Jeremy Grunfeld, Ph.D., LMFT


As the holiday season approaches, it is a good time to think about how you are going to interact with your adolescent or adult child who is struggling with an addiction. There is a constant inner dilemma between wanting to be supportive and recognizing that there is a need for tough love. The month of December is a time for gift giving and showing your loved ones just how much they mean to you. For a parent whose child is plagued with substance abuse struggles, there is a very fine line between becoming an enabler and being a caring parent.

People who have active addictions are very savvy at convincing others to do things for them. They are used to doing or saying whatever it takes in order to get their wants met. Parents often feel sorry for their children when they recognize that they have lost most of their material possessions in an attempt to maintain their substance abuse habits. Often, children will express remorse to their parents in regard to things that they have stolen from them or pawned to be able to purchase additional drugs or alcohol. It is very important not to give in to the feelings of sympathy or guilt that your children elicit from you.

Over the past few years, parents have tried to implement behavioral changes in their teenage and adult children. Instead of giving money to buy food or gas, many parents have resorted to gift cards. The intent was to limit their spending to specific stores and items that would not be harmful to them. People in active addiction quickly turned the tables and began to trade these gift cards for their drugs of choice. In addition to being given gift cards, many children have returned the clothing that their parents purchased for them at the department stores. These store credits became bartering tools for receiving drugs and alcohol. Although you might not have the ability to think like an addict, recognize that most material possessions have some street value today.

In an attempt to show love and support for your child with a substance abuse problem, there are many things that you can do which will not enable addictive behaviors. Holiday gifts can include hand written letters expressing love for your child, scrapbooks depicting the positive and drug free times in your child’s life, self-help books to encourage positive change, calming and soothing music, going out to a favorite restaurant for dinner, picking a recreational activity to participate in together, and making a video collage from all of the different supports that your child has in his or her life.

The holiday season is also a time where many families host or attend parties. Many addicts believe that marijuana usage and alcohol consumption are alright as long as they do not engage in more hard core drugs. A true life of sobriety means disengaging from all substances. It is important not to bring or put your child in circumstances that can trigger cravings or maladaptive behaviors. Avoid serving alcohol at your holiday parties and turn down invitations for family events in which your child will be tempted to relapse.

Giving back to the community can also be an invaluable lesson to your child during the holiday season. Bring your son or daughter to a soup kitchen in order to serve the needy. Volunteer with foster children so that your child can begin to recognize how much more fortunate he or she is compared to others. Participate in a Habitat for Humanity project in order to teach your child the significance of hard work and dedication. All of these activities will show your child that there is a lot to be gained from engaging in sober activities. As well, they will build an increased self- confidence that most addicts don’t have during their active addictions.

January 1st becomes the time of the year in which many addicts make a resolution not to continue with their substance abuse challenges. Be supportive of your child’s intent, even if you do not feel as if your child is vested in the process. Encourage him or her to seek support for the struggles that occur on a regular basis.

Recognize that no one individual has the ability to meet every need of another and that you might need to seek professional help for both yourself and your child. Find a local support group where you can make new contacts with people who are facing similar struggles. Knowing that you are not alone and that other people think and feel in a similar manner can be very cathartic.

If there have already been numerous attempts at help, try not
to feel as if the situation is hopeless. There are times where a different therapist, new peers in a group, or a different setting can elicit the first of many new changes. Encourage your child to contribute to his or her treatment. There is more value and effort made when addicts have to work for the money towards the therapeutic services that they are receiving. Often, parents feel the need to step in and save the day. Psychotherapy requires insight and work beyond the session with the therapist. Recognize that things often get worse before they get better.

The holiday season can be scary for parents who have children plagued by addiction. They do not have to be though. Show your love and support for your child while maintaining boundaries that encourage sober living. Allow yourself to celebrate this time of year even if your life feels like it is unraveling. Recognize and acknowledge the blessings that you do have, and find ways to give back to the community. Focus on your child’s strengths, and have faith that each new day is an opportunity for a fresh start.

Most importantly though, the holiday season should be a time for you to focus on yourself. So much of your time has been spent worrying about your child who has a substance abuse problem. Recognize that you have done the best that you knew how to do, and allow yourself to continue with your own life.

You are not responsible for his or her addiction.

Make an effort to speak to people that you have not touch based with in awhile, or get together with local family and friends.

Your own support system is paramount to your well-being. If you are not in an emotionally good place for yourself, then you will be unable to be there for your child.

Dr. Jeremy Grunfeld is entering his 20th year in the Mental Health and Substance Abuse field. He earned his Bachelor’s degree from Rutger’s University and his Masters and Doctoral degree from Nova Southeastern University.