Role Reversal: When Children Must Send Parents to Rehab

Man standing with arm around his son outsideIt’s often parents who seek advice on how to help a child with a substance abuse problem. They want to learn about the disease of addiction and how it alters the behavior of their sons and daughters. They want to find out the best way to approach the situation and how to encourage their children to seek help for their problems. They want to be supportive while their children are in rehab and learn how to make their homes more conducive to recovery. And of course, if it becomes necessary, they might exercise the authority that comes with being a parent in an effort to steer their children toward sobriety.

But what if it’s not the son or daughter who has a substance abuse problem? What happens when it’s the parent who suffers from addiction and it’s the child wondering what to do?

How Parental Addiction Affects Offspring

Parental addiction is the cause for approximately 31 percent of children who are removed from their homes. And unfortunately, child abuse is also often a major accompanying factor. Studies show that up to 80 percent of homes where child abuse takes place have at least one parent struggling with addiction.1 Even when there’s no abuse, parents with substance abuse problems are less capable caregivers, meaning that their children often suffer due to not receiving the level of care they need; At its worst, this can become outright neglect.

There are long-term implications of being raised by an addicted parent, too. Those who were exposed to substance abuse — and perhaps criminal behavior — from a young age come to see this behavior as being “normal,” making them much more likely to repeat these behaviors themselves.2 Furthermore, the dysfunctional relationships that children often have with addicted parents can lead to relationship issues later in life, especially when it comes to intimate relationships, due to their fear of abandonment and an overall lack of trust.

In short, parental addiction puts young children at serious risk. Even older children are at risk and can be pulled from their homes. But when the child reaches a certain age and realizes what’s really happening, he or she faces a really tough situation: getting his or her parent into a rehabilitation program.

Flipping the Family Dynamic

To an extent, trying to help an addicted parent represents something of a role reversal. In the standard model, parents are the caretakers while the children require care; However, in the case of an addicted parent, the child assumes the position of caretaker, but there’s an added layer of difficulty inherent to this situation. Although having an addicted parent can mean having to fulfill the role of caretaker, a child is still limited when it comes to authority. When it’s the child who has a substance abuse problem, parents can exercise a certain level of authority to get the child into rehab, but this isn’t something the child can do in the reverse situation. So how, exactly, can a child get a parent into rehab?

Getting a Parent Into Treatment

For obvious reasons, getting a parent to go to rehab is a challenge, particularly if the parent denies the problem or is resistant to help. According to a recent survey, more than 95 percent of all individuals who suffer from addiction don’t actually think they need help,3 so the chances are strong that an addicted parent will be reluctant to get help. While denial is a possibility, it’s also possible that the parent simply doesn’t want to admit the addiction for fear that it will lower the child’s opinion of the parent. Fortunately, in spite of the inherent difficulties, there are some ways to encourage a parent to get help for alcoholism or drug addiction.

The first — and surely most important — step in finding help for an addictive parent is to do the necessary homework. Although addiction seems like a simple behavioral problem, it’s actually a brain disease with a number of physical and psychological effects. Becoming more knowledgeable about addiction will afford a better understanding of the parent’s recent behavior and will lay the groundwork for empathy and understanding. Moreover, learning about addiction rehabilitation programs and the recovery process is invaluable when it comes to preparation for the journey ahead.

Communication is vital to any healthy relationship; since addiction in the family leads to poor communication, it’s important to re-establish communication with the addicted parent. This line of communication must be honest yet respectful. It’s important to communicate in a loving and respectful manner, expressing concern for the parent’s health and well-being.

If resolution isn’t reached mutually, it may be necessary to stage an intervention. The purpose of an intervention is to emotionally confront someone suffering from addiction, expressing how the substance abuse problem has affected loved ones. The idea is that the addict will embrace recovery after recognizing the dangers of remaining in active addiction, as well as how addiction has caused harm to others. While many people have staged interventions on their own, soliciting the help of an intervention specialist is always a good idea, as they can offer guidance through the process of planning and executing an intervention.

Once the parent has agreed to receive help, the final step is for him or her to enroll in a program. Many addiction treatment programs encourage family members to participate in an individual’s recovery through the inclusion of family therapy and other group-oriented offerings. Therefore, a parent’s rehabilitation is also the first step toward repairing familial relationships and restoring the family dynamic. In short, through a parent’s rehabilitation, the family recovers too.

1. The National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence. “Parental Substance Abuse a Major Factor in Child Abuse and Neglect.”
2. Narconon. “How Children Are Affected by Drug Addicted Parents.”
3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.”

Written by Dane O’Leary