Parenting and Addiction: The Gift of Adulthood – Part 1

By Cathy Patterson-Sterling, MA RCC
Director of Family Services
Sunshine Coast Health Center

In this 4-part series, we explore the dynamic of addiction in the family. How parents interact with their adult child struggling with addiction is an important element in restoring their own well-being and healthy, sustainable recovery for an addicted family member.


When raising children, we as parents have two primary responsibilities: 1) Keeping them safe and 2) nurturing them with love.  Protecting our children from harm and providing them with a loving, supportive homelife are both critical if we hope to have our children grow to become responsible, contributing members of society.

Similar to how physical pain tells us to pull back from a burning candle, fear instinctively tells us when we or our children are in danger. Fear is a powerful emotion and obviously serves a critical role. Unfortunately, fear can also unknowingly prevent us from lovingly nurturing our children towards personal growth. Fear can trump love.

When our children are still toddlers or pre-adolescent, it may be perfectly sensible to wade in, take control, and problem-solve on their behalf. As our children grow into adulthood, however, this same tendency to over-function and expert manage can have real and long-term negative consequences. The adult child addicted to drugs and/or alcohol is an excellent case in point.

Managing An Adult Child In Crisis

When we find our child actively struggling with addiction, we as parents are often motivated to take action out of fear. For example, we may pay their rent for fear they might end up homeless, or we may buy them groceries for fear of them becoming malnourished and vulnerable to sickness. If our adult child is charged with impaired driving we may pay for an expensive lawyer out of fear for the negative impact that comes with a criminal record.

Out of fear, we learn to tolerate their destructive, often illegal, activities at home. Crack smoking  or binge drinking in the basement becomes the lesser of two evils so long as it means they remain under our watchful gaze and away from places frequented by desperate, dangerous addicts, prostitutes, and criminals.

As an addiction progresses, we as parents may become little more than ATMs – knowingly providing money for drugs or alcohol in exchange for peace of mind. We know it’s not right but we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that it could be worse – at least our children are not dead from overdose, violence, or suicide. Money then becomes the last tenuous thread keeping the family together.

As parents, we may assume that part of our job is to keep our children free from pain. The reality, however, is that when parents protect their children in this way life then the opportunity to learn from the experience (and mature into adulthood) vanishes. Unfortunately, parents who don’t address this unhealthy dynamic may eventually find that their children physically reach adulthood but are emotionally stuck in childhood – incapable of living independently or assuming any real responsibilities. *

(*) Note: John Bowlby writes extensively on this topic in his classic book, ‘Attachment’. See the Recommended Reading section below.

Resilience: A Loving Alternative to Parenting out of Fear

It may seem obvious that the older a child becomes the more difficult it is for a parent to remove all potential sources of pain. However, fear often makes it difficult for a parent to think rationally when their adult child is self-destructing from drugs or alcohol. Fortunately, there is research showing the effectiveness of fostering resilience – the positive capacity of people to cope with life’s challenges – when it comes to raising children. ** While resilience can’t prevent painful events from occurring, teaching our children to courageously face life’s twists and turns put us as parents firmly back on the path to lovingly nurturing our children towards personal growth.

(**) Note: Resilience has been extensively researched in psychology. See the Recommended Reading section below.

Conclusion to Part One

For most of us, when we are hurting others or ourselves, internal ‘alarm bells’ are there to tell us we are making poor choices. When an adult child struggles with addiction, pain and discomfort serve as motivators that can lead to positive change. However, if we as parents fail to allow our children to take full responsibility for their own, often self-inflicted, life challenges then we end up muffling these inner voices that are advocating for greater personal accountability.

Paying the rent or buying groceries for your child may help them maintain a quality lifestyle but it removes any incentive to change a lifestyle that obsessively focuses on drugs or alcohol. Having our adult child face the consequences of missing the rent or experience the hunger pangs from having no groceries may seem like harsh punishment but it may also be the first steps on the path to recovery. This is the ultimate freedom of adulthood – the power of choice. As adults, we get to choose our actions and live with the consequences whether these decisions are good or bad.

Here’s a good question to ask yourself: “Am I basing my parenting on a foundation of love or fear?”

In Part Two, Cathy elaborates on what she means by the ‘gift of adulthood’ and what the costs are of habitually rescuing the adult child.

Recommended Reading

Bowlby, John (1983) Attachment: Second Edition (Attachment and Loss Series, Vol 1)

Brooks, Robert (2002) Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child

Neufeld, Gordon (2006) Hold on to Your Kids

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