How Divorced Parents Can Best Support Their Addicted Child

By Ava Diamond, LCSW

divorced parents ignoring each other

There is a reason or two that you are divorced from your child’s other parent. More likely than not, you don’t see eye-to-eye on a few things. Too often, the Great Divide that occurs between parents through years leading up to and going through divorce serves as the fertile land of manipulation for many adolescent or young adult children. Throw some drug use into the mix and the Great Divide becomes the Great Demise of life as you thought it would be for the child you love.

In my work over the past two decades with families facing the detriment of addiction (note: I use the label of addiction to cover ANY self-harming behaviors that interfere with optimal functioning: eating disorders, cutting behaviors, internet obsession, sexual promiscuity, etc.), I have encountered every which way that divorced couples could approach the condition of their child’s life. Often, I have held separate mother: child and father: child family therapy sessions in order to enhance each relationship independent of the other. This is actually important regardless of how well the co-parenting system is functioning. The only way that divorced parents actually FAIL their responsibilities as parents is when they cannot separate out their feelings and ideas about the other parent from their relationship work with their child. You have heard it before, yes? They even try to emphasize it in divorce decrees that neither parent shall disparage the other to the child. Truth be told, rare is this agreement upheld after raising the right hand in court. When your child is struggling with addiction however, this commitment to your role as parents must become of primary concern and that means that your experiences with the other parent must be kept at the curb.

On the flip side, I have been fortunate to witness the power of co-parenting to heal at least one part of the parent’s relationship and allow for the greatest opportunity for recovery for their shared child. Parents are often surprised when I tell them that, in fact, I do not believe they have to be “on the same page” (a concept that is usually unappealing to a parent who at some level dislikes the other parent) but in the “same chapter”. I explain that children (especially teens) do well with learning about different styles of parenting as long as the parents are aligned in the following two ways:

*Core Values are shared and conveyed uniquely in each home. The child learns how the same values can be exercised in different ways. For example, “doing your best” may come from Father as “your grades are good, but I expect you to do whatever it takes to bring them up this semester” and from Mother as, “Do you believe you did your best? Are you willing to ask your teacher for extra help?” One approach is clearly stated, no discussion while another approach is to question for motivation. Both send the message that improvement is possible and hoped for by the parents.

*Basic Assumptions (or the less palatable word: RULES) regarding accountability and sobriety are consistently adhered to in both homes. Honesty, abstinence, adherence to curfew and communication etc. are all rules of accountability and sobriety that serve as the Safety Net between two homes of divorced parents. If nothing else, casting this Safety Net is potentially the only way to create the necessary structure and support that gives your teen and young adult child the best opportunity for recovery.

Casting the Safety Net

So, how do you join with the person you went through potentially so much to separate from in order to help your child heal and develop his or her best potential? How do you put aside your own insecurities, resentments, and furies in order to put your energy into being the best Mother or Father you can be right now?

1. Cover up your buttons for a while. Did you know it was pos- sible to NOT let your buttons get pushed by the person you divorced? Well, it is. In fact, if you can remain mindful of what you need to attend to in your role as a parent of a struggling child, you will divert your emotional attention and reduce your vulnerability to perceived provocation. Accepting simply that “there are reasons I am divorced” and that in fact…

2. The person you are no longer married to can have no emo- tional power in your daily life, you will find the freedom to cover up and potentially eliminate your buttons. 3. Validate validate validate. Validate yourself, validate your ex- spouse, and validate your child for having to deal with this very hard disease. Without judgment or interpretation, just acknowl- edge the challenge you are all facing (albeit in your own ways).

4. Hire a very, very skilled therapist to support the casting of the net. Find a therapist who understands that “same page” isn’t going to fly, but as long as you are in the same “chapter” you will have success. The same “chapter” refers to the stage of life and stage of recovery that your child is in and parenting accordingly with Core Values and Basic Assumptions in place. That Therapist should be able to effectively develop a Family Contract with input from all three parties that is based on compromise. I often explain to my families that compromise does not mean one has to relinquish ideas to the other. Com- Promise is the development of a “Common Promise” designed to foster trust through increased responsibility, accountability, and communication practices between parents and child…and sometimes between parent and parent even when divorced for the sake of the child.

One of the most powerful experiences that a teen or young adult child can have is bridging the gap between divorced parents. If their recovery (as opposed to their active addiction) can serve as a vehicle for better communication between you as parents, it seems to reinforce the value of sobriety. You don’t have to like each other for this to happen.

Ava Diamond, LCSW has developed her expertise in family sys- tems and addiction treatment. She brings her pioneering leadership style to her clinical work as a program development consultant to treatment facilities and educational institutions. Currently, Ms. Diamond is implementing her family program, “Family Matters”, for Westport House, supportive sober living for young men, in West- port, CT.