KNOWING IF, WHEN, AND HOW TO LET GO OF AN ADULT CHILD WITH AN ACTIVE USE DISORDER

Beverly Buncher, MA, PCC, CTPC, BALM Family Recovery Life Coach

Being a parent (or a sibling of a using adult) is not easy.

I remember being pregnant with my daughter. It was a cold winter morning and I was at work with morning sickness.

As I walked out of the john looking pale at best, a colleague put her hand on my shoulder and said, “This is the easiest part. Just wait ‘til the baby is born!”

I didn’t understand at all. Having never had a baby, I was filled with fantasies of the wonders of parenthood. My confusion must have shown on my face. She went on. “One of my babies had colic and I didn’t sleep for months on end and now my kids are in my teens – the worry alone is enough to make me yearn for the simplicity of morning sickness.”

The point of her message sunk in as my nausea subsided. I never forgot that conversation.

I asked her at the time why she’d never told me this before…in fact, why no one had. She replied, “No one tells a woman how hard parenting really is or she’d never agree to get pregnant. And after all, there are so many good times.”

Memories can be golden. And if your adult child has a use disorder, memories may be the best part of your parenting these days. The baby pictures, the early years, pushing him on a swing, teaching her to ride a bike.

Each act seemingly leading the child, step-by-step, to their independence and the parent, bit-by-bit to being able to let go.

But when your child gets sidetracked by drugs and alcohol, the risks of independence and fears of letting go get magnified and bent way out of proportion. It’s upsetting to watch a child fail again and again. It’s frustrating. It’s expensive. It’s depleting. It’s exasperating. It’s frightening. So, risky teen and young adult behavior often goes hand-in-hand with parents staying parents, not letting go, pulling out all the stops, trying anything and everything to help their child “launch” a healthy adulthood.

And of course, the expensive part assumes the parent has resources to help the child with lawyer fees, treatment, insurance co-pays, transportation, apartments, repeated moves, etc.

But what about the parent who doesn’t?

Or what about the parent who’s been “helping” for four, five, six years, watching their child jump from treatment center to jail to treatment center, who just can’t do it anymore or just doesn’t want to? Or just doesn’t see the potential or the value in sinking anymore time, money, effort, emotion, pain or sorrow into getting their adult child to get sober?

How many times should that parent pay for treatment or bail them out? Of course, there is no one right answer to this question. Some parents answer this question by simply continuing to do so until all of their funds and possessions are depleted. We have all heard stories of people whose children got clean after 12, 13 or even 15 treatment stays, so, when they can, parents will often keep trying as long as they can.

The Alanon and Naranon rooms are filled with parents who have tried every treatment center, every therapist, every program and every lawyer possible, as well as with parents who are still doing so. Some wouldn’t have it any other way.

“She is my child. I cannot ignore her need.”

“All the money in the world is useless without my family members alive and well. I will fight this disease with every penny I’ve got.”

Others would like to stop, but every time they are ready to, their child convinces them that this time will be the last time and this time everything will be different. But usually, it isn’t the last time and everything is the same this time as last.

Still, other parents early on see their child’s use disorder as an endless money pit that will only take them down with their child. Perhaps they saw a brother or sister rob their parents blind and made a promise to themselves that they would never let anyone do that to them.

And of course, there are those, often on the recovery path themselves, either in Alanon for family members or recovering from their own substance or other use disorder, who see that they cannot help their child by pouring money at the problem. That the decision to get well will have to be their child’s.

Regardless of the path parents take, as they watch their child deteriorate as a result of drug and alcohol use, the pain and suffering is enormous. Often, they have less interest in the friends they so enjoyed while their kids were growing up together, for now their own children have taken a path toward destruction, while their friends’ kids all seem to be following the path they had hoped their own children would take: from high school to college, and on to a career or+ graduate school and marriage and a family.

“It’s just too painful to hear about all of the milestones their kids are taking,” shared one client whose child was in her fourth treatment center in just as many years.

“I’d rather just stay home and watch TV, rather than hear their stories of college applications, and Spring Break,” shared another whose son had been in prison for possession with intent to sell.

“I’m finding myself celebrating his willingness to do chores in prison while other moms are looking forward to high school and college graduations, homecoming and proms,” said a mom whose son had been in prison for armed robbery in a pharmacy.

There are those who say that every time you help a person with a use disorder get out of a consequence, you are helping to kill them. It is important to help a child grow up, and facing consequences is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Others say, if you don’t help your child and he or she dies in prison or on the street, you will never be able to forgive yourself.

The truth is, there is no way of knowing the consequence of your behavior and no matter how much protection you give to any child, there is simply not a foolproof method of insuring they will make it through their young life alive.

And then there are those parents who have 30, 40, and 50-year-old children who they are still helping with day-to-day expenses, some of whom, in the throes of a substance or other use disorder, are robbing them on a daily basis. Some, of money and possessions. Others, simply of their peace of mind.

So, when is enough, enough? And how is a parent to know when to pull the plug on helping their child no matter what?

As with every other aspect of parenting, this decision, of when to stop or lower one’s parenting involvement is very personal.

Here are some coaching questions to ask yourself. Some thoughts to ponder, and some tips you may want to consider as you work toward making your decision. To benefit most powerfully from these questions, thoughts and tips, it is recommended that you take out a piece of paper and answer the questions first before reading the thoughts and tips:

Coaching Questions:

1. What is your motivation for continuing to help your adult child?

2. What results has your help created so far?

3. How much of your helping did your loved one ask you for and how much of it did you offer or even force on your loved one?

4. What level of commitment has your adult child demonstrated for their own recovery?

5. How has your giving affected your own resources? Do you still have enough saved for your retirement? Are you able to take care of your own health and living expenses?

Coaching Thoughts and Tips on the Above Questions:

• Motivation is a cagey thing. So, when you ask yourself your motivation, try to go as deep as you can. Are you doing this for your child or for yourself? Is it about helping them or keeping yourself from feeling the pain and fear that inevitably comes when you let go? If you find, as you explore this question of motivation, that much of your helping motivation comes from an effort to stem your own fear and pain, think again. Is it really worth it to keep your child a child just to make yourself feel better?

• In looking at the results your helping has gleaned thus far, you may feel that if your child is still alive you have been successful, and to some extent you have! But, if your adult child is still dependent, still leaning on you and struggling, it may be time to find a new way to help. While there is no guarantee that a new approach will ensure that they grow up, continuing to hold on could likely keep them dependent and struggling. So, if you are looking for a different result and what you have been doing is helping your child live life small, it may be time to try something different.

• When your child has a problem and doesn’t ask for your help, do you jump in and offer? Or, do you listen to the problem and let them know you have confidence in their own ability to find a viable solution? It’s so easy to jump in, so difficult to defer to their own ability to problem solve…especially when you see your own ability as superior to theirs. But you know the old saying: “Good judgment comes from experience which comes from living through the results of bad judgment.” Consider giving your child the gift of having the chance to make their own decisions and live with their own consequences. Believe it or not, usually it is more loving to allow a person to take responsibility for their own life, than it is to jump in and take over.

• When it comes to your adult child’s recovery, who is most interested in it: you or them? While it is true that very few individuals with an active use disorder wake up one day and say, “Gee, isn’t it a lovely day to go into treatment? I think I’ll put myself in,” on the other hand, very few stay in recovery when someone else is more committed to their recovery than they are! Be aware of the level of commitment your adult child has to their recovery. Be encouraging, supportive and positive about their recovery. But, refrain from nagging and coercing them to go to meetings and do things your way. You can ‘Be Your Loved One’s BEST Chance At Recovery’ when you focus on your own recovery as a family member and learn how to communicate lovingly, rather than act as a dictator of how they should live their life.

• As you look at your own resources, ask yourself if you are spending money you don’t have, or soon will wish you still had, on your child’s recovery. Remembering that people get into recovery in their own time, you may want to reconsider your commitment to throwing money at the problem. Regardless of whether your adult child gets into recovery, you will still have bills to pay and food and gas to purchase. But even if money isn’t an issue, ask yourself if the money you are spending is doing what you want it to do: getting your child into recovery. If it is not, maybe you would like to consider another path, that of allowing your child to make his or her own way. It is difficult to face that all the money in the world won’t get a person into recovery if they are not motivated and prepared to do so. But it won’t. And if you don’t have much money to begin with, you may want to learn how to take care of yourself first and learn tools to help you help them make a strong decision to help themselves at this point in their journey.

Being the parent or responsible sibling of an adult with a substance or other use disorder is one of life’s large challenges. There are no easy answers along this path, but there are those who have travelled it before you who can help you through the more difficult parts of the journey. These helpers can be found in Alanon, Nar-anon, Smart Recovery and other family support groups, as well as in therapist and family recovery coaching offices.

No one has the corner on the market of how to get a child into recovery. But at a certain point, the parent of an adult child may want to let go and put the focus back on their own life and examine if and how they will choose to help their loved one going forward. The journey, long and sometimes hard, can be eased by powerful family recovery education coupled with participation in support groups with other parents who are struggling with the same issues of when and how much to let go of their adult child’s struggles.

Insanity has been defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For the parent of a struggling adult child, trying something different may be exactly what is needed to change the dynamics in a family too long assaulted by the debilitating effects of substance or other use disorders in a loved one.

Beverly Buncher is the author of the book BALM- The Loving Path to Family Recovery, founder and creator of the online and in person BALM® Programs designed to help families become their loved one’s BEST chance at recovery. The BALM (Be A Loving Mirror®) Comprehensive Family Education and Coaching Program includes classes, groups, tools, coaching and an online community of learning and support that is accessible 24/7 to members. (Learn more at www.balmfamilyrecovery.com/the-balm-comprehensive)

The BALM Institute for Family Recovery Life Coach Training, which trains Life Coaches specializing in Family Recovery, is the first and only International Coach Federation Accredited Coach Training Program (ICF-ACTP) to focus on recovery. Bev and her cadre of BALM Coaches and faculty help families and loved ones turn chaos to sanity. To invite her to speak about her expertise in helping families or other recovery topics, call 1-888-998-BALM (2256) or visit www.balmfamilyrecovery.com. You can also learn more about the BALM on Bev’s blog at www.balmfamilyrecovery.com/blog