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Parenting with Addicted Teens and Young Adults

The lack of ongoing support for parents after their adolescents or young adults have gone through treatment is astounding. Most programs have no ongoing support for parents during the first year of their children’s sobriety. Parents play an essential role in helping sustain recovery by reestablishing boundaries, taking charge differently, detaching from the addiction, and recreating their role to strengthen their family recovery. They need support, especially during their children’s first year in recovery, when the whole family is fragile from the years of addicted dysfunction. Parents who have been part of their children’s recovery process, from treatment to aftercare, have witnessed a multitude of changes within their children and their relationship. When these kids leave treatment and visit or live back at home, they need a different structure in their family to help them sustain their recovery and feel supported. Parents need strategies and support to reinforce restructuring their parenting to embrace a sober household and a clear plan that lists steps that will take place in case of a relapse.

During the past three years, I did research surveying three hundred recovering adolescents and young adults and worked directly with two hundred parents. I collected adolescents’ and young adults’ insights on what they needed from their parents, what they wish their parents knew about them, the effects of addiction on their relationship with parents, parent appreciations, and many other questions. The patterns that showed up from their responses and the influences of mindfulness, attachment theory, Dr. Daniel Siegel, Dr. Stephanie Brown, Sharon Wegscheider-Cruz, and Craig Nakken helped me develop five key strategies that can transform parenting by teaching parents to strengthen their foundation. These five strategies teach parents to unhook from the addicted web and turn around to parent with strength and power. Parents are taught to detach and not abandon their kids. Lastly, as a result of this research, I integrated the adolescents’ and young adults’ responses into parenting workshops with groups and weekend programming.

Here are some of the responses from the surveys directly from these recovering kids:

Question: “If you were a parent, what would you do differently?”

  • “I would have shown up and been around more.”

  • “I would nurture my kids.”

  • “Be less controlling.”

  • “Talk more about drugs and alcohol”

  • “I wouldn’t be overbearing, and when my kids were upset I would just listen instead of trying to fix them.”

  • “Tell my child how special they are to me and that they are loved.”

  • “Keep better tabs on how my child spent all the money given to them.”

  • “Positive reinforcement in the first thirty-two of my thirty-three years.”

  • “I would not blame my kids for all the problems in our family.”

Question: “How has addiction affected your relationship with your parents?”

  • “They lost trust in me, and I’m not sure when it will ever be back.”

  • “My addiction further distanced our relationship.”

  • “When I was depressed, I totally shut down and blocked my parents out, which only caused them to try harder.”

  • “My addiction was like a heavy fence around me, kicking out my parents.”

“Dear parents, I wish you knew . . .”

  • “I did my best and tried to be stable, but couldn’t. I also with you knew how much I have suffered. Sometimes I feel that they only saw my maladaptive behavior as an attack against them rather than a cry for help or an act of desperation.”

  • “That I’m trapped in a vicious cycle.”

  • “I didn’t make a conscious decision to become addicted to drugs.”

  • “That I love them and never wanted to hurt them with my addiction.”

Healthy parenting is vital for children’s continued sobriety. A healthy parenting approach does not allow for children’s moods or actions to cause reactions that escalate into a destructive situation. The addiction or threat of a relapse is no longer permitted to rule the home, depleting the parents’ energy and power. When parents are clear about their values and expectations and adhere to them, children can push and test, but healthy parenting doesn’t allow this to influence them into bending the rules. In this way, children know that parents “mean what they say and say what they mean.”

When adolescents or young adults leave treatment, either through graduation, on their own or being asked to leave, parents often haven’t had a long enough opportunity to practice new strategies in reclaiming their parenting. Parents frequently continue to use old habits that have enabled drug and alcohol use. When parents begin to see that old ways don’t work, there is tremendous frustration, blame, and hopelessness again.

How can parents unleash from the addiction of their kids? What is the anecdote that can help parents detach from the addicted web, turn around, and regain their parenting to begin recreating a healthy family? From my research and interviews with parents, the following five steps of foundational parenting were instrumental in teaching parents to regain their parenting and restructure their relationships with their kids. Parents regained hope and strength to heal their parenting and in turn their families. Identifying concrete action steps or strategies that could be used in their relationship with their kids gave parents something tangible that could be practiced at home. The five steps of foundational parenting teaches parents to:

  • Practice being present with their children

  • Develop emotional attunement

  • Act and respond nonjudgmentally with their children

  • Create sacred family time and recreate rituals

  • Clarify values, rules, and boundaries/natural and logical consequences

An Overview of the Five Steps of Foundational Parenting

Step One: Practice Being Present with Children of All Ages

Being present helps parents step back from worries and anxieties. Children, teens, and young adults need parents to learn to pause, “turn around,” and be present! They need strategies to be in charge of their thoughts, feelings, and actions. They need to learn that they can have worries and feelings, and still be present for their family. Addiction doesn’t have to rob them every day of emotions, time, energy or brain space. They can stop, pause, and focus on the present moment, giving themselves the freedom to connect with their family members. Children, teens, and young adults often feel like a burden to their parents when they want attention, help or to be loved up. Burdensome parenting means parents’ thoughts are in the past or the future, filled with anxiety, busyness, and not in the here and now. Parents have to learn how to create enough space and time for their children.

Step Two: Develop Emotional Attunement with Children of All Ages

Parents need to be taught to witness their children as they are in the present moment without judgment. Their role is to notice what they say, what they are doing, and listen to and understand their point of view. They need to learn how to not absorb their adolescents’ or young adults’ emotions, thoughts or problems. This step helps parents understand another point of view; it’s not about agreeing or disagreeing. Parents need to learn how to create sacred space to understand what their children are thinking and feeling. Parents need to learn to listen to their children’s ideas, emotions, and challenges and validate what they hear. Their role remains to see their kids as they are, not as parents wish they would be and learn how to hear their truth. Many parents cannot accept their kids’ realities and shame them. Shame can destroy a relationship because it severs the bridge to healthy attachment. Some of the shameful messages parents have shared with me are the following:

  • “How can you think that way?”

  • “What’s wrong with you?”

  • “Are you crazy?”

  • “You shouldn’t feel that way, it’s not so bad!”

  • “Look what you are doing to our family!”

When parents are emotionally attuned with their kids, shame-based relationships no longer exist. Adolescents and young adults feel heard and respected. Parents feel empowered by the actions they can take to begin the healing process of reconnecting to their children by being present and listening wholeheartedly to them and acknowledging what is heard and shared with them.

Step Three: Act and Respond Nonjudgmentally with Your Children

Responding to kids’ actions and words instead of reacting strengthens parenting and enhances the building blocks to anew respect for their kids and relationships. Listening without judgment helps build bridges with parent-child relationships. Parents need support to carve out the time necessary to respond to their children’s needs by communicating, listening, and paying attention. As parents begin to be more present, more attuned, and less reactive, their children will become more trusting of them. They observe that parents’ actions, words, and intentions match. Parents can learn to show up, take charge, listen, be nonjudgmental, and stop themselves from leaping to conclusions before they understand their children’s point of view. Most parents have to diligently work on not allowing their buttons to be pressed and not being highly reactive with their kids. This are knee-jerk reactions and can be dealt with when parents catch themselves and realize they can choose how to respond, as they own themselves again, with lots of practice and support. Parents have to realize that their new responses are not automatic due to years of being a certain way. Yet, they can learn to back off on their impulses to react and stay calm, present, and nonjudgmental.

Step Four: Create Sacred Family Time

Parents need to begin to recreate sacred space and time with their families reconnecting to important celebrations. Family celebrations and rituals can help heal relationships. Children’s moods will no longer wreck a holiday or special occasion. This step is critical for reestablishing trust.

Step Five: Clarify Values, Rules, and Boundaries

No matter how old children are, they need to clearly know the rules and what consequences will occur if they step over the line. When parents practice being in the present moment, they can reinforce the limits and values in their family. Parents need to clarify values and live within them. Children of all ages need their parents to be in charge of them in loving, caring ways while reinforcing the rules and setting clear boundaries. As parents begin to rebuild their foundation, it is imperative to redefine the important values by which members of their family are expected to live. Parents need to understand the difference between natural consequences and logical consequences in order to help family members of all ages know when the line is crossed. Clarity of values and expectations will be the guidelines for how parents run their families.

How to Use the Five Steps

How do you integrate these five action strategies into programs for parents? Most of the parents I worked with over the years have expressed concern that they needed so much more than family programs in treatment to actually step forward and work on redesigning their family system and empower their parenting. As a result of this gap in services, I used the five steps of foundational parenting to pilot a five-step group for parents of students in recovery high school for two years. Parents could join at any time and needed to fill out a pre-evaluation of what it was like for them when their kids were using drugs and alcohol. All the questions were based on the five steps to see the baseline of where parents began their journey when their kids were actively using drugs. They ranked themselves in the following areas: how present they were with their kids when they were using, how emotionally attuned they were, their ability to contain reactions and respond without their buttons becoming pressed, their ability to keep up active rituals in family, and the clarity of expectations and consequences for stepping over the line when their kids were using. Each week they were also given a small checklist to measure the actions they took during the week using the step that was discussed at group to measure their own progress.

Every seven weeks, parents were also asked to assess the benefits of what they were learning about themselves and their relationship with their kids. The majority saw their relationship grow with their kids and with practice their kids saw parents say what they mean and mean what they say. One father, almost in tears, was astounded that for the first time in years, he actually had a conversation with his son. He was able to listen and really practiced understanding, patience, and nonjudgmental responses. His reward was hope and possibility for renewed relationship. Another parent shared her delight in separating from her enmeshment and codependent relationship with her daughter. She told the group that without these steps, she would never be able to let go in a healthy way and still be available to support her child. She stopped letting her daughter’s moods control her life.

I also created another pilot using this model: weekend parent workshops in a sober living program, using the five steps as a basis to teach parents of young adults how to reclaim their parenting with educational and experiential programming. In addition to teaching the five steps to parents, the real strength came from parent-to-parent support in each program. All parents in these programs came from extreme emotional pain and challenges during the past years their kids were addicted and or had mental health challenges. They were burned out, hopeless, scared, and eager for relief. Most of these parents had been to family weeks or family programs in their kids’ treatment, yet they still needed tremendous support. Their relationships with their kids were shattered. Other kids at home paid a high price for parents’ emotional absence, as did their primary relationships. At the end of the program, parents began to see the possibility that they could regain themselves by detaching from the addiction and the stress by using the five steps. They learned they could detach and not abandon their kids. These steps helped them reclaim their parenting and family. When parents went home, they created their own parenting relapse plan before the end of the weekend to pay attention when they slipped off track to old behaviors. Since the steps were concrete and easy to use, they had this tool to help them step back into their healthy parenting role. I still believe that if these parents had other parent mentors when they left the weekend, their journey during the first year would have been easier.

Teaching parents these steps in a coaching relationship also provides a framework to support them in their new journey reestablishing a healthy family. Parents need mentors or coaches to support them after treatment, and support them dealing with relapse behavior or drug use. Parent coaching with parents whose kids won’t stay in treatment or even get to treatment are a high-risk group who need a lot of support to shift their family around to the establishment of healthy boundaries, actions, and emotions, even if their kids don’t receive help.

Relapse rates are high for adolescents and young adult addicts. Parents need a clear plan in place before the relapse happens and they often need support. Parents need to sign off on a plan when their kids are in treatment so everyone knows the steps that will be taken in case of relapse behavior or use. I have met and worked with many parents who never were part of a plan for some reason, or their kids were kicked out of a program, which left them feeling stranded and unsure of what to do. They needed a tremendous amount of support to detach from the addicted web that permeated all their actions and emotions. Once they learned how to step back and own their parenting, they could begin to figure out relapse planning. Without the detachment, they felt disloyal, like they were betraying their kids, and unable to make difficult decisions. They were trapped in double binds all the time due to their fear—fear of their kids hurting themselves or worse, killing themselves. Fear of their kids ruled their life and their decisions. Relapse behaviors or use of drugs again becomes one of the most difficult actions a parent can enforce. A plan helps them carry through their pre-worked-out intervention, especially with all the emotions this can bring to the table for everyone. Recovering teens and young adults aren’t the only ones who often relapse; parents also relapse or go back to old unhealthy habits that have been ingrained for years. The five steps of foundational parenting can help parents catch old ways and give them the tools they need to bring them back on track and take charge no matter what is going on in their families.


Now it’s your turn—directors; CEOs; counselors; family program staff; aftercare directors; directors of outpatient programs, sober living, and community agencies; and any other professionals in the addiction field—to wrestle with this gap of services for parents of addicts. Newly sober kids deserve to have the healthiest environment possible to support their sobriety.

Most kids leave treatment or sober living environments and either live back at home for a while or visit their parents periodically. Parents need to know that they have a support network to help them with these transitions, especially the first year after treatment when everyone is on edge. Remember, parents need parent-to-parent support to enhance their parenting, the five steps of foundational parenting strategies, and support groups to support their difficult journey.

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