Drunks, and Clean and Sober, the public has become more and more aware of the symptoms of substance abuse and the options that are available to treat it.

That has made for an interesting trend that I’ve been noticing in my practice for about the past 10 years. It seems that younger people are so much more aware of the seriousness of alcohol and drug abuse that they are more likely to get into intensive treatment, earlier than their parents’ generation. This makes for an interesting dynamic when one or more of their parents also has a substance abuse problem.

When a teen is in a residential, inpatient, or intensive outpatient treatment program, although the desire to get into recovery may be strong, the desire to get out of the program and back to their important social lives is generally just as strong, if not stronger, so they’re not necessarily going to be willing to spend more time in any such program than is absolutely necessary. That being the case, it puts the kids in a weird position when it comes to having family meetings as part of their treatment.

The kids may have enough treatment to have figured out that although they had a drug or alcohol problem, it’s pretty clear that one or both of their parents are also drug or alcohol addicted and there comes a time in the kids’ treatment when they really want to confront mom or dad about their use, but to do so puts them at risk for making mom or dad even more angry than they already are, and puts the kid at risk for being stuck in the program for a longer time (or so the kid might think). So, they are put into a position where they had to get real to engage in their own healing, but they still cannot get real with mom and dad, who, in turn, have not gotten real with themselves and with each other. So, nothing is ever brought up during the kids’ treatment experience and eventually the child is discharged and the parents’ use has never been challenged.

So, the kid makes it successfully through the treatment program , but then goes back into the environment where mom and dad appear to be good, upstanding citizens, paying their taxes, going to work and church, and holding 4th of July barbecues, but where mom always has a glass of wine at night, or two, or sometimes three, but rarely four, and hardly ever five… or where dad is a ‘thirsty guy’ who ‘likes his beer.’ How is the kid, newly in recovery, supposed to handle that?

Well, they have several unappealing choices – 1) Confront the parents, 2) Ignore the parents’ behavior, or 3) Relapse.

Kids new in recovery can feel very bold and begin confronting their parents relentlessly, much to their parents’ chagrin. Conflict can become worse than when the kid was using because a kid with a clear head and armed with the knowledge that he is right and his parents are wrong is a powerful adversary. Parents can become defensive and belligerent towards the newly-recovering child and everyone can end up feeling pretty lousy. And, unfortunately, when parents and children argue, even if the child is right, the child never wins.

Kids also have the option of just ignoring their parents’ drug or alcohol abuse and going on with their own lives. This feels really bad especially when you just finished learning how deadly untreated substance abuse can be. Kids will become worried about the parents, angry at the parents, hostile towards the parents, and frustrated that there’s nothing they can do.

Unfortunately, some kids who get clean end up relapsing because their substance-dependant parents send the child addict-designed messages that are incongruent with what the child just learned in treatment. Who is the kid gonna believe? His parents, or some therapists at some center in Utah? Sadly, many kids go back to using and sometimes parents even welcome that since it means they will no longer be confronted about their behavior. By the time the situation deteriorates significantly again, the kid may well be out of the house, and busy creating another addicted family.

However, kids have at least one wise choice they can make and that is to stay connected to their recovery resources and talk to other recovering addicts about their situation. Kids can maintain their sobriety and their sanity, even if their parents keep using, if they go to meetings, call friends and sponsors, volunteer for recovery events, read recovery literature, hang out with sober friends and their sober parents, and steer clear of their parents when they’re using as much as possible without getting into trouble for being away from home too much. Although it is difficult, kids can stay sober despite having addicted parents!

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