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What to Do if Your Child Is Struggling With Addiction

Elena Hill, MD, MPH profile image
By Elena Hill, MD, MPH • Updated Mar 25, 2023 • 15 cited sources

Addiction greatly impacts not only the individual but the family unit as a whole. When a parent realizes that their child is living with a substance use disorder (SUD), it can be devastating. They may feel powerless, angry, sad, and fearful. These emotional responses are normal.

But the good news is that parents have the power to help their children in a unique way, sometimes in a way no one else can.  

Understanding of the nature of addiction and the options available for treatment, paired with quick action, parents can help their children to stop misusing substances. They can connect their children with the help and support they need to address underlying issues and stay in recovery. 

Addiction Is a Family Disease 

In addition to being a medical disorder, addiction is a disease the permeates everyone in the family.[1] 

No one in the family is immune to the problems associated with addiction. Research shows that, in many circumstances, many or all other family members can be negatively impacted by a loved one’s struggle with addiction.[2]

Knowing how to deal with a loved one’s addiction is not a skill that comes naturally.[3] It may take time to see the signs of addiction in your child. It takes time to recognize those signs for what they are and realize that intervention is needed. It can take time to explore options and find out what is appropriate for your child. 

Along the course of this journey, each person in the family is impacted and their mental health can suffer.[4] Depression, anxiety, mood swings, nightmares, and insomnia — all of these are perfectly normal responses to seeing someone you love struggle with a substance use disorder.

Ultimately, addiction is a family disease because it affects the whole family. It is essential that everyone in the home be supported, not just the individual with SUD.

Why Does My Child Use Drugs?

Just like adults, children use drugs for a wide variety of reasons. 

Depression, anxiety, and poor self-esteem are common in adolescents and teens. Because of this, some turn to alcohol and drugs as a method of escape. 

When they are drunk or high, they don’t feel the discomfort of these negative feelings. Unfortunately, once the substances wear off, the symptoms of depression and anxiety often worsen, deepening a cycle of substance misuse and spiraling feelings.

Peer pressure is a significant factor. Your child may have started using drugs in an effort to fit in with their friends.

Certain kids are more susceptible to substance misuse. These are some of the factors that increase the likelihood of your child developing a problem with drugs or alcohol:[5]

  • Poor self-image
  • History of trauma or abuse
  • Dysfunctional home life
  • Family members who misuse substances
  • Rejection from parents or close friends
  • Poor performance at school
  • Exposure to drugs or alcohol at a young age
  • Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder

What to Do as a Parent of a Child With SUD

If you think your child may have a problem with substance misuse or a substance use disorder, here are some steps to take: 

  1. Address the situation proactively. Do not sit back and hope that the situation will blow over or write off your child’s behaviors as being “a part of growing up.” Early use of any substance, including marijuana, is a risk factor for developing an addiction in adulthood that will define their life or even end it.[6] Take action immediately if you see signs of  substance misuse in your child. 
  2. Set boundaries. Addressing substance misuse with your child involves having a frank conversation about boundaries. If you are co-parenting with an ex-partner, it is important for all parents to be on the same page and included in this conversation, as the boundaries should be in place at all times wherever the child is spending time.[7] Setting a no-tolerance boundary in one home but not at the other home will send mixed messages. 
  3. Establish known consequences for crossing those boundaries. Effective rules have consequences. Make it clear up front that if your child chooses to violate rules or boundaries, there will be consequences. 
  4. Follow through on those consequences if your child crosses boundaries. Without follow-through, boundaries and consequences are meaningless. If it was made clear that there would be a zero-tolerance policy for substance use, it is essential that you follow through with the established consequence. 
  5. Connect with treatment. If you have a consequence in place that does not include treatment and the substance misuse happens again, or if it is clear that your child’s substance misuse is stopping them from being functional and safe, it is time to connect with treatment. Effective treatment for addiction is comprehensive care that has been tailored to your child’s needs. Depending on the situation, this might mean Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT), group therapy, family counseling, and talk or experiential therapies.

    Bicycle Health can help you determine the best path forward for your child’s treatment plan based on their drug of choice, history of substance misuse treatment, co-occurring mental health or medical disorders, and personal situation. 

How to Talk to Your Child About Their Substance Misuse 

It sounds like a simple first step, but finding the words is not always easy when it comes to initiating an open and honest conversation with your child about their use of substances. Here are some tips to help you navigate this sensitive conversation:[8]

  • Choose your timing well. Your child should not be under the influence, overly tired, about to leave the house or go to bed, sick, or otherwise heavily focused on something else. The same applies to you. Choose a time when you are well rested and prepared.
  • Try to keep emotions in check. As an adult, you know the possible outcomes when anyone, let alone a child, misuses drugs and alcohol. It’s important to not allow that fear to overtake you and come out through yelling or crying. If you keep calm, it will help to keep the conversation focused. Remember that the goal is to help your child, not to win an argument.
  • Have a plan for what you will say. Do you want to ask them about their substance use? Do you want to voice your concern and give them a chance to share their experience? Do you want to help them connect with treatment?

    Whatever it is that you would like to result from this conversation, know what you want to say in advance, so you get everything out in the open. If you are prepared, you’ll have the best chance of accomplishing your goal.
  • Listen more than you speak. You have important things to say, but it is essential that you also listen to your child. Ask them open-ended questions that invite them to share their experience with you. Hear what they have to say about their use of substances, the value they find in it, the friends they use with, or their experience with trying to stop, if any. When you hear the specifics of the issues they are facing, you will be better equipped to help them.
  • Remember your focus. Despite your best efforts, this can become an emotional conversation, and depending on your child’s response, it can be very easy to get off track. Keep focused on your plan for the conversation and bring it back to that at every opportunity.
  • Offer your support. No matter the reason for your child’s use of substances, it can and will continue to be a scary issue. Let them know that you love them and you care about helping them overcome this problem. Tell them that you will support them in that process.

When to Stage an Intervention

In some cases, an intervention can help your child prepare for treatment. The goal of an intervention is to help the person who is struggling with SUD to accept help and enter treatment.

If your child is under 18, it’s up to you whether they go to treatment. If you are dealing with an adult child, they must agree to treatment on their own, except in special circumstances. 

If you think an intervention is a good choice for your family, it’s helpful to reach out to professionals ahead of time to help you prepare. They can give you resources for exactly where you can bring your child to get the help they need. 

Addiction Treatment Therapies 

There are benefits to each of the following therapeutic interventions for the treatment of substance use disorder. The best results come when the right combination of treatments is customized for the specific individual in recovery. 

  • Medication for Addiction Treatment: Especially in the case of opioid use disorder, Suboxone can be helpful. It lessens withdrawal symptoms and cravings, so individuals can focus on recovery. 
  • Other medications: Other medications may sometimes be prescribed to manage specific withdrawal symptoms. If there are co-occurring medical or mental health issues, medication may be recommended.
  • Family therapy: Working together with a therapist can help you and your child rebuild your relationship.[9] This therapy can be vital for healing the family unit.
  • Individual therapy: In one-on-one therapy, your child can work through issues that may be underlying or driving their drug use. 
  • Group therapy: Undergoing therapy in a group setting may be a helpful way to reinforce new habits and healthy perspectives. 
  • Support groups: In a community of peers who are also striving to remain in recovery, your child sees that they are not alone in their struggles. They can find encouragement in others their age who have maintained recovery.

It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all option for treatment that will be effective. Any effective treatment program will begin with a full medical history and discussion about the goals of treatment for your specific child. 

In many cases, all of the above treatments will not be necessary. In other cases, they will be.

What Not to Do When Your Child Has a SUD

Even with the best intentions, we all make mistakes. When your child is struggling with a substance use disorder, it’s easy to react emotionally and later regret the way you handled a conversation or situation. 

Here are some things to avoid when your child is struggling with addiction:

  • Do not take it personally. Too often, parents blame themselves when their child develops an addiction.[10] Self-blame does nothing to help your child and adds an unnecessary burden on you as the parent. Remember that addiction is never anyone’s fault, including yours.
  • Do not expect your child to be able to stop using drugs and alcohol if they have a substance use disorder. Addiction is a disease, not a choice that your child is actively making.[11] Even if they genuinely want to make changes, SUD may require pharmacologic treatment. They need professional help to stop substance misuse.
  • Do not expect treatment to work immediately. It takes time to undo the changes in the brain caused by addiction, and it takes time to develop new habits and perspectives. Temper your expectations.

    Relapse is often part of the recovery process. It is not a sign of failure.
  • Do not turn your attention away from the rest of your family. It is easy and natural for the person with SUD to become the main focus of your time and energy, but don’t forget that your other family members need you, your significant other needs you, and you need all of them too. Make sure the feelings and needs of all family members are considered in the healing process.[12]
  • Do not stop taking care of yourself. If you yourself are not doing well, you will not have the energy to help your child or the other people in your family. Prioritize your own self-care.

Drug Testing Your Child

It is not recommended that you drug test your child. It places you in the position of police officer rather than parent.[13]

Additionally, there are many nuances to drug tests. Not all tests look for all drugs, and it can be awkward to force your child to pee into a cup in order to provide a sample for a urine test. It is far better to connect them with treatment providers who will determine whether or not drug testing is needed for your child. 

Taking Care of Yourself Even When Your Child Is Struggling

Self-care is important all the time, but when you are the caregiver of someone who is living with a chronic disorder like addiction, it is essential. 

Whenever possible, take breaks to give yourself some physical and emotional space. This is recommended in addition to a daily self-care regimen that attends to your emotional and mental health.[14] 

self-care routine may include the following:[15]

  • Get enough sleep. 
  • Eat healthfully. 
  • Sustain treatment for chronic disorders. 
  • Spend time with friends.
  • Talk to a professional about all you have going on. 
  • Use support groups for other parents or caregivers supporting someone in recovery

Resources & Support Groups for Families Dealing With Addiction

There are many support groups dedicated to helping families who are struggling with addiction. Many groups provide specialized support to parents who have a child with SUD. Here are a couple:

  • Al-Anon Family Groups: Al-Anon, a sister program to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), is designed for family members of people living with addiction. 
  • Parents of Addicted Loved Ones (PAL): Parents of Addicted Loved Ones groups are available across the country. They are another option for support for parents who are struggling to come to terms with their child’s SUD.

    PALS provides support outside of the 12-step model on which Al-Anon groups are based. Instead, PALS focuses on connection and support among parents who are struggling with the same issue. 
  • Parents of Drug Addicted Children: This online group lives on Facebook. It provides a safe space for parents to ask questions and connect with resources while getting and giving support from other parents of children with substance use disorders. 
  • Parents of Addicted Children NON FAITH Support Group: This online group also lives on Facebook. The group provides support to parents of children living with a substance use disorder who want to leave spirituality out of the discussion. Support is lovingly provided as parents share resources and support. 
  • Moms of Adult Addicts, Moms Thriving Together: This online Facebook group is 14,000 members strong. It is specifically for mothers of children who are grown and often no longer living at home. 
  • National Association for Children of Addiction (NACOA): This association hosts resources for parents and kids alike. You can find information and resources to support recovery from addiction. 
  • National Drug Abuse Hotline: You can access resources and get answers to your questions by dialing the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

By Elena Hill, MD, MPH

Elena Hill, MD; MPH received her MD and Masters of Public Health degrees at Tufts Medical School and completed her family medicine residency at Boston Medical Center. She is currently an attending physician at Bronxcare Health Systems in the Bronx, NY where ... Read More

  1. Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction – Drugs and the Brain. National Institute on Drug Abuse. July 2020. Accessed April 2022. 
  2. The Impact of Substance Use Disorders on Families and Children: From Theory to Practice. Social Work in Public Health July 2013. Accessed April 2022. 
  3. Addiction as a Family Affliction. Psychology Today May 2016. Accessed April 2022. 
  4. The Impact of Addiction on Family Members Mental Health Status. Current Drug Research Reviews 2019. Accessed April 2022. 
  5. Substance Abuse in Children: Prediction, Protection, and Prevention. Pediatric Adolescent Medicine. October 1998. Accessed February 2023. 
  6. An Examination of the Association Between Early Initiation of Substance Use and Interrelated Multilevel Risk and Protective Factors Among Adolescents. PLOS ONE December 2019. Accessed April 2022. 
  7. Rules for Coparenting. Between Two Homes: Helping Families Raise Children Between Two Homes. LLC: Accessed April 2022. 
  8. Supporting a Loved One Dealing with Mental and/ or Substance Use Disorders: Starting the Conversation. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed April 2022. 
  9. Building Resiliency in Families Impacted by Addiction. Community Solutions Pathways. Accessed April 2022. 
  10. Guilt, Blame, and Responsibility: The Experiences of Parents and Clinicians Providing Services to Adolescents With Co-Occurring Mental Health and Substance Abuse Challenges.. Virginia Commonwealth University. 2013. Accessed April 2022. 
  11. Treatment & Recovery: Is Addiction a Disease? Partnership to End Addiction. Accessed April 2022. 
  12. Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed April 2022.
  13. Should You Drug Test Your Child? Partnership to End Addiction. Accessed April 2022. 
  14. Caring for Yourself When Caring for Another. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. October 2019. Accessed April 2022. 
  15. 40+ Simple Ideas for Creating the Ultimate Self-Care Routine. Good Housekeeping January 2022. Accessed April 2022.

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